THE new investigations and probes facing Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi make the Whitewater hearings in Washington this week look like a Boy Scout picnic. The arrest warrant for Mr. Berlusconi's brother Paolo for taking bribes of some $200,000, and the arrest last week of the senior tax manager of Berlusconi's corporation, Fininvest, are the latest in a series of ethical and possibly criminal violations closely linked to the new prime minister. Many Italian voters who swept the charismatic Berlusconi into office this spring are also disillusioned by his efforts to take over all major Italian media and control their editorial focus, and by efforts to make political appointments to the Bank of Italy, a dubious ethical move.
Italy is a major world democracy, a member of the Group of Seven nations. Its chief executive must be accountable for his record as well as for charges of conflict of interest. Nor can Italians, or the governments of other democracies, look away if indeed Berlusconi is pushing through laws that protect his business associates or that further his private interests.
Being the leader of a democracy is different from being the owner and chief executive officer of Italy's second largest business, and involves a different set of concerns. Berlusconi must recognize this. Especially since the March 27 elections that brought him to power were pushed forward by revelations about scandal and corruption in the Socialist government, it is important for Italy's social and civic health that the new prime minister change course in several areas.
First, Berlusconi must cooperate with investigators in Milan looking into misconduct, rather than pillory them on his TV channels.
Second, efforts to close down RAI, Italian state TV, must be reversed. This month the entire RAI board resigned after a Berlusconi political appointee began attempting to remove their independence.
Third, Berlusconi's decree to release 2,000 political and business leaders from prison this month was hasty, and needs rethinking. Yes, prison crowding is an issue. But playing down corruption is wrong.
Fourth, the Italian parliament must devote time to a proposal by the Northern League to create modern antitrust laws that spell out ethical behavior of public officials, and keep public and private interests separate.
Finally, a general push for greater ethical and civic education ought to be introduced in Italian schools. Democratic rules and behavior must be learned. This is now missing. The Italian Businessman's Association is rightly interested in developing this curriculum.