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Primary needs

by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Oct 17th, 2005 at 01:49:52 AM EST

Yesterday the whole family went to vote in the first Italian "primary election". It was very much a family occasion.   Although we went to vote very late in the day (around 8:15 pm) and not, as in ordinary elections, at a school, but in a one room  hall not far from our home in Mestre)  we found a fairly long line of voters and had to wait about 45 minutes before getting our turn.   The Unione had stated that they hoped for a turn out of 1 million, but it seems that over 3 million actually voted.   Since (hard to believe, but true) voting required a contribution of at least 1 euro, the anti-Berlusconi coalition picked up about 3 million euro yesterday.    They also picked up an "anointed" candidate, Romano Prodi who garnered about 75% of the vote.

Others will have more incisive comments to make, but I would like to underline the festive, one-big-family atmosphere that prevailed, at least where we voted. It was, to my way of thinking, more like the classical
New England town-meeting than either the standard leftist mass-meetings-cum-oratory, or even the antiseptically burocratic normal voting routine.

Anointing Prodi was, in this optic, a positive side-effect, the major importance of the event being precisely that coming to consciousness of the wide interclass coalition of people who are fed up with Berlusconi (something, one hopes, that will come to be more than the mere sum of its constituent parts), and the implemenation of a mechanism to assure that in the future, when there is no single consensus-dominating candidate like Prodi, the "people of the left" will have a non-burocratic method for choosing their  paladin.

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Sympathy for the Devil?

by Hannah K OLuthon Fri Sep 16th, 2005 at 06:14:38 AM EST

A major consolation for the compulsive blogger lies in the knowledge that it doesn't matter if no one pays any attention to the blogging as long as the blogger has nothing of substance to say. This state of affairs undoubtedly encompasses a large majority of bloggerdom, including the present writer. However, web maundering does occasionally set off a real-world reaction whose consequences are quite at odds with the expectations of the bloggers. An interesting, perhaps important case in point is that of Richard Chichakli. Chichakli's name seems to have entered the public domain largely as a result of his role in arranging for a NY Times Magazine (17 August 2003) interview with the notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout. At the interview, Chichakli was quoted by Times correspondent Peter Landesman as refering to himself not only as a "former business associate" of Bout, but also as his ``friend and brother".

Since the NYTimes interview, a number of bloggers (especially The Yorkshire Ranter, Doug Farah, and Ruud Leeuw) have continued the investigation of the "visible portion" of what seems to be Viktor Bout's empire. Of these, Leeuw has the perhaps the most informative Web Site (scroll down to the Viktor Bout link), The Yorkshire Ranter is the most persistent digger, and Farah (who is also a Washington Post reporter) is the best connected to purportedly "reliable sources in the intelligence community".

Chichakli, perhaps for his very openness and attractiveness as a conjectural link to other actors, became one of the chief targets of their investigation. He was easily "Google-able": one could learn of his $300 contribution to the Texas Republican party, his CPA firm, and (a bit) about his military career and his family connections to ex-CIA mandarin Miles Copeland. A look at his qualifications shows what would appear to be something more than passing acquaintance with skills useful for keeping a close rein on covert funds and projects. Except for an unsubstantiated (to my knowledge, but quite probably true) assertion that he worked for 18 years in cooperation with U.S. intelligence all of this seems to be quite well documented.

Over the intervening two years, information, conjecture, and questions from the blogosphere gradually seeped into the traditional news media, with for example, the Los Angeles Times , the Financial Times, and Farah's employer, the Washington Post all publishing accounts based on a mixture of independent reporting and the pillaging of what bloggers had already put into the public domain. In particular, some very murky dealings between the U.S. Defense Department and "dubious" airlines flying out of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates emerged and became an embarassment. The Defense Department was contracting logistics flights from the Gulf to Baghdad to blacklisted Bout airlines. (Sharjah had been, and very probably still is, the hub of Bout's air transport empire, or at least of a large group of shadowy airlines that have been linked to Bout: Irbis, Air Bass, Air Ces, British Gulf International Airways(yes!), etc. ). The airlines are constantly changing names, and the planes are frequently re-registered and re-painted, but there seems to be a clear nexus between whoever is behind the various Bout-linked Sharjah fleets and earlier (and probably continuing) illicit contraband of arms in Africa. In particular, Bout was linked to the sanguinary ex-dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor. The official line seems to be that such dealings involved "blood diamonds" which were a secret source of funding for Al Qaeda. This obviously makes dealing with Bout, or worse yet protecting or even coddling his operations, utterly indefensible in the context of a serious war on terrorism. Yet, some of the monies that Bout received through his "Liberian connection" where channeled through the LISC, the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, an entity whose corporate headquarters (Vienna, Virginia, just down the road a piece from CIA headquarters) and staffing would seem to point to anything but ignorance on the part of Western intelligence agencies.

Be that as it may, Chichakli emerged from the cloud of mystery surrounding the alleged Bout contraband operations, and proved to be an attractive target for internet investigation and conjecture. Chichakli, however,disputes that he has had a long-term business relationship with Viktor Bout, and points out that after fulfilling a 1-year contract to create Sharjah Airport International Free Trade and Industrial Zone in 1996 he returned to the U.S. where he was fully occupied as a student (transcripts available on his site) and CPA.

