The last time Russian president Vladimir Putin came to Rome, he visited Silvio Berlusconi with a wink and a nod to their long-standing bromance. The two were so close, Berlusconi even named a bed after him in his Roman love nest, where he allegedly entertained top-dollar call girls on the sheets gifted from his Russian pal.
Putin’s visit on Monday will have a slightly different agenda as the Russian president meets Pope Francis for the first time. And it almost certainly won’t be as lighthearted as his previous sojourns in the eternal city.
Putin’s state visit marks the first serious foray into international affairs by the popular pope, who has won the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike through simple acts of humanity. The agenda is likely to focus on Syria, which has been a bane to the pope since taking office last March. Francis initiated the bi-lateral meeting back in September when he wrote a harsh letter to the Russian president ahead of the G20 meeting, scolding the G20 leaders for neglecting the troubles in Syria. “The meeting of the Heads of State and Government of the 20 most powerful economies, with two-thirds of the world’s population and 90 percent of global GDP, does not have international security as its principal purpose. Nevertheless, the meeting will surely not forget the situation in the Middle East and particularly in Syria,” the pope wrote to Putin. “It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding.”
The pope has been adamant that Russian intervention is the only way to temper the bloodbath resulting from the Syrian civil war, and those close to the Vatican say their closed-door meeting will focus primarily on what Russia is expected to do in the eyes of the Holy See. Vatican experts are likening the meeting to the December 1, 1989, bilateral meeting between Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Recently released transcripts from that private meeting shed light on the power of the papacy.
The encounter between Francis and Putin is also expected to help ease tense relations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, who have been squabbling for decades over allegations that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Catholics tried to lure Russian Orthodox followers away. There has also been a nasty property dispute between Greek Catholics, whom the Russian Orthodox Church alleges stole properties belonging to it. After Francis was elected, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church sent the pontiff a letter inviting Catholics to help fight the persecution of Christians all over the world. There are just 700,000 Catholics in Russia, making it a minority religion, but it is quite clear that the dialogue is not intended to focus on religious similarities or differences.
It will also be quite clear that the two men share little in the way of neutral territory. Putin, well known for his opulent lifestyle, stands in sharp contrast to Francis, who has pared down the spoils of the papacy to the bare minimum. And the two seemingly differ even with regard to their views toward homosexuality. Oddly, it will be the pope who seems more tolerant of same-sex unions when the two meet—after all, as he famously has said he doesn’t feel he is in any position to judge gays. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he told reporters on his papal plane in July. Putin, on the other hand, has prohibited the promotion of “gay pride” in Russia. In September, anti-gay political groups in Italy even posted signs in support of Putin’s homophobic policies, with “I am with Putin” written over a photo of the Russian leader in military garb.
No doubt after a few hours with the pope, Putin will long for the days when his visits to Rome were far more pleasurable. He will be briefly visiting Berlusconi and former prime minister Romano Prodi on his quick trip to Rome. There is no word whether Putin will make good on his offer just last week to issue a diplomatic Russian passport to the beleaguered Berlusconi to live in Russia should his legal troubles in Italy become too much to handle after his recent conviction for tax fraud. According to the Italian press, the Russian passport Putin is offering would allow Berlusconi to “move freely” around Europe, perhaps even settling permanently in Antigua, Bermuda, or San Moritz, now that his own international travel privileges have been curtailed while he waits to serve out a year of community service for his tax fraud conviction. Putin reportedly even suggested that if Berlusconi took him up on the offer, he would make Berlusconi the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, which would allow him to live in Rome under full diplomatic protection. With luck, Putin and the pope will have far more urgent matters than that on their agenda to discuss.