Italy and Russia: An evolving privileged relationship?

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President Putin and his delegation arrived in Rome earlier this week for a high-level bilateral consultation, a mechanism that was launched back in 2002. This year 11 ministers arrived and signed 35 agreements in 5 hours. Putin met with President Giorgio Napolitano, Prime Minister Enrico Letta, former prime minster Romano Prodi and Pope Francis. He even had dinner with his old friend Silvio Berlusconi. It was sober reminder of the close relationship between Italy and Russia.

In Trieste, Italy and Russia signed an impressive number of 28 trade agreements and 7 intergovernmental deals. The agreements cover areas such as finance, energy, industry, research, employment and social policies. Russia’s state-backed private equity investment fund and Italy’s strategic state investment fund have agreed a deal to invest up to €1 billion in companies and projects in the two countries.

The relationship between Russia and Italy goes back centuries and today it can be considered a “privileged relationship”.Surely, Italo-Russian cooperation is mostly about economics. Italy is Russia's third biggest trade partner. In 2011 alone trade reached an impressive €27 billion. Italian exports to Russia mainly consist of mechanical products, raw materials, textile, leather and furniture. But an interesting fact is that more than 500 Italian entrepreneurs have opened businesses in Russia. On the other side Russia is Italy's main energy supplier (15% of oil and 30% of gas imports come from Russia) and Italy's energy, steel sectors can rely on huge amounts of direct Russian investments.

Compared to the well developed economic links between both countries the story of the diplomatic relations between Italy and Russia is a bit different. Just look at the last three Italian governments: It is no secret that Berlusconi focused on his personal ties with Putin (whereas it is still secret what Putin and Berlusconi agreed upon). Monti was mainly interested in the development of business links. But Letta, together with his Foreign Minsiter Emma Bonino, are trying to give a new direction to the relationship with Russia. In other words, if previous governments regarded Russia as a mere economic partner, it seems as if Italy is now developing a more strategic vision for its diplomatic relations with Russia. Economic relations are still important (just think of the number of agreements signed in Trieste) but there are at least two strategic areas of cooperation that both countries seem to be developing: a concern for stability in the Mediterranean and an interest in how to cooperate in the Eastern neighbourhood.

So how did it happen? Italy has two foreign policy aims in the MENA region: to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria and control the flow of immigrants and refugees. Italian policy makers are concerned that terrorists could hide among refugees and enter Italy – a problem that Italian diplomats not only discussed in Brussels but also in Moscow. And it appears that there is some common ground with Russia on these topics. Both, Lavrov and Bonino have stressed the idea of inclusiveness when it comes to solving international problems. They also developed a shared mission to work towards long-term stability in the MENA region by focusing on inclusive multilateralism – basically the idea is to talk to Iran and Assad. In the case of Syria both are aware that all regional actors need to be involved in finding a solution: “If Iran is part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution”, they said in a joint statement. Unsurprisingly, last week's deal with Iran and this week's announcement of the Geneva 2 conference were welcomed by both ministers.

These common approaches were also used to build diplomatic trust between both ministers. It opened up the political space for Italy – and Foreign Minister Bonino in particular – to talk about more controversial topics such as the case of Italian Greenpeace activists or other human rights issues in a open and constructive manner.

There is no doubt that the Italio-Russian relationship is evolving and maturing. The crisis in Syria and the deal with Iran are not only examples where Italy and Russia worked together they can also be seen as an example how Italy has developed a more strategic foreign policy approach.

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