In the Spring of 2005 shortly after the Yorkshire Ranter and Farah reported that Irbis Air was flying from Sharjah to Bagram Airbase near Kabul, raising obvious questions about just what was being transported on those flights and who had authorized that a U.S. blacklisted airline be given landing rights at a U.S. Air Force base, the U.S. Treasury department acted to confiscate the assets of Bout and Chichakli. The full details are available on Chichakli's site, together with his rejoinder. Chichakli maintains both that the charges are based on unsubtantiated internet fabrications created by bloggers hoping to make a fortune by selling the movie rights for the story to Hollywood, and that the entire governmental action is marred by a flagrant lack of due process. He offers documentation and explanation for his side of the story, and it is not without weight. According to his web-site, he is no longer living in the U.S., but that has not prevented him from adding some extremely interesting documentation to the web-site since his exile. In brief, Chichakli asserts that he is being subjected to guilt by association, and moreover by association with malefactors whose misdeeds have been falsely chronicled.

What is perhaps more interesting is that Chichakli is hopping mad and is breaking silence. For example, Chichakli asks "What is the cause the made the US Government orchestrate an action of such magnitude against an old accountant? Rumors related to the government being angrily responding to Chichakli's refusal to play certain role in a U.S. sponsored, unconstitutional plot to form 'Syrian Government in-exile' similar to the scenario used prior to the invasion of Iraq, as being the true reason. The U.S. Treasury acknowledgement that their action was based on the recommendation of the U.S. Dept. of State." As another example consider the photos linked from this page. One can only wonder who provided the photos, and what is omitted from the discussion. He also accuses the FBI detail charged with executing the OFAC order of having pocketed about $500,000 of the assets confiscated under that order. The documentation provided renders this charge not implausible.

In brief, Richard Chichakli has "escaped from the reservation". The erstwhile Texas Republican CPA has become something of a loose cannon, and seems ready to blast away at his tormentors. Whether or not one takes what he says at face value, a visit to his site is certainly worthwhile, and provokes at least as many questions as answers. He certainly deserves due process, a fair hearing for his side of the story, and thanks (perhaps begrudging) for permitting some light to be thrown on the murky area of governmental involvement in arms and drug contraband. The internet is not the proper forum for adjudicating his case, but since its bloggers have in large measure brought about his present difficulties, it seems only fair that he be given equal access to public debate and a fair hearing. The line between raising proper questions about personal probity and participation in a lynch mob should not be difficult to perceive. If Chichakli is, as I believe, a "small fish" who is being thrown to the sharks, it is clear that he is trying to make the biggest and noisiest splash possible, and for that this "devil" has my sympathy.

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Arriving at a parody of oneself

by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Aug 8th, 2005 at 07:12:37 AM EST

You know that the Italian banking scandal is really serious when you see it percolating down to the level of popular TV. Today's Repubblica reports an attempt by one of the protagonists of the ongoing drama, Stefano Ricucci, to censure the popular TV-football review show "Quelli del calcio" (Those who play football (soccer)). The director of the program Simona Ventura had planned on presenting a parody sketch involving Stefano Ricucci, one of the "conceristi" involved in the take-over attempt of the Banca Antonveneta and the brouhaha of telephone interceptions involving the Director (Governatore) of the Bank of Italy, Antonio Fazio. Ricucci would be an appropriate target for parody since he is well known in the popular press as the husband of the beautiful actress Anna Falchi. It turns out that the most recent batch of intercepted phone conversations to be made public show Ricucci discussing an attempt to censure the skit by way of a phone call to a well-placed RAI (the Italian public network)official. That official, like many many others in the RAI has a political patron, in this case Roberto Calderoli of the Liga Nord, who is close to Ricucci.

Ricucci apparently also tried to invoke the assistance of another paladin of the Italian sporting scene, Flavio Briatore, the director of Renault's Formula I team (and "discoverer" many time Formula I champion Michael Schumacher) in his attempt to head off the parody, but without success.

The only thing unusual about this sort of interference in that this time it's all in the public domain, and highly enjoyable. Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi's man Alfredo Meocci has indeed been elected Director General of the RAI, so for Berlusconi all is well.

I conclude with a horrible confession: the papers have been full of news regarding the group of Concertisti (Fiorani, Ricucci, Gnutti, et. al.) trying to take-over the Banca Antonveneta and RCS. Question: What is RCS? I didn't know the meaning of that abbreviation until Googling it: R=Rizzoli CS=Corriere della Sera The financiers also want to assure themselves a good press. (Angelo Rizzoli was a notable self-made man, who created a publishing-cinematic empire, largely frittered away by his son.)

A Concerto by the "Banca di Quattro"

by Hannah K OLuthon Thu Aug 4th, 2005 at 04:15:19 AM EST

The title is a (rather weak) play on words:
the "Concerto" refers to the term used to describe the group of financial raiders (led by G. Fiorani, S. Ricucci and E. Gnutti) who, aided by the occult assistance of the fourth "banker" Antonio Fazio, Director of the Bank of Italy, attempted a take-over of the Banca Antonveneta in competition with the Dutch ANB Amro.
"Banca di Quattro" echoes the more familiar "Banda di Quattro", the ill-fated "gang of four" of the late Maoist era.
so the idea is that of a "concert" by a "band of 4 bankers".

The financial and political devastation around the attempted buy-out continues to grow. A Milanese magistrate, Clementina Forleo has "frozen" the (funny money?) assets used by the Fiorani raiders in their take-over attempt, thus leaving ABN Amro effectively in control of the Banca Antonveneta although apparently controlling only 29% of the outstanding shares. More incriminating telephone interceptions involving Antonio Fazio (and his wife) have been revealed, and Fazio's position looks ever more precarious. Even Economics Minister Domenico Siniscalco has expressed concern at the effect the scandal is having on Italy's credibility. Were it not the month of August, in which one can expect that nothing will happen since no one (least of all Prime Minister Berlusconi) wants to ruin a vacation just to settle a financial crisis), it is likely that Fazio would already have been forced out.

