The strange case of Mario Scaramella

About the author

At the end of Nanni Moretti's film, Il Caimano (The Cayman), supporters of Silvio Berlusconi stone the magistrates and set fire to the courthouse which has just tried him for corruption. The film, which keeps close to the real events surrounding Berlusconi's time in office, suggests what many people knew long ago; that Italy's ex-prime minister has always viewed himself above the law, and that he has an obsessive fear of "red judges", communists and coglioni (dickheads) intent on bringing him down.

This strategy was most apparent during and after the election campaign in April 2006 when, after a sustained attempt to characterise his centre-left rival Romano Prodi as a stooge of the communist left with his own dodgy business links, he refused to accept the decision of the electorate. Indeed he threatened to make Italy ungovernable and to use every parliamentary loophole available to bring the government down.

On this occasion he has been true to his word. A demonstration in Rome on 2 December 2006 (dubbed by the media "Berlusconi day") saw up to a million demonstrate against the government's new budget and ended with a call from Berlusconi for a recount of the 9-10 April election. Not for the first time his demand was accommodated by a weak and uncertain political class (there had also been rival claims from two leftwing journalists of cheating in the ballot by Berlusconi's Forza Italia); the senate has now ordered a recount of a selection of the ballots of an election held eight months ago, though most doubt it will find anything substantial.

The strategy of fear that Berlusconi has sustained since the election fits perfectly his populist mode of governing which appeals directly to the people through emotive language, scaremongering and constant claims that powerful interests are conspiring against him.

Also in openDemocracy on the case of Alexander Litvinenko:

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

A secret conversation

It is only in this context that we can understand the strange case of Mario Scaramella, the self-styled security expert who was with Alexander Litvinenko in the sushi bar in Wardour Street, Piccadilly on that fateful 1 November meeting. We don't know whether Silvio Berlusconi offered Scaramella a job at the United Nations if he found evidence to link Romano Prodi to the KGB as Scaramella has claimed (Berlusconi denies ever having met him).

However we do know that what started out as a case of "dirty tricks" in the KGB has become an issue of "dirty tricks" in Italian politics, reflecting the fear, rancour and culture of illegality that has characterised the Berlusconi years. Indeed, as is now becoming clear, Mario Scaramella shares the same obsessions, attracts the same interest from the magistrates and has a similar murky and mysterious background as that of the former Italian premier.

Scaramella was employed as a security consultant by the Mitrokhin commission set up by Berlusconi in 2002 and disbanded earlier in 2006. This commission, named after the former major of the KGB (Vasili Mitrokhin) who defected to the west from post-Soviet Russia in 1992 with an archive of KGB dealings and contacts, was supposedly set up to investigate links between the KGB and Italian politicians during the cold war. Italy had been in the period the home of western Europe's largest communist party, though it was also increasingly the one most critical of Moscow (and from the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer, openly critical of Soviet policy).

Scaramella's own background is as mysterious as everything else in the Litvinenko case. A man from Naples in his mid-30s, he describes himself as an academic though, as yet, none of the universities to which he claims alignment has confirmed he is, or has been, on their books. He runs his own environmental-crime protection unit, though he himself has been under investigation for smuggling weapons between Italy and Russia, for breaching security rules, for being involved in a waste-disposal scam in Naples and in unsolved cases of stolen uranium. He has even been involved in a shoot-out with members of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia.

Critics suggest that the real purpose of the Mitrokhin commission was to discredit the left and Romano Prodi's leadership. In a telephone conversation between Scaramella and Paolo Guzzanti, the commission's president, on 28 January 2006 (intercepted by Corriere della Sera), Scaramella is overhead telling Guzzanti that Romani Prodi was "cultivated by the KGB", citing the ex-KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky as his source. Guzzanti responds: "In that case he is our man?" "Yes" is Scaramella's reply. "That's enough. I don't want to know anything else", Guzzanti replies.

