Berlusconi's Worst Nightmare

The decades-long battle between Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's most famous prosecutor is entering its final round. The prime minister's career and Italy's democracy hang in the balance.

Last week, the Italian magazine Panorama published a huge photo of Ilda Boccassini, Milan's 61 year-old public prosecutor, on its front cover under the title "Il Vizietto," the Little Vice. The vice in question was not that of the magazine's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, who is the current and long-time object of Boccassini's investigatory ardor. The misbehavior that the magazine intended to highlight was the magistrate's own -- namely, her relentless persecution of the Italian prime minister. Indeed, in seeking an indictment of Berlusconi for the better part of the past two decades, Boccassini has herself become a defendant in Italy's court of public opinion.

Boccassini, who over the course of her career has earned the nickname "Ilda the Red" for both her flame-colored hair and her left-wing sympathies, has polarized a society sharply divided when it comes to the embattled prime minister. An opinion poll published Jan. 23 by the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed that 49 percent of Italians thought Berlusconi should resign because of his latest sex scandal, while 45 percent believed he should not. Boccassini has earned the support of those who dislike Berlusconi: Roberto Saviano, the bestselling author who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, dedicated an honorary law degree he received last week to Boccassini, praising her for fulfilling her "duty of justice." But for admirers of the premier, the prosecutor has become a symbol of the judiciary's obsessive, and self-interested, drive to restore its place at the top of the national political hierarchy.

Italy's judicial officials pride themselves for having essentially been the founding fathers of the current political order, the so-called "Second Republic" that got its start in the mid-1990s. Italy's "First Republic," which was inaugurated after the conclusion of World War II, was ostensibly democratic, but it was never marked by a consistent rule of law. The highest echelons of power were in the hands of a corrupt network of politicians, industrialists, and organized criminals, and little was done to challenge the elite. With the specter of Italy's Communist Party and the threat of Soviet espionage looming large, the judiciary tacitly agreed not to dig into the crimes of leading public servants.

That changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The "Bribesville" corruption investigations of the early 1990s revealed to the Italian public for the first time the extent of political corruption plaguing their government and economy. Spearheaded by the Milan public prosecutor's office of which Boccassini is now a part, the investigation forced politicians and top businessmen to testify in damning court proceedings that were televised nationwide. An entire political generation was tainted and discredited by the ensuing trials: Four of Italy's seven existing parties disbanded entirely, including the Christian Democratic Party that had been the dominant force in politics for the previous 50 years. The series of electoral, ethics, and economic reforms subsequently passed from 1992 through 1997 heralded the beginning of the Second Republic, under which the elite were to be held accountable for their misdeeds.

Most of Italy's politicians have consistently been on the defensive ever since, daunted by the watchful eye of the courts. Berlusconi has been the major exception. Some suspect that the media magnate started his political career in the wake of the Bribesville affair precisely to mitigate its effect on his own financial dealings. Indeed, taking the courts down a peg -- most often with dismissive rhetoric, but also by passing laws that shield him and his associates from prosecution -- has been one of Berlusconi's most consistent political priorities over the years.

For Boccassini and Berlusconi, the stakes are higher now than they've ever been: This may well be their final showdown. But with the country's newspaper headlines reaching a tawdry fever pitch and the national government unable to conduct its business amid the din of accusations and counteraccusations, it increasingly seems that the case will be settled in the court of public opinion before it ever engages the attention of a judge.

Boccassini is largely responsible, however unintentionally, for instigating the nationwide furor. On Jan. 15, she sent a 389-page document to the parliamentary authorizations committee -- which was promptly, and unsurprisingly, leaked to the media -- to support her request for permission to search the office of Berlusconi's personal finance manager for evidence that the prime minister had paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his office to cover up the crime. Berlusconi's defenders say that the prosecutor revealed her political bias from the very beginning: Whereas the prosecution's request could have been satisfied with just a few pages of summarized evidence, Boccassini's document contains lurid allegations about the prime minister's private life.

Sensing (or choosing to believe) that this was as much a political as a judicial campaign, Berlusconi's mighty media empire -- three national television channels, a daily newspaper, and several weekly magazines -- has portrayed Boccassini's investigation as a witchhunt. The magistrates have mounted a kind of judicial coup d'état, they say, attempting to subvert Italy's democratic elections. "It's the usual attempt by fanatics in the judiciary to overstep their proper role and influence the political scene," Mariastella Gelmini, who serves under Berlusconi as education minister, told Panorama. The Berlusconi camp accuses the magistrates of devoting disproportionate resources to the most recent inquiry: Investigators had conducted almost 100,000 wiretaps in a six-month period, at a rate of about 600 per day.

Berlusconi has testified to the public on his own behalf in a video message that he sent last week to an association of his supporters, the Freedom Promoters, and that was later broadcast by his television channels. In it, he personally accused the prosecutors of conjuring a case against him from thin air, invading his privacy and that of his friends, and intimidating witnesses. It was Boccassini and her colleagues, not Berlusconi himself, he claimed, who merited "adequate punishment."