This being Italy, however, there is ALWAYS time for vendetta. At least so it must appear to Judge Forleo who has become the target of a disciplinary action promoted by Justice Minister Roberto Castelli (of the Lega Nord) for having (unduly?) intervened in person to prevent the roughing up of an Egyptian citizen during a "normal" police anti-terrorism control operation in Milan, as emerges from a cynical reading of today's Corriere della Sera

The crisis surrounding the Bank of Italy is played against the background of leaked telephone intercepts, clearly illegal and roundly condemned by all, even those who use the results of the leaks to call for Fazio's resignation. It seems interesting that such intercepts are sacrosanct if executed by the CIA-MI5 and reserved for the privileged few of Anglo-Saxon high finance, quite acceptable when handled by other secret services like SISMI or SDECE and delivered to Berlusconi or Chirac, but totally scandalous when they enter into the public domain.

It is interesting that the banking scandal has elicited criticism of the "center-left" opposition even from the resolutely leftist il Manifesto: Roberta Carlini criticizes the opposition for not having spoken out against "what from the time of Adam Smith would be considered a crime against capitalism: namely an agreement to manipulate the market" and adds that the opposition should ask for an accounting of the origins and methods of the emerging financial powers in order to maintain the due distinctions between raiders and entrepreneurs (which are much more well defined than those between "red finance" and "white or masonic finance"); there was no need to wait for the district attornies to make their moves before breaking the opportunistic silence maintained for weaks by the leftist opposition. Once again, the most incisive and honest criticism of the left comes from a leftist source.

Since rightist, leftist and masonic conspiracies have all had there moment in this brief note, it is only fitting that the Jesuits too have a brief mention, even if only for tilting at internet windmills. The erstwhile PCI organ l'Unità reports on the debate arising from the article "Utopie e limiti di una forma di intelligenza collettiva", ("Utopias and the limits of a form of collective intelligence") which appeared in the most recent issue of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà cattolica. The author, Antonio Spadaro, is a professor of "Cultural Journalism and literature" at the Gregorian Pontifical University of Rome. The article deals (apparently in a balanced manner) with the recent internet phenomenon Wikipedia, a contemporary adaptation of the Encyclopedist ideal of Diderot, D'Alembert and other illuminists, and, according to l'Unità views with alarm the menace of a new tower of Babel, i.e., an encyclopedia deprived of the necessary chrism of authority. The article in Civiltà cattolica is quite probably worth reading, but I have not yet read it, so the opinions expressed here are decidedly "second hand".

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Shitting on Napoli

by Hannah K OLuthon Tue Aug 2nd, 2005 at 04:06:52 AM EST

A few days ago I mentioned some of the "perennial" stories which re-appear periodically in Italian news media. That list was by no means exhaustive, and today's news brings another recurrent meme to the fore. It's the one that I think of as the endemic "Shitting on Napoli" syndrome.

First, a bit of its aetiology. In addition to the matchless beauty of its justly celebrated bay, Naples also boasts a glorious intellectual, artistic and cultural history dating from its antique origins as a center of Magna Grecia, through the Roman era and into the Middle Ages. Around the dawn of the modern era Naples was perhaps the most populous city in Europe. It was also one of Europe's major entry ports, so much so that one can often trace the diffusion of diseases like the bubonic plague or new-world venereal diseases through Naples. The urbanized Neapolitan population developed an unparalleled ability to survive by their wits that was already legendary by the time of Boccaccio. This popular culture, well adapted to the era of aristocracy and exploitation, survived in parallel with the high culture of the elite, with which it interacted, for example in the field of music where the "canzone napolitano" enriched the world with many jewels. The point is that Naples had a long standing urban, indeed metropolitan, culture and tradition long before the emergence of the Italian state.

When Naples, and Southern Italy were incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy the city remained something of an anomaly: a metropolis for the less industrialized, less "progressive", and largely agricultural south of Italy, a place where country bumpkins met city sharpies. This legacy has remained, rightly or wrongly, impressed on the Italian national consciousness. In some respects it seems that Naples is to the rest of Italy, as Italy is to the rest of Europe, i.e. a zone where abstract ideals of governance collide with long standing traditions of familial solidarity and an ethic of personal advantage rather than civic duty.

Occasionally this constant underlying dialectical tension between competing visions of life, breaks into open view in the news media. It may be the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the Bay of Naples, a breakdown of basic law-and-order in some suburb of Napoli as the cammora runs rampant, a strike and protest march by the cigarette smuggler's union, or news of some Neapolitan gang's latest "invention" for stealing credit card numbers or faking a "Bancomat" deposit booth.

At this point, high dudgeon breaks out, and the national media collectively shit on Naples. Yesterday offered two examples of this recurring comedy: a large family from the Naples area was found to have all 20 members with certified 100% medical disability, although all of them were in perfect health. The financial advantages of such certification, while not enormous, are substantial, and, of course, the utter dysfunction of the certification process could not have happened without official complicity.

In another minor variation on the theme the owner of a small hotel near Naples was found guilty of having installed telecameras aimed at the beds in four of his guest rooms so that he could "enjoy" the amatorial activity of his guests. This latter "peccadillo" is perhaps too minor to be placed under the general rubric considered here, but it did provide journalistic filler and counterpoint to the medical care fraud.

Let me add a few points lest I be accused of either anti-Napoli racism or of apology for criminal activity. In my personal experience, the people of Naples have always seemed every bit as honest and hard-working as those of the rest of Italy, and indeed the dominance of Napolitan entrepreneurs throughout southern Italy is well documented. Nevertheless, the phenomenon that I have tried to bring into focus here very definitely does exist. It's archetype is readily viewed in virtually any film of the celebrated Neapolitan actor Totò. Moreover, when something like the medical fraud mentioned above is reported, voters and politicians of parties like the Lega Nord treat them as "further confirmation" for their racism.

