Milan Fashion Week, known for its hysteria and bold after parties, is over. The last birds of paradise have flown to the next runway. In a classicist building in the midst of "Quadrilatero della moda" an ancient elevator lift creeps up to the third floor. "Bienvenuto," the landlord greets me and leads me to the salon.
Sergio Romano's apartment, stuffed with copperplate engravings, noble showcases, and expansive bookshelves, reflects a bygone era. High above the fashion world and ever changing trends resides the doyen of Italian politics — a living witness to Benito Mussolini’s reign, the era of the Brigate Rosse, and the Cold War.
Now in his ninth decade, Romano has played many roles in his life. The 93-year-old historian is a revered veteran of Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, where he answered readers’ questions, every day, for years. He was Rome’s representative to NATO and served as ambassador to Moscow during the Soviet era. The journalist diplomat is intimately familiar with Russia’s national character.
His wife, tucked into woolen blankets, watches with a smile while her husband holds forth on the recent Italian elections and ever churning global politics.
Weltwoche: A coalition of three right-wing parties has won the Italian elections. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, is likely to become the first woman to lead Italy as prime minister. What is your first thought about this remarkable outcome?
Sergio Romano: One possible explanation for the victory of Giorgia Meloni, and I am not entirely sure that it is the right one, is a recurrent nostalgia of fascism, that is somewhat hidden in the Italian conscience. It's very extraordinary that the country has not entirely overcome that experience. Two, three generations have gone by since Mussolini died in April of 1945. But there is a part of Italian society that, every time when they become disappointed with the current government, they think that fascism would have done it better.
Weltwoche: What is this hidden fascination with fascism that you talk about?
Romano: In a sense, this is something for psychologists and philosophers, rather than for a political observer, to explain. I have worked on fascism for a number of years, and there is no doubt that Mussolini was definitely popular and the philosophy of that particular ideology. This is not exclusively Italian. Fascism survives also elsewhere, in the form of nostalgia, in other countries or communities. But in was in Italy that they created this phenomenon. In fact, the birth of fascism was here, in Milan. In a sense, it amuses me because I am not finding it serious. I do hope this is not serious.
Weltwoche: Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, has taken great efforts to convince the people that she has no fiber of fascism in her. Do you see anything fascist in her statements, in her behavior, or in her deeds?
Romano: No, not really. First of all, it's very difficult to describe a fascist. Fascists had many faces. Some of the roots of fascists were very much socialist. There was a great deal of socialism in the history of Mussolini. After all, fascists have always used what was useful at the time.
Weltwoche: Italy has had a record number of 69 governments after the Second World War. Each government has lasted, on average, just over a year. Why has Italy had such unstable governments?
Romano: We've all asked ourselves the question! I am tempted to go back to the nostalgia of fascism to explain this. Don't forget that, before fascism, parliamentary elections in Italy produced a frequent number of crisis. Fascism built on that, on the fact that parliamentary democracy did not produce very stable governments that could have a long view.
Weltwoche: Some in the international press claim that Meloni’s victory “marks the popular rejection of those leaders favoured by the Brussels establishment.” Do you expect a confrontation between Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, and Brussels?
Romano: Meloni is not stupid. She has a wisdom of her own. I think that she will not go down as somebody who created an impossible relationship with the European community. In Italy, there may be a nostalgia of the fascism that I mentioned, but this is a country that believes in the European Union.
Weltwoche: Days before the Italian elections, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned, “If things go in a difficult direction… we have the tools.”
Romano: We can do to you what we are doing to [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban. That is what she meant.
Weltwoche: It was a blatant hint of the European Commission's ability to cut funds to member countries if it deems they violate the rule of law. What do you think of this statement that Italian politicians called “interference” in the elections?
Romano: I don't think it was wise, quite frankly, because being worried by the possibility of some new kind of fascism within the European community that I can understand. But in all countries there is some kind of nationalism that becomes more important than anything else and, if you are not careful, makes mistakes. That was not wise.
Weltwoche: Substantial numbers of Europeans are appalled by such rhetoric. They feel they are governed by some centralist power in Brussels. Do you understand this?
Romano: This is very true, and it happens frequently. But when it comes to the core of Italian society, this is a country that believes in the European Union, has proved that over the years there is a very vocal minority that is chauvinistic, nationalistic, and that sort of thing. As I look around, the Italian middle class and also the left think that Europe is important for us and that we cannot turn our back on Europe.
Weltwoche: According national polls, the majority of Italians is opposed to arming Ukraine. Why is this? Is it because they don't want to be involved in the war? Are they afraid of gas shortages? Or because they are skeptical about the Ukrainian government?
Romano: Can we trust Ukraine?
Weltwoche: You tell me.
Romano: I've lived in Russia, and I like Russians. Ukrainians had never been very serious.
Weltwoche: Would you say they're not trustworthy?
Romano: If I adopted a Russian point of view, I would say no, you cannot trust them. [chuckles] But I don't feel that I have the right to say so because I'm not involved, after all.
Weltwoche: Since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine on February 24th, almost everybody in Europe has expressed support for Ukraine. The Ukrainian flag is waving from public buildings and private balconies across Europe. Can you explain this tremendous wave of support?
Romano: Because they don't like the Russians.
Weltwoche: That's the main reason and not solidarity with Ukraine?
Romano: Russia has not won the sympathy, the understanding, the admiration that she would love to have because Russia still creates suspicion.
Romano: Because it has always been considered a potential enemy.
Weltwoche: Do you think that's justified?
Romano: No. I don't think it is justified at all, but that is what I notice.
Weltwoche: What about the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet sphere of influence, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary? Or the Baltic states that were embodied in the Soviet Empire? Can you understand that they are fiercely skeptical of Russia?
