Anniversary of Craxi's death affords moment for hagiography


ROME LETTER:TV eulogy to a disgraced former PM highlighted ongoing clash between politicians and judiciary, writes PADDY AGNEW

THE OTHER night, prime time TV viewers of state broadcaster RAI were served up an unusual treat during the evening’s main news bulletin.

News director Augusto Minzolini delivered an “editorial” in memory of the late, disgraced socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi in which, among other things, he claimed that “along with Reagan and with Pope Wojtyla ”, the late Craxi had “contributed to sending the USSR into crisis”.

Leaving aside that particular reading of history, which, at best, rather overstates Italy’s role in the downfall of the USSR, you might be inclined to ask what this was all about.

The answer is that we are approaching the 10th anniversary of his death in exile in Tunisia on January 19th, 2000.

The anniversary of Craxi’s death has prompted not only a series of commemorations both in Italy and Tunisia but also much reflection on the socialist leader’s political legacy, recalling one of the most dramatic moments in Italy’s post-war history.

This was the Tangentopoli(Bribesville) scandals, which saw a whole ruling class (mainly christian democrat and socialist) swept from power by the Mani Pulite(Clean Hands) investigation in the years 1992 and 1993.

Commentators are bitterly divided over Craxi’s career. For some, he was the leading player in an utterly corrupt political system that saw politicians systematically demand and receive kick-backs, primarily in return for the awarding of public works contracts. For others, he was a scapegoat, singled out and prosecuted by a vengeful judiciary, which gave him a 10-year sentence for corruption and illegal party financing.

For some, he was a ruthless and power-hungry political empire-builder. For others, his conviction and subsequent political exile was an exercise in hypocrisy, given that he had been found guilty of doing precisely what the entire political class of the time was allegedly doing ie taking bribes. Cosi fan tutte.

In a speech to parliament in July 1992, Craxi said as much, accusing fellow politicians of hypocrisy, given that they all knew how parties were financed in Italy. He called on his party to rally round him and grant him immunity from prosecution. (At the time, all deputies had such immunity unless parliament decided otherwise.) Nine months later a parliamentary vote gave him what he sought, prompting a remarkable street protest.

As Craxi stepped out of the Hotel Raphael, his Rome residence just off Piazza Navona, some hours after the vote, he was greeted by an angry crowd which threw coins at him and derisively waved lira notes, chanting “robber” and “do you want to steal these too?” Watching the events live on TV, it was hard not to conclude that we were witnessing the end, if not of an era, certainly of Craxi.

Shortly afterwards, as various avvisi di garanzia(notifications of being under investigation) arrived on his desk, Craxi himself arrived at the same conclusion.

He did not stand in the 1994 general election, which saw the whirlwind, overnight success of his longtime ally, current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

No longer a deputy, and thus deprived of parliamentary immunity, he fled in May 1994 to Hammamet, Tunisia, where he had long had a summer house and where he enjoyed the political protection of the Tunisian president .

Despite many attempts to negotiate some form of amnesty that might allow him return to Italy, Craxi was never granted a safe passage. He died aged 65 and was buried in Hammamet.

When RAI news director Minzolini paid tribute to Craxi last week, he not only portrayed him as a great statesman but also suggested that he had been “sent to the guillotine” because he had publicly claimed the Tangentopoli investigation represented a “judicial solution to a political problem”.

Those years, Minzolini suggested, witnessed the beginning of a problem that has plagued Italian politics ever since, namely the clash between politics and the judiciary.

And thus we come to the present. Which Italian politician is it who never stops complaining about how a left-wing judiciary has systematically mounted a political witch-hunt against him? Why Silvio Berlusconi, of course, the very same man who reportedly requested Minzolini’s appointment as RAI’s news director last May. The very man whose commercial TV empire was dramatically saved in 1984 by a decree law introduced overnight – by Bettino Craxi, of course.

Berlusconi continued to enjoy Craxi’s support too when it came to the passing in 1990 of the Legge Mammilegislation, which effectively condoned the illegal status – pre-1984 decree – of the Berlusconi TV empire’s modus operandi.

Six years later, in 1996, Milan magistrates charged Berlusconi with illegal party financing, claiming that his All Iberian offshore company had paid approximately €10.5 million to Craxi’s socialist party between January 1991 and December 1992. In 2000, the Cassation Court closed the case, ruling it had fallen foul of the Statute of Limitations.

Minzolini is probably right when he says that the “Clean Hands” investigation marked the first clash of modern Italian times between the judiciary and political class. As for his conclusion that Craxi and, by intimation, Berlusconi are the innocent victims of this clash, the jury is still very much out.