Italy's Ambassador: From The Vatican to Moscow

When Antonio Zanardi Landi became Italian ambassador at the start of the year, he couldn't have made a bigger step in his career: from representing his country at the Vatican, the world's smallest state, to representing Italy in the world's largest territory: Russia.

Zanardi Landi says there is at least one similarity between the Vatican and Moscow — both capitals share a very global approach. Diplomatically the two posts share the fact that they work between two states with very close relationships. Russia and Italy have developed a special relationship in recent years, and the Holy See and Italy are deeply intertwined both historically and culturally. The difference, of course, he feels every day: "Now I can no longer walk around the country I am posted to after lunch," he joked during a recent one-hour interview.

The ambassador, who moved to Russia with his wife, Sabina Cornaggia Medici, and three children, is more than compensated with a residence that ranks among Moscow's finest.

How has Russia treated you since you arrived here?

I find there is a rather favorable atmosphere toward Italians, everything coming from Italy is looked at without prejudices. You find a lot of people ready to listen. A very significant point perhaps is that my children got very quickly accustomed to the new environment. They made a lot of friends in just a week's time. That's a good omen for the integration of their parents, too.

There is a lot of talk about there being a special relationship between Italy and Russia, especially because of the good ties between both countries' prime ministers — Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi. Do you agree?

Undeniably our cooperation is quite substantial, and there is a clear and very personal relationship between the two prime ministers, which helps to create a better political and business climate. But there is also an obvious bilateral interest.

Italy has often been accused of being too pro-Russian, but I do not think that it is true. Rather, this government and previous ones reflect a very common attitude in Italy, which tends to consider Russia a faraway partner but, nonetheless, an essential one for the future of Europe.

We think that in the medium term Italy and Europe will find a way to be more integrated with Russia and vice versa. If not, we will be both in trouble because we will be not relevant enough in the world, not weighty enough to face the challenges in the third millennium.

So the personal relationship of our prime ministers reflects well an attitude present among a vast majority of Italians!

You are saying that only Europe and Russia together have enough weight to solve global problems together?

I think that Europe and Russia have complementary economies and cultural environments. This implies having common political interests because we are both interested in stability and that major threats lie in instability.

Energy is the most obvious field of cooperation. We are good buyers of Russian gas and oil. I think Eni was the biggest buyer of Russian gas last year, and there is a strategic relationship between the company and Gazprom. Their joint project South Stream, which is a fashionable topic today, is now being widened by bringing in Germany's Wintershall and the French company EDF as shareholders.

What are the hottest Russo-Italian investment projects for you at the moment?

Clearly the SuperJet 100 is a candidate — the cooperation between Sukhoi and Alenia Aeronautica is very important because if you decide to build a plane together that means you are planning to have a close relationship with your partner for the next 30 to 40 years.

What do you think is the main motivation for Italian investors who come to Russia?

You read a lot about difficulties in the business climate here. But in general I must say that those Italian companies that are firmly established in Russia are quite happy. When I arrived here I was surprised to see how few contentious issues there are between both sides. And of course, Russia is the biggest national market in Europe.  

Where do you see the biggest chance for investment growth?

We understand there are a lot of opportunities in the regions and are trying to accompany our businesses there. I had many contacts with regional governors, and the impression you get is that there are a lot of unexploited possibilities.

Speaking about common investment, the conflict in Libya springs to mind, where both Italian and Russian projects are under threat. In February, just before the violence started, Gazprom acquired 33 percent of Eni's shares in the country's Elephant oil and gas field worth $178 million. What are the stakes in Libya for Italy?

They are very high. Libya is very close to Italy. We used to get a substantial part of our oil from Libya, where we in turn sold a lot of manufactured products and had construction projects.

Libya was a difficult but important economic partner, so it is clear that the Italian government has to follow the conflict closely and has to try to build a future relationship with the country's new leaders.

We are also exposed because we are receiving a lot of migrants from Africa who come through Libya.

Obviously the effects of the "Elephant deal" will be seen when the present crisis is over.

