Hijacking truth: Telekom Serbia

In the second of a new series of JUST Response features with Domenico Pacitti, we look at Italy's latest corruption scandal, Telekom Serbia. Pacitti recounts the case and considers recent pronouncements by former Italian president Francesco Cossiga

JUST Response: The latest chapter in the continuing story of Italian political corruption appears to be the Telekom Serbia scandal. Can you sketch in the essential background details for us?

Domenico Pacitti: In 1997, under the Olive Tree coalition government led by Romano Prodi, Telecom Italia paid the equivalent of about 500 million euros for a share in Telekom Serbia, thereby providing crucial financial aid to the Slobodan Milosovic regime. When Italy sold back its shares last year, it recovered considerably less than half that sum. It is alleged that 120 million euros of the initial 500 million were paid back into the private accounts of some of Italy’s leading figures of the political left via the Monaco-based Paribas private bank.

JUST Response: Who are said to have been the chief beneficiaries of the kickbacks?

Pacitti: The chief beneficiaries are said to include: the then premier Romano Prodi; the then vice-premier Walter Veltroni; the then foreign affairs minister Lamberto Dini; and the then undersecretary for Community policy Piero Fassino. Francesco Rutelli, the present leader of the Margherita party and Clemente Mastella, who heads the Udeur “people’s” party, are also said to have benefited. All have denied involvement and say they will sue for defamation. Italy’s current president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was treasury minister responsible for economic programming at the time and therefore a central figure one would have thought. But interestingly his name has not so far been mentioned.

JUST Response: Who made the initial allegations?

Pacitti: The man making all the allegations is a Swiss-Italian financial consultant by the name of Igor Marini, who is being held on money-laundering and fraud charges. Marini is now a key witness for the Italian parliamentary commission which is conducting enquiries into those allegations. Earlier this month Fassino suggested that Silvio Berlusconi was the puppet-master who was pulling the strings and Berlusconi responded by filing a 15 million-euro lawsuit against Fassino for slander. Fassino has meanwhile said he will sue the Italian national daily Il Giornale, owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo Berlusconi, for the same amount. Fassino claims that Il Giornale has been waging a defamatory campaign against him for some time.

JUST Response: What are the latest developments?

Pacitti: Well, the Paribas bank has just stated that the 120 million euros was only a “virtual” sum and not a real one in that it existed in computer form but not in fact. Former president of the Yugoslav Beogradska bank, Borka Vucic, who is due to give evidence this week is insisting that it is a political and not a banking issue. But the Italian parliamentary commission has confirmed that it will pursue its investigations. Meanwhile, the Nomisma company has said it is suing Il Giornale and the right-leaning newspaper Libero for five million euros each for having linked Nomisma to Telekom Serbia.

JUST Response: Can you briefly explain to our readers what Nomisma is exactly?

Pacitti: Nomisma was originally founded as a private economic research centre in 1981 by a group of Bologna economists headed by Romano Prodi, though Prodi insists he is no longer involved. Il Giornale once called it “a sort of mafia cosca clan”. Nomisma now describes itself as a public consultancy company. Let’s say it constitutes another distinguished example of Italian politically-linked corruption.

JUST Response: Readers might be interested to know that you have written about this yourself and that it is on the JUST Response site under the title Italy’s numismatic Mr Prodi – guru or godfather?

Pacitti: Thank you. That saves us going over it again here.

JUST Response: According to the left, Berlusconi has orchestrated the entire affair in order to distract attention from his own problems with the judicary. According to the right, the parliamentary commission seems determined to prove the contrary. How do you see the situation and who do you think is right?

Pacitti: Anyone who knows anything about how Italian politicians work will know how extremely odd it would be for a 500-million-euro deal to take place without the protagonists pocketing a fair slice of the proceeds. That is what Italian politics is all about – devising new ways of transferring public money to private bank accounts. That, it should be remembered, is the principle reason anyone goes into politics in Italy in the first place. Now whether ot not this will ever be legally proven is another matter. With a judiciary that cannot be counted on to resolve the issue in the politically correct manner, the quick and easy solution is to halt the parliamentary commission's enquiry altogether, which means getting left and right to agree on at least the groundrules of how to settle their major differences. This is precisely what Italy’s wise old owl Francesco Cossiga proposed in a radio interview just a couple of days ago.

JUST Response: What exactly did Cossiga say?

Pacitti: What Cossiga said was that Telekom Serbia had simply turned out to be a very bad business deal for Italy and that Milosevic had duped the Italian government. He added that if things continued along these lines, Italy risked having a three-year electoral campaign that would be nothing short of venomous. Having stated that he personally did not believe there had been any kickbacks, Cossiga went on to say, and I quote: “Even if they had pocketed cash, for the sake of our country we would have to deny it.”  So here you have a former president of Italy and twice premier openly advocating that the truth should in certain circumstances be hijacked, notably where it reveals that the country’s politicians are thieves, liars and criminals. As for the three years of venomous campaign, let’s hope it goes ahead.

JUST Response: Why?

Pacitti: Because of all the hard truths that will inevitably emerge from such a campaign and that would not otherwise see the light of day. You see, all the turmoil and conflict between Berlusconi and the left that political commentators and others are complaining about is actually a healthy sign and they are wrong to complain. Radical political polemics are pulling a good deal of skeletons out of cupboards. This is obviously positive for those of us who are interested in trying to find out the truth. I mean, the usual pattern that characterised many post-war Italian governments was cross-party agreement which crucially limited the bounds of what actually got discussed and debated in public. Strange as it may seem, what we are witnessing here is something that is more radically true and spontaneous.

Domenico Pacitti is Editor of JUST Response. He has written over 400 articles against corruption in Italy. He has taught philosophy, linguistics and Chinese at universities in the UK and Italy and currently teaches English language and American literature at the University of Pisa

Note: This piece was published for the first time by JUST Response on September 23 2003.

In the same series 
Economising on truth: The Economist and Berlusconi
 
Related articles  in JUST Response
Italy's numismatic Prodi - guru or godfather?
Conflicting interests - Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi on balance
Roman Catholic principles of corruption in Italy
Di Pietro, corruption and Clean Hands
The face of revolution - an interview with Antonio Di Pietro
 
Also in JUST Response
Deterring democracy in Italy - Pacitti interviews Chomsky

 


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