Over the last 25 years Naples has had some of the most able and honest leaders in all of Italy (Maurizio Valenzi, Antonio Bassolino, Rosa Gervolino). Nevertheless, the periodic "it's time to shit on Naples" phenomenon continues, and not, alas, completely without reason.

In this diary I have undoubtedly (though unintentionally) offended some readers, and with equal certainty I have made questionable statements. As always, I welcome corrections and comments.

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The Consolations of Philosophy

by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Aug 1st, 2005 at 04:57:04 AM EST

The major story over the week-end in Italy was the arrest of Hamdi Issac, one of the "London 4" terrorists. There is some confusion about exactly what Issac has admitted to doing, so there is grist for all stripes of conspiracy theory mills. Meanwhile two of Issac's brothers, Fati and Remzi Issac, have also been arrested in Italy.

Meanwhile, Fazio-gate, i.e. the story of the alleged misdeeds of Antonio Fazio, director of the Bank of Italy continues to be the object of commentary and further news. For example, in Sunday's Repubblica besides the expected articles of Eugenio Scalfari and Giuseppe Turani there was also what (IMHO) can only be described as a hatchet-job executed at the expense of Fazio's imperious wife Cristina Rosati. The article concludes by observing that the well-known refuge that Fazio finds in the study the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas is equivalent to having the consolation of a lover. St. Thomas would undoubtedly be flattered by this comparison, but one doubts that either Antonio or Cristina share that sentiment.

A more serious aspect of the Fazio saga lies in the question of just who executed the telephone interceptions, and who leaked them to the newspapers. If it turns out to have been magistrates engaged in official investigation, this will give new ammunition to Prime Minister Berlusconi who is engaged in a long term war of attrition against the Italian courts. Moreover, the last thing the center-left opposition wishes to do now, is to cede to Berlusca the opportunity to nominate the next director of the Bank of Italy. This is all the more the case, in view of next springs parliamentary elections, for which Berlusca is already preparing by attempting to place a trusted pawn Alfredo Meocci as operating chief (Director General) of the RAI (the Italian public TV and radio service) while ceding the figurehead presidency to Claudio Petruccioli, a well-liked leftist war-horse closely linked to ex-head of the PCI, Achille Ochetto. Petruccioli is already in place, the selection of the Director General should take place later this week.

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Un Pasticcio all'italiana = Italian pastiche.

by Hannah K OLuthon Thu Jul 28th, 2005 at 05:25:09 AM EST

Today's title refers to both the hodgepodge nature of the stories cited, and the low-comedy of the "lead story".

The long running financial comedy "Restructuring the Italian Banking System" is being rewritten with space for new actors, and possible restaging as farce.

Over the last few days, the Italian financial group (piloted by Giampiero Fiorani, guiding light of the Banca Popolare Italiana) seeking to block ABN Amro's attempted take-over of the Banca Antonveneta has received what seems to be a definitive check-mate. Indeed, at yesterday's board meeting ABN Amro's soldiers captured the board of directors of the Banca Antonveneta, but not without considerable assistance from Italian magistrates who have found what seems to be illicit activity between Fiorani and the tutelary deity of Italian banking Antonio Fazio of the Banca d'Italia. Telephone calls between Fazio and Fiorani were intercepted by the authorities, and, who knows how, published in Il Giorno, a newspaper notoriously close to Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. The phone calls seem to reveal that Fazio conspired to overrule a report by Bank of Italia technicians favoring the ABN Amro bid and criticizing the questionable sources of the funding for the rival Fiorani Banca Popolare forces. There are even rather titilating reports of Fiorani's calls to Fazio's wife who would seem to be a notable "power behind the throne" at Banca Italia. Furthermore the fact that two of Fazio's children are (by pure coincidence,of course) beholden to Fiorani for their employment further tarnishes Fazio's reputation, and with it that of the Bank of Italy, long a bastion of financial rectitude in the wild west of Italian finance.

It seems that Fazio may well be forced to resign as director of the Banca d'Italia, a position which enjoys life tenure. Indeed, some reformers are calling for a change in the life tenure provision, while other non-centrist commentators are lamenting the the fall from grace even with respect to the much vituperated past epoch of Christian Democratic hegemony.

Other recent stories of interest include il Manifesto report on the clandestine activity of a German ship (the Alliance) operating off the coast Sardegna where it ran-aground on a reef causing some environmental damage. Ostensibly the Alliance is engaged in oceanographic research, but, allegedly, it is ``really" testing robot "kayaks" designed by the U.S. Office of Naval Research to carry and launch torpedoes, or perhaps also testing a new type of sonar. Naturally there are authoratative denials of any untoward activity. The interested reader can consult elbareport.it for on Il Manifesto further details.

Recent issued of il Manifesto have also contained interesting articles by Giuliana Sgrena, the reported liberated by N. Calipari and wounded in the same "check-point incident" in which Calipari was killed, in which she eulogizes Adnan al Bayati, an Iraqi who assisted her and other reporters in getting the news from Iraq out. Al Bayati was assassinated by three pistol shots fired by men without masks and in the presence of his wife and 18-month old daughter. Sgrena state that a number of Iraqi journalists have been "eliminated" in recent weeks, and, since Western journalists seldom dare to leave the Green Zone, the flow of reliable news from the rest of Iraq is being reduced to less than a trickle.

Il Manifesto also reports an angry siege of Bagram Air Base near Kabul by local Afghans after a series of searches conducted by American forces without permission from the governing Afghan authorities. Moreover, it seems that the Taleban and Mullah Omar are increasing their activity in opposing the American forces in Afghanistan.This story seems to have received little attention in the American press..