Romano: Yes, they have definitely been their satellites for a long period. They experienced the consequences of a Russian empire. Russia was an empire with bits and pieces of high intelligence and lots of barbarian elements. Consequently, they want to have a good relationship with the Americans. They consider the US their protector. And, in a sense — I'm sorry, this is malignant — they have an interest in having an enemy. That way, they hope the US will remain their ally.
Weltwoche: In your diplomatic career, you were first Italy's permanent representative to NATO, and then you were ambassador to Moscow during the Soviet era. When the Soviet empire collapsed, NATO enlarged to the east in several steps. Do you think this was a mistake?
Romano: Yes. I think so, very much.
Weltwoche: What should have happened with states such as Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary, that desperately asked NATO for admission? Should their requests have been turned down?
Romano: They should not have been accepted into NATO. Putting them into NATO equals Russia continues being our enemy.
Weltwoche: Do you think NATO should have been dissolved, as well, after the Cold War?
Romano: It was my idea.
Weltwoche: What should have happened to those states that were former Soviet satellites, such as Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, et cetera? What should they be like? Block-free states or buffer states? What do you think?
Romano: Personally, I thought that the European Union growing, becoming stronger and more united would be a model for those countries. That the European Union — not immediately, not too fast — would be a home for those countries because it was our responsibility and in our interest.
Weltwoche: Relations between NATO and Ukraine date back to the early 1990s when Kiev joined the NATO Cooperation Council. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, ties mutually intensified. Bearing in mind that Putin and many Russians see Kiev as a cradle of the Russian people and regard Ukraine as their sphere of influence, do you think it was a mistake to move Ukraine into the orbit of NATO?
Romano: I think it was a mistake, yes. I, for example, was not surprised at all by the rise of Russian nationalism. I was personally convinced that, sooner or later, it would become visible and touchable, so to speak. I am not too surprised that men like Putin try to build his own political career on that, because the country has been, for too long a time, an empire, and to lose everything would not go down well with a larger section of the society. That was my fear.
Weltwoche: The war in Ukraine is not going as Putin has planned. His declared goals were to neutralize the Ukrainian army and to decapitate the government, which he called a Nazi government. He has failed. Instead, Russian troops are bogged down in eastern Ukraine. Now, Putin has declared a partial mobilization; he wants to send an additional 300,000 troops to the battlefield. Do you think this will make him less popular among Russians and will help the opposition grow?
Romano: There is a possibility, but I don't know.
Weltwoche: Do you still have contact with Russians?
Weltwoche: What do they tell you?
Romano: Many of the Russians I know do not like Putin. They see him as vulgar. But they don't like speaking. If you try to have a conversation, they try to speak about something else.
Weltwoche: There is a lot of talk about nuclear danger. Putin is warning that, as a mean of self defense, he might use weapons of mass destruction. Do you believe he would order a nuclear attack?
Romano: Let me tell you one thing: For a long time, I thought that the use of a nuclear weapon would be very, very unlikely because, if you use it, you may trigger an uncontrollable chain of unforeseen events. Now, I'm surprised because there are people who really think that you may have to use it.
Weltwoche: Who are those people?
Romano: Let me try to explain myself better: Putin is probably very mad.
Weltwoche: What makes you think so?
Romano: He is very mad because he is failing. The great Russia that he wanted to create has not been created and is not likely to be created. He's a very, very selfish and ambitious human being and, consequently, he is very angry. When somebody's angry, he doesn't behave rationally very often. Quite frankly, I'm more afraid now, when it comes to the use of the nuclear weapons, than I was three or four years ago.
Weltwoche: What can be done to end this war?
Romano: Well, first of all, the man who doesn't want peace is Putin.
Weltwoche: He doesn't want peace? Why?
Romano: It can only be done immediately if you make concessions, if you give up the idea of a larger Russia with Ukraine as a cousin. He hasn't given that up. The idea is still in his mind. He will never sit at the table where the solution is concessions. You cannot expect that from Putin, I'm afraid.
Weltwoche: That means the war will go on?
Romano: It means that if there was a moment (in history) when the use of a nuclear weapons was possible, it's now.
Weltwoche: What can he gain from the use of a nuclear weapon? If he uses it in Ukraine, his holy Russian soil, as he claims Ukraine to be, will be destroyed for a long time.
Romano: Yes. Your question is correct. My answer would be a rational one, but we are not talking about a rational person. A man who was convinced that he would remake a Russian empire isn't a man who makes concessions.
Weltwoche: Is there somebody who has access to Putin who could build a bridge for a peaceful settlement?
Romano: I don't know. There should be someone, but I don't know one.
Weltwoche: There are a number of nations that have not established sanctions against Putin. But the patience among them seems waning. At the summit of the Shanghai Corporation Organization, recently, Indian Prime Minister Modi told Putin, "Today's era is not an era of war.” Likewise, in China, the frustration about the disruption in world economy seems to grow. Could Beijing be instrumental in finding a peaceful solution?
Romano: China is becoming more and more important. They can be very wise and very useful, but nobody is listening to them. The problem is Putin thinks only about himself. He has a dream to recreate an Imperial Russia. He doesn't want to give up, to renounce that dream, because it's his life and personality that is at stake. I cannot imagine a rational Putin.
Weltwoche: There are heavy sanctions in place, young Russians are sent into a fight against their brotherly neighbor. Do you think there is a point where the people will say, “Enough of Putin”?
Romano: Yes. Absolutely. That is what I'm hoping.
Weltwoche: Who could rise against him?
Romano: If in Russia there was a counter to Putin, we would know him. Have you seen any counter to Putin?
Romano: That's it. I don't see anything growing that could really stop Putin.
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