What do you make of the outspoken criticism of the NATO campaign in Libya by the Russian leadership?

I think we understand the Russian reaction — but we are too close to follow the same approach and we do feel a European and NATO loyalty. For us it was impossible not to take an active part [in the military campaign] as there were too many killed close to our country.

Another key point where Italy has been closer to Russia than to Europe is visas. How much difference can Rome make in the ongoing talks on making travel easier?

It is true that the Italian government has been actively favoring making the visa regime easier for Russians. We have been trying to increase the number of Russians going to Italy every year.

Last year our General Consulate in Moscow issued 436,000 visas, and this year this number will probably be between 600,000 and 700,000. The big increase is probably also because fewer Russians are going to Egypt, Tunisia and other North African countries — they are shifting to Italy.

Obviously we are happy about that — not just as it helps tourism but also because statistically there is a significant percentage of Russians going to Italy who are buying a house or sending a child to school or university here. Already Russians make up the biggest group of foreigners at Milan's Bocconi Business School!

Tourism is also considered a means to increase economic relations — because a percentage of tourists will find a commercial partner or a business partner in Italy.

Apart from that we encourage Russians to travel to us for the Year of Russia in Italy; we made a bilateral agreement so there are free visas for those who have to cross borders in relation to this.

The Italian government has been in favor of abolishing the visa regime as soon as possible. You cannot take a unilateral decision, a European decision is a must.

What do you think of the Spanish initiative to give two-year multiple-entry tourist visas to second-time applicants and five-year multiple-entry visas to third-time applicants from Russia?

We are doing exactly the same, taking advantage of the flexibility allowed by the Schengen rules. And we are issuing more and more long-term visas because many Russians applicants are applying for the fifth or eighth time.

Our general policy with tourists is to issue multiple-entry visas not as an exception but as a rule.

What is your personal expectation on the development of the EU-Russia talks — will we see a lifting of the visa regime anytime soon?

The last few meetings with the EU Commission have been fruitful, but I don't have a clear idea how long the process will be — certainly longer than 1 to 2 years.

The talks are complicated by the fact that some EU members are making political demands, like not allowing Russia to get easier visas faster than Georgia or Ukraine. What is Italy's position on this?

I see there is a different approach between Italy and some other European countries which tend to put political preconditions in order to abolish visas. We tend to see the problem from the other side: The more Russians we have in Italy, the more Russian students we have in Europe, the more business with Russia we do, the better political effect we will get later on. Any kind of interchange is positive!

So Italy is really in favor of abolishing visas right away?

The Italian government has been in favor of abolishing the visa regime as soon as possible. Obviously you cannot take a unilateral decision, a European decision is a must.

We are partners and our standards do not differ from European standards, but within the European debate we tend to be more proactive toward the abolition of visas with Russia. But there is clearly no difference between us and the European position.

This year is the Year of Italian culture and language in Russia. How does the interest of Italian students in learning Russian compare with Russian students' interest in learning Italian?

I am afraid that interest from Russians in Italian is bigger but we do have a lot of youngsters who would like to learn Russian and later on work with Italian companies. We are very pleased to see a strong growth in demand for Italian language. From the data of our culture institutes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, class enrolments doubled between 2007 and 2011.

What else will Russia see this year?

We have already brought Raphael's "Young Woman with Unicorn" to the Pushkin Museum. It is important to bring top quality art to Russia, because so many Russians know Italian culture so very well, even better than Italians do.

We will also do our best to include Russia in our celebrations of 150 years of Italian unification next month. After all, the Italian anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Russia. Russia made a big step in joining Europe in a cultural and legal sense, and Italy became an important partner in the European integration process, so we have a point of common departure. Hopefully, President Dmitry Medvedev will travel to Rome for the official event on June 2.

Russia - Italy 2011
Russia - Italy 2011
This color publication is devoted to the Year of Italy in Russia, which will see a host of cultural exchanges in 2011, as well as to Italian businesses working in Russia.
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