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Italian summer news: perennials and annuals

by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Jul 25th, 2005 at 04:08:29 AM EST

The big story in Italian papers this weekend was the terrorist bomb attack at Sharm al Sheik, a tourist site very much favored by Italians. The tourist facilities at Sharm were in large measure created by Italian entrepreneurs over the last 20 years, and the TV coverage of the aftermath (interviews with returning tourists, anti-terrorism protests by the Egyptians employed in Sharm al Sheik, condemnations by politicians "expert" opinions, etc.) has been extensive. By now (and most unfortunately) such reporting is sadly predictable.

Fortunately there are also other less gruesome stories, including several that come under the category of "the usual summer news perennials":

  • brush fires in the "macchia" of Sardegna, Sicily, and the Abruzzi
  • great numbers of vacationer automobiles massing at the autostrade toll plazas
  • the usual late July transit strikes before the "guaranteed" August period of good behavior
  • A statue of the Virgin Mary (la Madonna) that has reportedly "come to life" in the church of St. Peter in Acerra, near Naples
  • There are also a few news items of a less hackneyed type, for example the story of a sort of memorandum of reconciliation agreed to in the small town of Schio, near Vicenza, this weekend, and solemnized in a church ceremony. On July 7, 1945 a group of partisans massacred 54 fascist detainees (including 19 women). The perpetrators were condemned by an Allied military tribunal, but never brought to justice. This week-end the political heirs of both sides underwrote the common agreement of reconciliation. It's difficult for those of us who live in Italy today (even the native Italians born after the war) to realize just how bitter the division between red and black was immediately after WWII. It has taken 60 years of imperfect but substantial democracy to heal the wounds opened by "il ventennio" (the twenty years of fascism here), and especially the civil war which accompanied the end of WWII. Needless to say, the case of Schio is just one among many bitter memories of brutality perpetrated by both sides. The process of reconciliation is not yet complete, and probably will not be complete until all those who lived that period have passed from the scene.

    Finally il Manifesto featured an ironic op-ed on the impending takeover of the Banca Nazionale di Lavoro by a S. Ricucci's co-operative linked Unipol. The author Alessandro Robecchi poses a series of questions now on the agenda for the new management, for instance, will the tellers now refer to one another as "Comrade", and will dead-beat loans be referred to (still conjectural) Siberian branches of BNL to work out repayment terms.

    The summer silly season has not yet arrived, but its harbingers are clearly visible.

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    New Terrorism event in London 22 July Friday

    by Hannah K OLuthon Fri Jul 22nd, 2005 at 07:37:22 AM EST

    Promoted by Colman

    Reports from London indicate that an attempted suicide bombing has been prevented by the shooting of a perpetrator at Stockwell station on the Northern Line. The "Al Masri Brigades" have reportedly taken responsibility for yesterday's attacks via an Internet posting, and menaced Rome and Berlusconi with similar actions. This is too "hot off the wire" to be analyzed quietly.

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    Red Gnomes? Bank Restructuring in Italy.

    by Hannah K OLuthon Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 06:16:44 AM EST

    Yesterday's comments on the on-going restructuring of the Italian banking industry would have been greatly enriched by reference to material in il Manifesto, which underlined the notable, indeed exceptional, nature of the take-over bid of the Banca Nazionale di Lavoro by the Stefano Ricucci's Unipol group.

    As mentioned Unipol acted in concert with a group of real estate magnates headed by the Caltagirone group, but what is more remarkable is that the latter sold its shares in BNL directly to the Unipol team. The money for those shares came from "red" insurance companies, i.e. insurance companies with ties to the florid world of Italian cooperatives. This transfer from leftist cooperatives to center-rightist real estate magnates was allegedly celebrated at the close of the decisive meeting with the phrase "Better Bologna than Madrid", i.e. it's better that decisions be made in the (red) Italian city of Bologna than in Madrid (although, of course, an intimate embrace with the world of cooperatives is not standard behavior for laissez faire capitalists).

    Needless to say there is a good bit of doctrinaire dismay from the "orthodox" left for this huge payment (on the order of 1,000,000,000 Euro) to traditional adversaries, although Piero Fassino, leader of the major leftist party DS, is very much "on board".

    In Italy such leftist "shame" is decidedly retro, the cooperatives having long since adapted to free-market techniques and attitudes. Indeed, for an erstwhile Yank accustomed to the well-meaning but usually rather inept practices of American cooperatives as seen around university towns, the cooperatives of Italy's Red Belt are quite another cup of tea. I vividly recall a brief conversation with a representative of an Emilian co-op in the early 80's in which we discussed relations between the Italian cooperative and its Polish counterparts, then in serious difficulty for lack of "valuta". The agent's comment was, "You know when you are in the presence of someone who is drowning, the best thing you can do is give them a kick in the teeth", a sentiment which would certainly have found agreement in the heart of J.D. Rockefeller. Proletarian solidarity is by now not even a distant memory.

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    Italian gnomes

    by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Jul 18th, 2005 at 04:08:48 AM EST

    Italian banking continues to be the scene of restructuring and intricate financial maneuvers. La Repubblica features a story on the current attempt by a group led by the insurance company Unipol to take over the notorious Banca Nazionale di Lavoro (BNL). The latter achieved unhappy fame in the U.S. in the late 80's when its Atlanta branch played a role in the so-called Iraqgate scandal ($5 billion of loans to Iraq allegedly approved by the Atlanta branch without the knowledge of the top management in Italy). The Unipol group has international backing from such heavy-hitters as Deutsche Bank, Nomura, Credit Suisse First Boston, as well as from small local Italian banks and Dresdner Bank. Today's maneuver would involve 27.5% of the BNL shares controlled by a group of real estate magnates including Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone, member of a family long linked to Giulio Andreotti. Sole 24 Ore also reports on the Unipol bid which is an "Italian" response to a take-over attempt by the Banca di Bilbao.

