This year-end conversation takes place on the eve of the return of Alma Shalabayeva and her small daughter Alua, an odyssey that should never have begun. A seven-month odyssey marked by strident dispute and silent, painstaking intercession. The foreign ministry was bypassed at the moment of deportation by an obliging interior ministry. Italian ambassador to Kazakhstan Alberto Pieri and his staff shuttled between the capital and Almaty seeking to facilitate a legal process obscured by untoward intentions. That now temporarily concluded, the Kazakh government has authorised expatriation. It is said that the authorities requested a security of one million dollars –– which seemed a form of extortion –– which was later halved, and in the end accepted the family home in Almaty as collateral. As it proceeded, the entire affair was further dirtied by inappropriate and indelicate insinuations: the supposed exchange of the woman being held in Kazakhstan for her husband, Mukhtar Ablyazov, to date detained in France; conjecture regarding the couple’s marital relations, or Ablyazov’s defence, possibly persuaded that the scandalous treatment of his wife and daughter as hostages would have facilitated the man’s extradition. A cluster of factors that was useless to untangle, given Italy’s tenacious resolve, after the shameful deportation, to put things right: to restore that mother and daughter their freedom of movement in Europe, and the choice of where to live. That is what finally happened when the Italian embassy in Astana handed them their new passports complete with Schengen visas. At this point, when and where they go is their own business. Italy has the consolation of having repaired a human and civil rift for which it was entirely, and admittedly, to blame. At the same time, an agreement with Kazakhstan on criminal exchanges casts a ray of hope on another dramatic case: the detention of 58-year-old AGIP executive Flavio Sidagni, sentenced to 6 years at hard labour for possession of 120 grams of hashish.
Human dramas that morph into political disputes and are often manipulated for internal purposes. The most serious is the case of the Italian marines, Latorre and Girone, detained in India; a case inherited after disastrous management and that has been subject to a succession of contrasting information that has threatened their own resistance and that of their loved ones. Seasoned diplomat Staffan De Mistura and his staff are dedicated, almost exclusively, to the case. Then there are the Congolese adoptions, which seem to be moving toward a solution; the young Greenpeace activist, D’Alessandro, has been released in Moscow; the Lazio soccer fans detained in Warsaw. Each time, someone asks that the minister take off and personally bring our co-nationals home: “If it really worked, there wouldn’t be any problem: there is nothing I like more than leaving for some other part of the world to help someone in trouble. The fact is that if I were to do that, I would risk making those troubles even worse. This morning they call me and they say: two Italians have died in Nepal, and what are you doing? What am I doing: I am here, with my staff, every day that God sends me, holidays included”.
And today, on the feast of St. Steven, how would you sum up this year of Italian foreign policy? «Where shall I begin? In Turkey, every hour brings changes, and it may be that the calendar that goes from administrative to political elections will be inverted. Everything is in flux. For months now, the clashes between Sunni and Shia has been upstaged by those among the Sunni themselves: Qatar and Turkey vs. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Emirates; there is the struggle for succession in the Saudi dynasty; religion is the cause and pretext for violent clash. And then there are the geopolitical interests of the major powers. It is a known fact that the EU does not have a foreign policy, save on very rare occasions. France and the UK are content with the Security Council, and leave to Brussels mere ratification. The French interventions in Africa, praiseworthy by definition, have historical roots. I have heard it said in Brussels: “I’ll believe it the first time they intervene in an Anglo Saxon country”. It’s understandable: we know Libya better than others, not least because of our mistakes. If I had to summarise, I would say that Italy, with all its limitations, is moving along three lines, which are also obvious: reviving the UN’s and the Council’s multilateralism – they are what they are, but there’s nothing else; strengthening European integration; and, since growth is fuelled by international relations, boosting it through government. There are regions whose history and geography give us an unusual responsibility, such as the Balkans: Serbia and Albania are making progress, while Bosnia and Macedonia are stuck in limbo.
I am encouraged by the synergy with the Prime Minister, which was anything but to be taken for granted. You ask me whether Letta’s pro-European stance isn’t a way of hedging his bets on a future beyond our means. I don’t think so. National resistance has become more rigid, and the risk is that the European elections yield a paradoxical Euro-sceptic majority.