While prosecutors haven't responded to Berlusconi's accusations that their investigation has been unlawful, there's been no doubting that it has been tireless: Investigators carefully tracked cell phone signals in Berlusconi's Arcore mansion to build a picture of the colorful female entourage gravitating around the prime minister, a technique first used in the hunt for mafia boss Salvatore "Toto" Riina in 1993. And it's no coincidence that the Berlusconi investigation, with its blend of sophisticated technological surveillance and meticulous traditional police work, resembles an anti-mafia probe: Boccassini honed her investigative skills, after all, in the battle against the Cosa Nostra.

Born in Naples, Boccassini became a prosecutor in 1977, cutting her teeth in the 1980s mafia investigations. Along the way, she earned a reputation for irascible stubbornness and moral rectitude: She rarely speaks to journalists and imposes strict secrecy on those who work for her. Some say she was scarred by the murder in 1992 of her onetime colleague and close friend, Giovanni Falcone, the legendary mafia investigator. Boccassini moved to Sicily immediately afterward to help investigate the killers, who were eventually convicted of the crime. But in a speech at a Milan high school in 2007, she admitted that she has never entirely gotten over the loss. "I still feel resentment and anger," she said. "That's not nice, but I have to admit that's how it is."

Boccassini's relationship with the prime minister is inextricably linked to the Falcone case: In investigating his murder in the early 1990s, she came across allegations that Berlusconi, who was serving his first stint as prime minister at the time, had financial ties to the Sicilian mafia. So Boccassini was already familiar with Berlusconi when she was tasked in 1995 with investigating him for bribing Rome magistrates in order to gain control of the Mondadori publishing group. On that occasion Berlusconi got off the hook, because his legan team managed to drag out the proceedings beyond the statute of limitations.

Given that history, Boccassini could be forgiven for approaching Berlusconi's current case with a priori suspicions. But her supporters insist that the investigations of the prime minister are not in any way the product of a personal vendetta. "She subscribes to Falcone's philosophy, which holds that a judge must act without passion, depersonalizing and depoliticizing his approach to his work," said a Milan journalist who knows her well, but did not want to be identified. "She is very cold and detached."

The result so far has been a stalemate: The prime minister has avoided punishment, but Berlusconi's associates have been convicted for crimes apparently committed on his behalf. One of Berlusconi's lawyers, David Mills, was convicted in 2009 for pocketing a $600,000 bribe to commit perjury on his behalf; a business associate, Marcello Dell'Utri, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for complicity with the Cosa Nostra; but through it all, Berlusconi himself has remained untouched. Time after time, he has either been acquitted, seen the case against him timed out under the statute of limitations, or simply had the law changed to abolish the crime. (Until recently, Berlusconi had made liberal use of an immunity law in order to avoid trial, though that statute was thrown out by Italy's constitutional court earlier this month.)

The pursuit of the prime minister has been a chastening experience for Boccassini. Because of her insistence on holding the prime minister accountable, she and her colleagues have been subject to disciplinary proceedings initiated by the justice minister, and she has watched as other colleagues have been promoted ahead of her. What's clear to everyone by now is that Boccassini isn't easily deterred or intimidated: On Jan. 24, she announced that the latest evidence compiled against Berlusconi, on charges of illegal prostitution and abuse of office, is so clear cut that she will move for a fast-track trial for the prime minister. A trial could begin in as little as three months, and a conviction would undoubtedly put an abrupt end to Berlusconi's 17-year political career.

But Berlusconi can still use his soapbox to try to rally the public against Boccassini and her colleagues. Indeed, the bombastic prime minister has been less inclined to offer sober arguments about the rule of law than wage a scorched-earth campaign to delegitimize the judiciary wholesale. Boccassini may have always claimed to just be a prosecutor, but with the legitimacy of Italy's judiciary threatening to erode under Berlusconi's onslaught, she now finds herself public defender of an entire political order.


Binging on Purging

Reeling from Moscow's airport bombing, the Russian government is preparing to do what it does best -- fire people.

Just after 4:30 pm Moscow time on Monday, a man with a suitcase walked into a crowd at the international arrivals terminal in Domodedovo, Russia's busiest airport, and the suitcase blew up. Or maybe it was a man with explosives strapped to his body. Unless it was a woman who opened her bag, triggering an explosion that blew off the head of the man accompanying her. A day after the bombing at Domodedovo that killed 35 people, including several foreigners, and injured over 100, no one has yet claimed responsibility and there is little to go on except a closed-circuit tape of the moment of the blast and a grainy photo of the alleged bomber's severed head.

But, even before the medics could carry the bodies out of the airport, the finger-pointing began. Within hours of the attack, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on the air with the opening salvo. "The airport is a good one, everyone recognizes this. It's new and modern," the president said on state television. "But what happened shows there were severe security breaches. And everyone there who takes part in decision making should bear responsibility for this, including the management of the airport."

Said (privately owned) airport immediately fired back. "We think that we should not bear responsibility for the blast, as all the requirements of aviation safety were met by our personnel," a Domodedovo spokeswoman said, adding that it was far too early to parcel out the blame.