    Meanwhile the Banca Antonveneta (Banca Antoniana Popolare Veneta) continues to be the bone of contention in two takeover bids, one by an Italian group centered around the Banca Popolare Italiana (formerly Banca di Lodi) and the other by the Dutch giant ABN Ambro. The legal maneuvering involved in disqualifying one or the other bid is quite complex, and seems likely to drag on for some months.

    Sole 24 Ore also reports on the big plans of the Banca Intesa to become one of the top 5 banks in the Euro zone over the next three years. Intesa chief operating officer Corrado Passera aims at achieving net profits of 3 billion (milliardi) euro in 2007( which would be an 50% increase with respect to the results of 2004. Banca Intesa is still digesting a number of recent acquisitions in Italy, but now feels ready to jump into a larger arena with acquistions in Turkey, Ukraine, and Rumania.

    Presumably such maneuvers and counter-tactics represent the more or less inevitable consequences of the new Europe-wide legal and financial framework provided by the European Community, as previous local and national entities are "globalized". Resistance by "the locals" is to be expected, and may even be well justified if the liquidation of privileged positions is not merely in favor of new privileges for bigger fish. Although the Banca d'Italia has provided Italy and Europe with a number of very competent "technicians" and administrators (e.g. Ciampi, Dini, Carli) there is a darker history associated with names like Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi (both murdered to avoid revelation of embarassing secrets).

    This is obviously an area of great interest, but decidedly outside of my competence, so comments are very definitely welcomed. It would be of interest to see examples of similar "growing pains" in other countries.

    Comments >> (3 comments)

    Pluses and Minuses

    by Hannah K OLuthon Sat Jul 16th, 2005 at 04:16:51 AM EST

    I would really like to write something insightful, but lack insights, so I will try to ask two small but, I hope, useful questions.

    I note that the various "featured diaries" have a "+" prefixed to their titles. When the "+" is clicked it turns into a "-" (minus), which then toggles back to a "+" if reclicked. Also "something" seems to happen after clicking, but I can't decipher what exactly is occurring. What do these plus and minuses mean, i.e. what are they used for?

    Is there any way to "gather up" a diary and the thread of comments into a single file "suitable for printing"? Jerome, Deanander, Soj, and other contributors frequently offer too much good content and attract too many useful comments for direct on-line absorbtion, and so it would be useful to be able to extract a diary and its thread. Admittedly, good browsers already permit this to a large degree and without much work, but the process is not as smooth as I would like.

    Illumination from the elves would be appreciated.

    Comments >> (5 comments)

    Sinking to new lows

    by Hannah K OLuthon Thu Jul 14th, 2005 at 03:42:10 AM EST

    Promoted by Colman: looks like all the authoritarians are going to use the London attack to push forward their pet plans, most of which would have no effect whatsoever on this sort of attack.

    The headlines in Italy today are, for the most part, quite depressing, and seem to magnify the personal sadness I feel this week for the passing of a close friend and colleague. As expected, the aftermath of the London bombs continues to dominate the news, and it would seem that terrorism has won:

    • France's decision to abrogate (temporarily, one hopes) the Schengen accords represents a real blow, and features prominently at the Web sites of la Repubblica, il Manifesto, Corriere della sera and l'Unità
    • Corriere carries a report of the proposal of Britain's Minister of the Interior Charles Clark for archiving of the time, origin, and recipient of all phone calls and e-mail for a period of one year rather than the present 3 months, as well as the proposal for the introduction of an official identity card in Britain
    • The l'Unità, website also headlines searches and security checks throughout Italy in response to the threat of a terrorist strike against Rome.
    All in all, a picture of European governments very visibly "taking steps" to combat (at least ostensibly) terrorism. Citizens of the EU will have to live within this new, less liberal framework for the foreseeable future.

    Read more... (7 comments, 474 words in story)

    Richard Chichakli's Web site

    by Hannah K OLuthon Sat Jul 9th, 2005 at 05:00:22 AM EST

    Richard Chichakli's new web site merits a visit from all those interested in the continuing Viktor Bout saga. Chichakli claims to be an innocent victim of vicious bloggers, so his site is of undoubted interest for getting his side of the story. It's very existence is significant. Whether it represents the honest attempt of a wrongly accused victim to obtain justice, or something else must be left for the surfer to decide. (Cross posted from MOA).

    More skeletons emerge from the closet

    by Hannah K OLuthon Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 01:54:00 AM EST

    The expected stories on the G8 summit, the choice of London to host the Olympics, the Lega Nord razzing of Ciampi at the European parliament, and Alberto of Monaco's recognition of his illegitimate child all received play in Italian papers over the last two days.

    A more interesting story was an interview of former Christian Democrat bigwig Giovanni Galloni by Massimo Solani appearing in yesterday's issue of 'l'Unità. The interview deals with the kidnapping and murder of former Italian prime minister and Christian Democratic party leader Aldo Moro in 1978, a case that rocked Europe at the time for it's audacity. In it Galloni states:

    I can't forget a discussion I had with Moro a few weeks before his kidnapping. We were talking about the BR [Red Brigades] and the difficulty in finding their hideouts, and he said to me: "This is what I'm worried about: I have sure information that both the American and Israeli secret services have infiltrated the BR. However, we haven't been advised of this fact, because if we had been informed we would probably have found the hideouts."
    This is old news for conspiracy theorists, but confirmation of this widely held leftist belief by such a well-placed and "moderate" source is certainly worthy of attention. Galloni was often referred to as "the brightest head in the Christian Democratic party", partly for his acuity, but also for his shining bald pate. This "revelation" continues the series of anti CIA leaks that have been trickling from informed sources in Italy since the Calipari-Sgrena ambush.