And yet, who believed in the common currency in 1992? How could five hundred million people live together if not within a federal mind-set and structure? Tenaciously indicating a direction is no small feat, and all the more so when major partners are intent not to go beyond relations between governments; F35s today, common defence policy tomorrow. But common defence is a popular not a populist theme; people are clear on the pointlessness of 28 armies and 190 billion in spending, despite the universal cutbacks due to the crisis – not even the cutbacks have brought us together, and we’re all cutting the same things! Of course, European policy is no longer the primary remit of the foreign ministry, when crisis and common currency cause ECOFIN to take it away. That’s why I am trying to reduce our European foreign missions in favour of a stronger presence elsewhere, from Ashgabat to China. Our budget is 0.2% compared with the 1.5-2% of our largest partners”.
“Whether the Union goes forward or backward is also important to what happens outside of it. We were taken by surprise two years ago in Syria, or else we pretended to be. The international community responded with inertia and, looking back now, once things had already deteriorated. The conflict had changed in nature, and that criminal Assad was emerging stronger than ever, since the opposition had incorporated bandits of every sort and provenance, adding Sunni family feuds to the mix: at that point even calling it a civil war seems inappropriate to me.
What would you have expected as a military punishment for Assad on 21 August? Who would have set foot, and not only bombed from above, in a Syria that had sunk to that level? The Pope speaks about it today as a danger averted by the power of prayer. But the weak were not spared. If Assad’s international reinforcement is owing to his cynical protectors, the internal strife is the result of the catastrophe of the opposition and of terrorist infiltration. On 22 January, at the Geneva 2 conference, we will be 30 countries (the Geneva 1 took place without us and the Germans). Brahimi should be sending us an approximate representative of the Syrian opposition, which remains embroiled in internal hostility and diffidence”.
“It seemed to me that Rowhani’s election in Iran would have allowed, indeed forced, efforts to try another way. Try, I say, because those who have expressed reservations – the Israeli government or the American Congress or others – do not have the exclusive on them: who wouldn’t have reservations? It’s easy to put an end to discussion, as Khatami did – followed by 8 incredible years of Ahmadinejad. There is an Iran yearning for something new and democracy, and there is an Iran that, with 35-40% inflation, needs to get back into the international economic game. What remains but to put them, and ourselves to the test? Ask me what the strongest sensation I took away with me from Teheran was: that of a looming extremist wing that had to resign itself to the election outcome, but which is leaving very little space and time to attempts toward openness. Its important members have segued into the new government. I am not making any predictions, much less on the successor to the Supreme Leader Khamenei. But it is not on predictions that we should be focused, rather on the possibilities, in order to foster the best of them. I’m amazed to hear myself express such an idyllic peaceful outlook, it’s so not like me. Our allies are loyally informed about every step the Italian government or I take, before and after, as it should always be. We take their concerns very seriously, they should consider our efforts with the same seriousness: we are players in the same game”.
“In Egypt in seems, once again, that there is no choice between fanatic theocracy and military regime. Outlawing the entire Muslim Brotherhood, will it stop there or go on to other thing? The regime depends entirely on the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where the Brotherhood was destroyed. It’s a bind: enact reforms and lose the elections, don’t enact them and survive on foreign handouts.
All this flux has to be looked at globally, though, rather than in terms of individual maps. The gas in the Mediterranean, for example, between Cyrus, Israel, Turkey, Greece, could bring unimaginable growth to its producers.
I wonder about the Russia of Lavrov, a tried and true professional, who pursues the realpolitik of global power that Putin wants to have back in order, even ahead of his own interests, to erase the shame of imperial breakdown. Medvedev aimed at modernising the economy, without success. Russia produces little and exports raw materials, and as long as oil remains expensive, that may be just fine. Domestic concerns are few. Human rights in times of globalisation, rather than West to East, seem to be going in the opposite direction, blown on the eastern winds of autocracy and inexorable financial gain. Some said “what a pity there isn’t any oil in Switzerland”. Then they found it in Norway. I sometimes think, though, that if oil had been found in Sweden or even in Switzerland or Treviso, instead of in the autocracies where it is, the scandalous inequalities in the world would have risen to, and gone beyond, the highest heaven”.