Berlusconi says that Russia’s Putin gave him vodka, a sweet note

ROME (AP) – Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who has a longtime friendship with Vladimir Putin, has been recorded on audio tape boasting that he recently reconnected with the Russian president and exchanged gifts of vodka, wine and “sweet” letters. his recent birthday.

Italy’s LaPresse news agency published what it said were comments by Berlusconi, 86, to lawmakers from his center-right Forza Italia during a meeting this week in the lower house of deputies.

“I have re-established contact with President Putin,” Berlusconi was heard saying. “He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I responded with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.” The occasion was Berlusconi’s 86th birthday on September 29, four days after the right won the most votes in Italy’s national elections.

The comments hit the headlines as Italy’s conservative coalition led by Giorgio Meloni, which strongly backed Ukraine in the Russian war, splits cabinet seats ahead of formal consultations this week to form a new government. Forza Italia, a junior member of the coalition, is gunning for the foreign ministry, among other ministries.

In the audio, Berlusconi also appeared to defend Moscow’s position in the war, telling his lawmakers that Russian officials had repeatedly said the West was at war with Russia “because we are giving Ukraine weapons and funding.”

This is not the first time that Berlusconi has seemingly defended Putin. Late in the campaign, he appeared to justify Russia’s invasion by saying Putin was forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

“The troops were supposed to go in, get to Kiev within a week, replace (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave,” Berlusconi told his favorite late-night talk show host on September 22. He later retracted, saying his words were “too simplistic”.

Berlusconi’s office similarly tried to deny his audio comments about the birthday vodka. In a preliminary statement on Tuesday, his office insisted that he had not rekindled relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told the old story to MPs about an episode that happened many years ago”.

A few hours later, after the audio was released, Forza Italia tried to distance itself from the comments.

“The position of Forza Italia and President Silvio Berlusconi regarding the Ukrainian conflict and Russian responsibility is known to everyone and is in line with the position of Europe and the United States, confirmed on several public occasions,” the party’s statement said. . “There is no margin for ambiguity, nor has there ever been.”

Berlusconi has a long, friendly history with Putin: he entertained the Russian leader at his villa in Sardinia and even visited Crimea with Putin in 2014 after the Russian leader annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.

Berlusconi’s latest comments are likely to complicate relations with Meloni, who is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. Melona’s far-right beliefs and past Eurosceptic views have raised eyebrows in some European capitals, but she has staunchly supported NATO and Ukraine in the war.

Relations between the two had already soured over Berlusconi’s insistence on placing a loyalist in her cabinet and over Forza Italia’s refusal to vote for its candidate for Senate president.

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