    If this continues we may even get information about the Ustica plane crash, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that one or several other long standing cover-ups involving various allied secret services.

    Comments >> (5 comments)

    Italian Headlines and a second Italian rendition

    by Hannah K OLuthon Tue Jul 5th, 2005 at 04:51:19 AM EST

    The G8 summit, the Spanish legalization of gay marriage, the selection of the site for the 2012 Olympics, and the Deep Impact space probe all receive major play in Italian papers today. The usual local political stories are also present, with the "peace treaty" between the two major groups in the center-left opposition receiving headlines. In interviews after the forging of the accord Francesco Rutelli was his usual smilingly unctuous self, while Romano Prodi seemed, at best, to have a slight case of indigestion as he spoke of the electoral prospects of his coalition. The Berlusconi government's efforts to balance the budget without raising the VAT also received wide coverage, with l'Unità predictably giving good coverage to threatened strikes if the VAT should be raised.

    Although the Abu Omar-CIA kidnapping case seems to be gradually fading away from the Italian press, l'Unità noted recently that the Italian secret services officially reported the kidnapping just a few days after it took place on Feb. 17, 2003. Internal government messages from the Sisde e Sismi (Italian intelligence agencies) document such knowledge. Indeed, one such message also speaks of a second kidnapping, that of Mohamed Morgan, a friend of Abu Omar, and "an important link between the structure of the Hizb al Tahir organization in Egypt and its militants in Europe". Abu Omar was mentioned in reports written on Feb. 10 and Feb. 11, 2003, and was the subject of a not specified collaboration between British and Italian intelligence services. Apparently the Sismi communicated as early as Feb. 21 that Abu Omar had disappeared, and on March 10 the fact that he had been abducted by the Americans and "rendered" to Egypt was placed on record. On September 9 another intelligence service document reported that the CIA had prevailed upon the Albanian intelligence service to search the Tirana home of Abu Omar's first wife, Marsela Glina. It seems that the Milan district attorney first received news of CIA involvement from Imam Abu Imad who accompanied the eye-witness Rezk Merfat to the offices of the Milan district attorney. Abu Imad claimed to have received a phone call from another religious figure in Austria informing him of the kidnapping and "rendition" to Egypt. It would appear that American intelligence intentionally misinformed the Italian services by indicating that Abu Omar had moved to Bosnia.

    Naturally all of this information from Italian intelligence sources is somewhat self-serving and open to question.

    What is remarkable, I think, is the detail and persistence of such leaks.

    Standard disclaimer: What appears above is the result of a cursory skimming of the on-line versions of some leading Italian newspapers. Better informed comments and corrections are welcome.

    The plot thickens

    by Hannah K OLuthon Mon Jul 4th, 2005 at 07:11:09 AM EST

    After a week away from Italy, it's interesting to see how the CIA-kidnapping case has developed. The situation seems to be getting murkier than ever, and we seem well on the way to passing from classical Italian intrigues to truly Byzantine duplicity. Recent "U.S. leaks" contend that Abu Omar had cooperated with the U.S. during the war in Bosnia, and that the kidnapping may have been nothing more than an attempt to "restore" the old collaboration. Certainly such "news" casts the victim in a new, less heroic light. I have no way of deciding an appropriate "credibility coefficient" for this story. With 1.0 representing logical certainty, and 0.0 being falsity as in a logical contradiction, this story seems to be around 0.4. It seems more like disinformation than information, and even if "true" it might not capture the full ambiguity of the earlier collaboration.

    But there are other even more obscure (and strangely amusing) side stories. Wayne Masden (credibility quotient .3 or less) quotes "Italian sources" who suggest a connection between the arrest on Saturday of two neo-fascists Gaetano Saya and Riccardo Sindoca with the Italian side of the Abu Omar kidnapping, suggesting that the Italian SISMI agent Nicola Calipari, killed by American troops in Iraq shortly after he negotiated the liberation of Manifesto journalist Giuliana Sgrena, was eliminated because he had discovered a "third level" of terrorist control in "an antiterrorism country" (presumably either the U.S. or Israel). What is interesting in Masden's questionable suggestion is the link he supplies to the neo-fascist website. It's interesting to browse this site to get a first hand experience of what the phrase "useful idiot" was invented for.

    Corriere della Sera gives Giulio Andreotti's interesting take on Gaetano Saya, as well as a few cryptically fascinating further remarks.

    Meanwhile in la Repubblica one reads ex-CIA analyst Mike Scheuer's views on the story: he sustains that it is inconceivable that the Italian authorities were not well aware of the operation, authorized, he says, at the level of Condi Rice and Steve Hadley (and quite possibly by Bush himself). This assertion has been immediately denied by a spokesman for the Italian government. Finally, in this same vein, it's interesting to note that the arrest warrants for the CIA agents were released also by reason of obstruction of justice charges illustrated by the various denials and smokescreens employed from its inception to the present. Of course, there's a lot more news than this, but for now I'm still out of contact with what's happening here.

    Comments >> (2 comments)

    Recurring stories and hobbyhorses and a LATE BREAKING BOMBSHELL

    by Hannah K OLuthon Fri Jun 24th, 2005 at 12:03:17 AM EST


    Summer is at hand, and with it certain seasonal aspects reappear. We aren't yet in the full-blooming August silly season, but a feeling of dèja vu is already in the air.

