ROME — BY putting out an international arrest warrant for former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Italy's magistrates highlighted a bitter tug-of-war over judicial power in this country.
The arrest warrant, issued last week by the judges of the Milan Clean Hands anticorruption pool, is connected to kickbacks allegedly paid in the process of building of Milan's subway.
''I've asked my lawyers to oppose this completely unjustified action,'' the former prime minister said from his home -in-exile in Tunisia. Tunisia is not expected to turn him over to Italy.
The Clean Hands investigating magistrates, who began their work in 1992, say that Mr. Craxi, one of Italy's best-known politicians, was the architect of a kickback system that brought him and his Socialist Party hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal financing during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Italians at first were overjoyed at the forced exit of their old political class, including Craxi and former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who is to be tried on Mafia charges in September.
But now the Italian people have turned their backs on the anticorruption judges. With barely a protest from the populace, a series of charges and investigations has been launched against the Milan judges, especially ex-magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, who was a hero for his dogged morning-to-night efforts to root out corruption.
The actions appear aimed at curtailing the powers of the courts, which had become the chief protagonist in Italian life as Clean Hands demolished the careers of one politician after another.
Many Italians now seem to agree with the disgruntled politicians who say the judges were trying to become a government themselves and were taking too much power into their hands.
''The Italians didn't at first understand the scale of the judicial revolution,'' says Giorgio Bocca, one of Italy's best-known political commentators.
Mr. Bocca argues that ''everyone steals in Italy,'' and that as the Clean Hands probe went on, a tension emerged with great clarity. On the one hand, Italians recognized that their government was inefficient and corrupt. On the other hand, they didn't want change if it touched their own lives, as it almost certainly would.
So in the end, Bocca says, the average Italian took a look at the judges and said: ''These [judges] here, sooner or later, will reach me; it's better to return to normality.''
A recent book by the Rome-based Eurispes think tank details the scale of illegality in Italy: the people who regularly don't report to work, who claim pensions they are not entitled to, who ride buses without a ticket or who take have a drink at a snack bar and don't pay, who work in the off-the-books economy, who evade taxes, who build houses without legal permission, who receive jobs not through merit but through a politician who ''requests'' employment for them, and so on for 80 chapters.
The problem, Italians say, is that Italy's central government is weak - partly by design, following the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. And after a history of centuries of foreign domination, most Italians see the state as an enemy to their freedom of action. Its laws can therefore be cheerfully ignored whenever one can get away with it.
Because there is no Italian tradition of the rule of law or governmental checks and balances, controls that exist in other countries - such as an investigative press or vigorous law enforcement - are weak or nonexistent here.
The attempts to discredit the judges disturb Bocca. ''The people should be out in the streets, they should be rising up,'' he says.
In fact, the hope that Clean Hands would create a more honest, ethical society in Italy has faded.
Such a transformation, say reform-minded Italians, can only be made by a strong executive who will legislate real change.
But the new political class, which is closely linked to the one that preceded it, has so far only talked about shaking up the existing order. Young Italians especially feel a sense of frustration when faced by the corruption and inefficiency of their society.
''Life's disgusting here, and there's nothing we can do about it,'' says Silvia Corbelini, a law student in Rome. ''All the people of my age that I know want to leave Italy.''
Bocca, who fought in the resistance against fascism, expresses similar frustration. Only the bankruptcy of Italy, in which everyone would lose money, would bring real change, he says.
''There's never been such an ugly period,'' he concludes.