Premier Silvio Berlusconi is expanding his presence on the world stage leading into next week's Group of Eight summit with a flurry of diplomacy aimed, at least in part, in part at diverting attention from the starlet scandal that has engulfed him at home.
The end result? A poll published on Sunday showed Berlusconi's popularity had dipped only two statistically insignificant percentage points in recent weeks _ from 51 per cent to 49 per cent _ and the premier chalked up a major diplomatic victory by helping thaw NATO-Russia tensions.
"Despite everything, Berlusconi continues to enjoy the trust of a good half of Italians," leading pollster Renato Mannheimer wrote in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, disputing media speculation that Berlusconi's days were numbered.
Berlusconi showed up at the last minute on Saturday at a meeting in Corfu, Greece, of foreign ministers of the NATO-Russia Council _ the only head of government there other than the host, Greek prime minister Costas Karamanlis.
The foray was a well-timed distraction as Berlusconi battles allegations he partied with prostitutes at his homes. It also won him praise from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and gave him a prominent forum to show off his statesmanship before the July 8-10 G-8 summit in the quake-stricken central Italian city of L'Aquila. Lavrov said it was "very important" that Berlusconi had taken personal responsibility for helping NATO and Russia resume military ties _ formalized at a 2002 summit Berlusconi chaired _ which were frozen after Russia's war with Georgia.
The visit, just two weeks after Berlusconi enjoyed a two-hour White House meeting with US President Barack Obama, also earned Berlusconi a half-hour phone call with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, during which the Russian leader expressed a desire to resume full collaboration with NATO, Berlusconi said. Berlusconi has been on the defensive at home ever since his wife, in announcing she was divorcing him, accused him of picking starlets and showgirls as candidates in European Parliament elections and for having attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old model. Since then, three young women _ including a high-class prostitute _ have told Italian newspapers that they attended parties at the premier's residences, with two saying they were paid euro1,000 ($1,400) by a Berlusconi acquaintance for having shown up. Prosecutors in Bari have opened an investigation into the acquaintance.
The escort, Patrizia D'Addario, has said she spent the night with Berlusconi after a Nov 4 party, while the other women have shown off jewelry the premier purportedly gave them and told tales of dancing until dawn while Berlusconi sang songs, told jokes and boasted of visits to the White House.
Berlusconi has denied knowing D'Addario and said he never paid anyone for sex. He has denounced the scandal as a "garbage" smear campaign and has insisted "Italians want me this way." The Ipsos poll, conducted last week for Corriere della Sera, seems to confirm that.
It showed that 49 per cent of Italians had a positive judgment of Berlusconi in June compared to an average of 51 per cent in polls conducted from January to May. The survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, showed the biggest dip in support was among women, 52 per cent of whom judged him positively in the first five months of the year compared to 47 per cent in June. And Berlusconi's conservative allies swept European Parliament elections earlier this month and snatched several local races from the largely ineffective Democratic Party.
Stefano Folli, a columnist with business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, said on Sunday that Berlusconi was in no danger politically because he has a solid majority in parliament and his allies show no inclination of deserting him.
Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, a key ally who brought down Berlusconi's first government in 1994, has said the party won't make trouble for the premier this time around since he kept his word about reforms dear to the party.
But Folli said in an interview with private La 7 television that he was worried that, if the scandal continues to distract Berlusconi, government actions will suffer.