These accusations have led the Italian prime minister to respond with legal action. The claims of a politically motivated plot against him look stronger when the role of Scaramella is examined further. In another telephone conversation with a Californian named "Perry" three days earlier on 25 January, an excited Scaramella has some news for his American friend.

He repeats the "evidence" supplied by Gordievsky, only this time Prodi is described as a former "agent of the KGB". He also elaborates on Prodi's supposed role in the KGB, citing a former US intelligence officer Lou Palumbo, who allegedly told him that Prodi was attached to two different KGB departments, the fifth department and Service A (which was responsible for "active measures"). He also tells Perry that he has informed Berlusconi of his findings and that Berlusconi was "organising his [election] campaign on this".

Scaramella then recounts his conversation with Berlusconi, in which he asked the then Italian premier for a job, preferably at Nato or the United Nations. He claims that he was first offered a place in parliament, which he declined because he feared a robust campaign against him after he had made his claims against Prodi public, and that he "preferred a post outside Italy in an international organisation".


Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), and an associate editor of Soundings

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi’s – and Berlusconi’s – last shout? " (August 2003)

"Bologna’s lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy’s election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi’s bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

"Sicily’s other story" (May 2006)

"The Azzurri’s message to Italy" (July 2006)

"The slow revolution" (October 2006)

The past's shadow

The president of the Mitrokhin commission, Paolo Guzzanti, is a Forza Italia senator and as a journalist has long held a senior position at Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, which has been running the KGB-Italian left story for months. (He is also the father of Sabina Guzzanti, a prominent leftwing comedian whose satirical programme Raiot was removed from the airwaves after protests from the Berlusconi government). In recent days Paolo Guzzanti has defended the role of the commission, denying it had an ulterior political motive and that it was a serious attempt to understand the KGB's links with Italy.

In fact the Mitrokhin commission itself produced no concrete evidence of any links between Italian left wing politicians and the KGB before it was wound up in 2006. It has, however, produced some absurd claims, including the one that the KGB organised the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in 1981 and the 1978 Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades') murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.

In the last few days Scaramella's chief source of evidence for Prodi's KGB links has spoken out. In an interview with La Repubblica, Oleg Gordievsky flatly denied Scaramella's story, describing Scaramella as "a mental case" and a "filthy liar who wanted to ruin Prodi". Denying that he ever said that Prodi was a KGB agent or had been "cultivated" by Soviet intelligence, (as Scaramella has claimed) Gordievsky recounted how he had been approached by Scaramella three years ago after being recommended by Guzzanti as a reliable and trustworthy member of the commission.

Litvinenko, Scaramella and Gordievsky, the ex-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and a British MEP met together in a hotel in Regent Street when Litvinenko passed on the view of a former KGB colonel Anatoli Trofimov (assassinated in 2005), that there were many KGB men in Italy and that even Prodi was suspected.

In Gordievsky's view, Litvinenko, for reasons that were unclear (possibly to maintain future contacts) had "decided to say what Scaramella wanted to hear". By this time Scaramella was convinced he had got his man. Bukovsky has also revealed to La Repubblica that Scaramella was obsessed with nailing Prodi, insisting to Bukovsky that he re-examine his evidence, even after the Russian had stated emphatically that he could not find a trace of evidence linking Prodi to the KGB.

There are many unanswered questions in the Litvinenko poisoning. The precise nature of Scaramella's involvement is still unclear. He has claimed that he arranged to meet Litvinenko to discuss threats made on his life by Russian secret-service agents, following the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. He has also said that his life and that of Paolo Guzzanti had been threatened in response to criticism made by the commission. If, from the Russian angle, it is a case worthy of a John Le Carré novel, then it is also true that the deceit, illusions of power and obsessions that have surrounded Scaramella's role in the events, have a depressing resonance with the current state of Italian politics.

Speaking to reporters from his London hospital bed, on the day that he had been cleared of having any trace of Polonium 210 on his body (despite Guzzanti's earlier tearful prediction that he was on the verge of death after having five times the lethal amount), Scaramella defended his role in the commission: "I have only done my job, without prejudice and without any political interest".