    For example, Corriere della Sera has an article on the arrival of 400 clandestine immigrants from North Africa. The reception center on Italy's southernmost island Lampedusa, designed for 150 persons, currently hosts 900 illegal immigrants. This story recurs almost daily in the summer months, and chronicles the suffering, and hopes of a contemporary exodus. Only the occasional tragedy of a nautical incident or shipwreck elevates to a position "above the fold", and I suspect the same holds throughout the EC.

    The discontent of Italy's small retailers is another oft-told tale, today narrated by Sergio Billè, president of the Small Retailers Trade Association (Confcommercio) who claims "We have put our hands into the fire, now it's up to Berlusconi to do so." Only the snide would ask if that fire was fueled by "hot money". But no viewing of alarm can lack its mirror image "pointing with pride", and Economics Minister Domenico Siniscalco gave tit for tat yesterday when he called for "lower taxes [as expected] and less underground economy" (il sommerso), and even went so far as to note that "by now the statistical data no longer capture the reality of the wealth being produced", a not so veiled barb at tax evasion, one of Italy's national sports.

    The yearly story of the Maturity Exams is punctuated (again) by rumors of the leaking of the exams via internet and cell phones. Only the technology seems to change in the yearly big-match between carabinieri-profs and wily students.

    La Repubblica has an article discussing the (to me) murky fianancial maneuvering between the rival Berlusconi and Fiat factions. Berlusca defends Stefano Ricucci, a Roman real-estate magnate who has been buying up stock in the RCS media combine, while Fiat's man Luca Cordero di Montezemolo criticizes the operation, and speaks of the necessity for a "clarification" of what's happening in this projected takeover which seems to pit Berlusconi allies against the Fiat alliance. Relations between the two empires have long been strained, and Montezemolo's ironizing on the difference between "someone who builds a business, and someone who trades in real-estate", must certainly smacks of the cold pleasure of vendetta.

    Elsewhere, il Manifesto offers this decidedly negative view of Blair's presidency of the EU, and Corriere features a retrospective on the Beatles first tour of Italy 40 years ago, which the RAI failed to televise on the grounds that "in 6 months they'll be forgotten".

    So much for recurring stories. As to hobbyhorses, I note from Corriere the story relating how Google maps hide the White House for security reasons, but don't do the same for analogous Italian treasures. This possibility of censorship of Google (or use of Google related Trojans to trace user inquiries on "sensitive" matters) piques me to mount my hobbyhorse and to ride off to spread the alarm about the need for an EC-sponsored search engine to compete with Google, or better yet, several such competitors.

    The opportunities for improved democractic diffusion of information is illustrated by this praise of wiki and Kos published in Corriere.

    Finally, in late-breaking and potentially explosive news the district attorney of Milan has just issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA agents involved in the kidnapping of Abu Omar, an alleged terrorist suspect who was kidnapped in Milan, then transferred ("rendered") to Egypt for interrogation (and torture). Among those under investigation are 3 women. The suspects movements were traced via cell phone records. Apparently the American hit squad celebrated afterwards at a Venice Hotel.

    Comments >> (3 comments)

    Berlusca's Foot-in-mouth disease

    by Hannah K OLuthon Thu Jun 23rd, 2005 at 02:45:36 AM EST

    No one will deny that Silvio Berlusconi does his best to bring movement to the summer news doldrums, even if it means displaying his advanced case of foot-in-mouth disease.

    Yesterday Italy's laugh-a-minute prime minister managed to set off a (small) diplomatic incident with Finland. This improbable triumph of anti-diplomacy was achieved as a result of Berlusca's remarks that during the negotiations for the siting of the European Food Agency he had to "dust off all his arts as a playboy" to convince Finland's prime minister Tarja Halonen to cede the choice to Parma rather than her native Helsinki. For some reason, this remark was not well received by the Finnish government. Perhaps the Finns lack a sense of humor?

    This gaffe was small beer compared to the last year's incident in the European parliament when B. offered the German Social Democrat Schulz a role in in a re-make of "Hogan's Heroes" in the role of concentration camp guard. It was more on the order of the time he called himself "the Lord's anointed one". By the end of the day the diplomats had succeeded in recomposing normal relations (diplomatic, of course) between Italy and Finland.

    Meanwhile, a straw poll in La Repubblica, gives Romano Prodi a wide lead in the upcoming primary. Prodi scored 66%, Bertinotti 19%, and both Di Pietro and Pecoraro Scanio received 3%. It should be noted that readers of La Repubblica would be expected to gravitate toward Prodi.

    Comments >> (2 comments)


    by Hannah K OLuthon Wed Jun 22nd, 2005 at 03:09:38 AM EST

    The "Maturity exams" are principal national-local story from Italy today. These are nationwide examinations taken by all those about to graduate from high school, and represent a major rite of passage for Italian students. They more resemble the NY State Regents exams than the U.S. College boards. They are still a formidable psychological hurdle, but have been "watered down" over the last 15-20 years, so that the failure rate is very low.

    A second lead story from the La Repubblica reports of almost 4% in Italian retail sales in April with respect to a year earlier. This confirms the "soft patch" through which the Italian economy is passing (at least we hope it's passing). Merchants express surprise, but the notion of lowering prices seems to have escaped them, especially at the fruit and vegetable markets characteristic of Italy where prices have seemed high ever since the change from the Lira to the Euro was used to surreptitiously double prices.

    The Northern League (Lega Nord) is promising to raise hell now that there meeting in Pontida is over. If they act on that promise, it could lead to a crisis in the Center Right coalition, but in all likelihood they will merely try to exact another pound of flesh from that carcass.

    I will be away (in Paris for an academic meeting) from June 25--July 1, so my postings here will very likely cease for that period. I hope that others will pick up the slack so that Italian news remains an item on the menu.

    Comments >> (5 comments)
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