Italy's Berlusconi Fights Smear Campaign

Enveloped in a growing scandal over the nature of his relationship with a teenager, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi believes he is the target of a smear campaign by the leftist opposition. He has gone on the offensive against both opposition media and the foreign media.

Berlusconi's latest move was blocking publication of hundreds of photos taken of his guests at La Dolce Vita-style parties at his Sardinian villa. The photos allegedly include young topless women and a top-ranking European politician in the nude.

The scandal erupted a month ago when Berlusconi went to the 18th-birthday party of aspiring starlet Noemi Letizia in Naples, where he gave her a diamond and gold necklace worth many thousands of dollars. Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, then filed for divorce, saying she could "no longer remain with a man who frequents minors."

She spoke of her husband's fondness for young women, who, she said, "offer themselves like young virgins to the dragon to pursue fame and fortune."

Berlusconi first said he was an acquaintance of Letizia's parents — a claim contradicted by her former boyfriend Gino Flaminio. He told the left-leaning daily La Repubblica that Berlusconi first called his former girlfriend directly last November after chancing upon her modeling photos. Flaminio even listened in to some of the calls. He said Berlusconi invited the underage girl and her girlfriend to spend New Year's vacation at his villa together with dozens of other young women.

Berlusconi's wife also had criticized her husband for putting young starlets and showgirls on his party slate for Parliament — calling it political trash. Alexander Stille, author of a book on Berlusconi's political and media control, says the prime minister has concentrated power in his own hands, also thanks to a new electoral law that allows party leaders to pick candidates.

"What that meant is that the favorites of the king are the people who get into Parliament," Stille says. "So you see this profusion of beautiful girls, fashion models, TV stars and showgirls in Parliament."

Stille says they're just ornaments — meaning Parliament's function of checking the executive has been weakened.

Berlusconi also controls a large chunk of the Italian media — directly through ownership and indirectly through his large advertising agency and his political power.

With the exception of La Repubblica and a few other outlets, Italian journalists have treated the scandal with kid gloves.

Not so elsewhere. The European media have been relentless in their coverage. And an editorial in the Financial Times said Berlusconi is "no Fascist, but a danger, in the first place to Italy, and a malign example to all."

The prime minister retorted with a quip: "Mussolini had squadrons of black shirts. According to the foreign media — which are in the service of the Italian left — I have squadrons of showgirls. Thank god for that; they're much better."

But it's clear the prime minister is worried about his image abroad and has gone on the offensive. He charged that publications such as the Financial Times, The Economist and The Times of London are part of a plot orchestrated by the left.

Some of the prime minister's closest aides have gone even further — hinting at the alleged existence of a campaign hatched in Washington against an Italian leader who was very close to former President George W. Bush.

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