Italian president takes center stage

AP News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2011 1:15 PM
Italian president takes center stage

Italy has invited dozens of world leaders to lavish celebrations this week marking the birth of the modern nation 150 years ago, giving new luster to the country's scandal-free president in his largely ceremonial role.

The presidents of Russia, Turkey, Israel, Germany and Argentina are among 80 top officials expected for receptions in the gardens of the Renaissance-era Quirinale presidential palace and a military parade on Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum. Vice President Joe Biden is representing the United States.

President Giorgio Napolitano, an 85-year-old former communist, is center stage.

Normally an august figure in the background, Napolitano has become a force of unity in a country known for its historic fractures and sharply divided over the figure of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has been mired in sex and corruption scandals.

"The principal of unity and indivisibility of the republic are the essential reference points," Napolitano said in a message Tuesday.

Napolitano has taken an increasingly active role, even stepping up his international travel, as Berlusconi has become bogged down in legal woes including a trial on the sordid charges of having sex with an underage prostitute and then using his office to cover it up.

In March, as some of Berlusconi's allies balked at NATO's bombing campaign against Libya on grounds it would increase the flow of refugees to Italy, Napolitano went before the U.N. General Assembly in New York and said the world could not stand by while Libya answered civilian protest with military force.

Both men had recent encounters with President Barack Obama, and the differences were not lost on Italians.

Berlusconi took his case to the G-8 summit in France last week, claiming he is being persecuted by leftist judges and telling a clearly perplexed Obama that in Italy they represent "almost a dictatorship."

Two days later, in Warsaw, Poland, a smiling Obama was seen warmly shaking Napolitano's hand.

"If body language means anything," said the leading Corriere della Sera newspaper, the encounters "showed the distance" between how the two men are viewed in the United States.

Before the G-8 summit in Italy in 2008, Obama sent tongues wagging when he lauded Napolitano's integrity and described him as a "great leader."

Even if Obama did not intend any snub of Berlusconi, Italians were immediately reminded of the barrage of attacks the premier had come under over allegations of frequenting a teenage model and hosting parties attended by young women, including a call girl.

"I had heard of the wonderful reputation of President Napolitano, as somebody who has the admiration of the Italian people because of not only his long-standing service but also his integrity and his graciousness," Obama said as Napolitano stood beside him.

On Wednesday, Biden hailed Italy as a great ally under the leadership of both Berlusconi and Napolitano, praising the country's contribution to missions including Libya and Afghanistan. He said at the end of a meeting with the president that it was "a great pleasure to be here with a man of such integrity."

Napolitano, elected president by parliament in 2006, was a foreign policy expert in the former Italian Communist party. With his fluent English, he traveled widely promoting his party as communism-light, closer to the European social democrat model than the Soviet one.

As president, he has questioned some of Berlusconi's government moves, walking a fine line for an official held to be above politics.

He has been a driving force behind the 150th anniversary celebrations, seeking to reinforce the bonds tying together a country marked by centuries of rivalry among city-states or foreign occupation along the peninsula.

Even a special holiday celebrated on March 17, the day in 1861 when King Victor Emanuel II became the first king of a united Italy, provoked divisions. Some in the autonomy-minded Northern League, Berlusconi's key political ally, refused to take part. The head of the predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, which Italy stripped from Austria after World War I, also didn't take part in the celebrations.