United Russia Duma deputy Alexandr Khinshtein, meanwhile, did not. He had a different culprit. In fact, he had three, though no one had ever heard of them. "I am certain that the chief of the security division of Domodedovo, the chief of the transportation department of the Interior Ministry of the Central Federal District, the chief of transportation security of the Interior Ministry -- if they consider themselves officers, they must write letters of resignation," Khinshtein said on Tuesday.

Medvedev seemed to agree. Later that day, he did something that he knew would make everyone in Russia feel better: He asked Rashid Nurgaliev, the interior minister, to present him with a list of people to fire, by the end of the day. (He hasn't, yet.)

Firing people seems to be the best way out of any difficult situation in contemporary Russia. Transportation collapse at peak holiday travel season due to unforeseeable meteorology? Fire the deputy director of Aeroflot Airlines. Internationally controversial death of a lawyer in highly questionable police custody? No problem! Just fire 20 prison officials. Catastrophic fire at a provincial nightclub that leaves 148 people dead? Fire the nightclub's management, and, while you're at it, force the entire region's government to resign for good measure.

Russians love firing people, because it's fast, cheap, and easy. If you fire people, you don't have to, say, examine the way fire codes are implemented and clean out a cadre of corrupt fire safety inspectors. You don't have to overhaul the entire Interior Ministry to punish the inspectors who first defrauded the Russian treasury of $230 million and then put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail for investigating it. And you certainly don't, in the case of the Domodedovo bombing, have to pursue a delicately balanced counterterrorism strategy in the North Caucasus.

It wasn't always like this. In November 2009, Medvedev pleasantly surprised many when he spoke of the increasingly violent and uncontainable Caucasus in his address to the nation's political elite. "It is evident that the source of many problems lies primarily in the region's economic backwardness and the absence of the promise of a normal life for most people," he said, finally acknowledging the complex factors -- poverty and corruption, as well as radical Islam -- that feed the growing insurgency in the area. "We will pay attention to the resolution of social and economic problems," Medvedev promised. He even appointed a young-ish businessman, Alexander Khloponin, to preside over a newly delineated federal district in the area.

After two wars and extensive -- and notoriously brutal -- Russian operations to snuff out resistance in Chechnya, the North Caucasus has been stubbornly spinning out of control in the last few years, with violence spilling into neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Hardly a week goes by without news of a suicide bombing or of Russian troops "eliminating" yet another nest of fighters. But those missions alone have so far yielded few results: By Moscow's own estimates, terrorist attacks in the region doubled in 2010.

Just a year after announcing his new plan, however, Medvedev seems to have entirely forgotten about it. "What happened to the strategy? Was it successful? Was it even being pursued?" asks Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made some gestures toward assisting the region, including chastising his cabinet -- just a day before the Domodedovo bombing -- for holding back progress in the region, and pledging $13 billion to various stimulus projects there. But the strategy is generally seen as unsuccessful and bogged down in the usual government corruption. There's no sign that Putin's stab at it will be any different. Says Lipman, "It's the right policy toward the region, but it takes a decade -- or decades -- to pursue. It's simpler learn to live with the reality of terrorism if you can't solve it in the short term." Removing people from their posts is part of that palliative strategy.

Firing, of course, may be a sign of political evolution, if an ambivalent one. Back when Putin was president, there was little public-penance firing to speak of. In the aftermath of a terror attack, like Beslan or the hostage crisis at Dubrovka, Putin would turn to his rattled nation, and reassure them with tough talk and aggressively scatological metaphors.

Under Medvedev -- at least in the areas where he is allowed to exercise a modicum of political muscle -- there is still the tough talk, though much toned down. (When he ran into journalist Oleg Kashin on his trip to Israel, Medvedev told him he would "tear the heads off" the two men who beat Kashin up.) But Medvedev is a liberal, and he likes to show that he is listening and that he is outraged when something bad happens in his government. Being a Russian liberal, however, he must show that he can and will act swiftly to punish those who, say, allow his subjects to gather unprotected in the nation's airport terminals. And because he cannot change the system -- and because his subjects know he can't -- he must find the specific people responsible for each seemingly relevant dereliction. 

"This is a Russian tradition because there is no tradition of political responsibility," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank linked to the Kremlin. "The idea of political responsibility is now seen as political terror, as Stalinism." The fear of repeating the purges of the late 1930s has swung so far the other way that now "there's a tendency to look for that one specific person who didn't put the metal detector in the right place, and maybe his boss, and fire them. And the problem with insisting on personal responsibility is you end up with the head of the government surrounded by the same people that can sometimes change places, but they're never going to bring any systemic change in their ministries."

That is, the people who matter -- whose departures could significantly improve the ministries and agencies they head -- never get fired. The officials who are publicly fired are usually of middling deputy rank, sacrificial lambs whose departures rarely make a difference save for a quick political catharsis, and quick political hay.

Speaking today at the FSB board, Medvedev seemed to acknowledge the futility of this approach. "Unfortunately, it always happens like this here," he said. "After unfortunate events, we mobilize all our resources, everyone is called upon to be extremely attentive. Everything works in this way for a while -- the armed forces, the law enforcement agencies. Even the citizens have a more responsible attitude." And then? And then "there is a loss of control and vigilance."

And then Medvedev asked his interior minister for the list of people to fire.