Saturday 22 October 2016

Berlusconi and Putin in Crimea wine row

Alice Philipson in Rome

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Best of friends: Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi
Best of friends: Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi

It was meant to be a quiet summer break for Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, his long-time friend.

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The pair spent last weekend touring Crimea's ancient ruins, and found time to visit the finest winery in the area.

But their jaunt to the Russian-annexed peninsula has ended in acrimony after the former Italian prime minister was banned from Ukraine in the "interests of national security" amid a row over a very expensive bottle of wine.

The Ukrainian security service ban prevents him from entering the country for three years.

It is likely that, as the most prominent Western politician to visit Crimea since it was annexed, Mr Berlusconi is now extremely unpopular with Kiev.

Ukrainian prosecutors are reported to be preparing charges against the director of a winery for allegedly uncorking a 240-year-old bottle for the Russian president and his guest.

Crimea's 100-year-old Massandra winery was Ukrainian state property before being nationalised by Russia. It houses rare wine and centuries-old sherry.

Russian television last week showed Mr Berlusconi and Mr Putin touring the winery, examining dust-covered bottles of wine. Later on, Mr Berlusconi brought over a bottle to show to the party, and the director said: "The year 1891."

"Is it possible to drink?" Mr Berlusconi asked in English. The director said "yes".

Yanina Pavlenko, the director who gave the tour last week, confirmed that she showed the rare wines to Putin and Berlusconi but declined to comment on whether any wine was drunk during the visit. Ukrainian law requires two presidential decrees to allow the sale of a vintage wine. But as the winery is now in Russian hands, the charges would not apply.

Mr Berlusconi and the Russian leader are known to be close, with the pair often visiting each other in their respective home countries.

Meanwhile, Putin has signalled his intentions to establish a Russian military air base in neighbouring Belarus.

Belarus has made clear it would not welcome a Russian base - but, the former Soviet republic remains dependent on Moscow for credit and energy.

Sunday Independent

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