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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin and Berlusconi On the Rocks?

ReutersPresident Vladimir Putin sharing an informal supper with then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at his Zavidovo residence outside Moscow on Feb. 3, 2003.
The famous Putin-Berlusconi romance is apparently on life support.

With voters having tossed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from office and President Vladimir Putin busy meeting Berlusconi's successor, one of the best-known -- and most controversial -- relationships between two heads of state looks to be unraveling.

Now, Milanese newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Berlusconi was driven to tears when he glimpsed his "grande amico" Putin warmly greeting the new Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, at the Kremlin last week. Prodi's center-left coalition narrowly beat Berlusconi's center-right coalition in April parliamentary elections.

The Kremlin denies that Putin has deserted his old friend, who repeatedly defended the Russian president against charges of human rights violations in Chechnya and mishandling the case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed Yukos founder.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin's generally positive meeting with Prodi had no bearing on his ties to Berlusconi. "The president has relations with many foreign leaders, but nobody is jealous," Peskov said. "I think that this [Italian] paper made up the story. This is just an emotional fantasy of the paper and has nothing to do with reality."

Paolo Guzzanti, a senator from Berlusconi's Forza Italia, shrugged off talk of a Putin-Berlusconi split, saying the relationship was strictly professional. "Berlusconi is not crying," he said.

This much is beyond dispute: When he was in office, Berlusconi enjoyed a warm relationship with Putin that exceeded the closeness of other well-known matchups such as Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and, more recently, Putin and Gerhard Schröder.

In 2003, Putin; his wife, Lyudmila; and their two daughters, Masha and Katya, spent three days at Berlusconi's 2,500-square-meter villa on Sardinia. The trip featured 400 cactuses specially planted for Putin and a performance by tenor Andrea Bocelli. A year earlier, Masha and Katya spent a month summering at Berlusconi's villa. Last summer, Lyudmila Putina visited Italy while Berlusconi met with Putin in Sochi. (The former prime minister can perhaps take some solace in knowing Prodi has yet to be invited to Putin's Black Sea retreat.)

Now the relationship is fraying: Corriere della Sera reported Berlusconi had invited Putin back to Sardinia; Peskov said Putin, who had yet to RSVP, would spend his summer vacation in Sochi. And unlike Schröder, tapped by Putin to run the North European Gas Pipeline after his electoral loss, Berlusconi is not known to have been offered any jobs.

Augusto Rocchi, a communist deputy in Italy's parliament, said he felt betrayed by Berlusconi. "For five years he told us he had a lover called Putin, but it wasn't true," Rocchi said.

Referring to the parliamentary election results, which Berlusconi fought before conceding, Rocchi added: "The same way he could not accept he lost the elections, he cannot accept that Putin has another love."

But Berlusconi has plans to win back his old flame, said Father Gianni Baget Bozzo, a priest known to be close to Berlusconi. "He has a lot of problems now, but in the near future he is planning to go to Russia to refresh their alliance," Baget Bozzo said. "Their friendship will continue. Berlusconi always keeps his personal relations."

Baget Bozzo said Berlusconi need not envy Prodi. "Putin is unlikely to declare his love for Prodi," he said. "Prodi builds his relations skeptically, escaping any love relations."

And Putin, the priest said, can rest assured he has a friend in Milan -- even if the trips to Sochi dry up. Berlusconi, he said, "will always be faithful to Putin."