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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Berlusconi deadline nears
His critics say business and politics don't mix
His critics say business and politics don't mix
By BBC World Business Report's Louise Greenwood

When Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi came to power in May, he vowed to resolve any conflict of interest between his public office and his private investments.

Next month, the Italian government will present a bill designed to set up a watchdog monitoring the private interests of public figures.

Already, Berlusconi's critics maintain that it is impossible for him to own companies worth billions of dollars, and run the economy of Italy at the same time.

How can he solve a problem he believes to be non-existent?

Alexander Stiller
US author
Through Fininvest, Berlusconi owns three private television stations which attract 45% of Italian audiences.

Ascent to power

The son of a Milanese bank clerk, Silvio Berlusconi's ascent to become Italy's richest man has been truly dynamic.

One of his earliest business ventures was at university when he supplemented his income by charging fellow students for writing their exam papers.

He later worked as a singer on summer cruise ships.

But it was the deregulation of Italy's state-run economy in the sixties and seventies where he made his millions, first through his construction company Elinord, and later through the creation of a media empire which now includes three national TV channels.

His other interests have included shipping, retail and publishing and since 1986 a majority stake in the football club AC Milan.

It is this image as a self-made man that has won him the support of millions of ordinary Italians.

But scandal has never been far away. As early as 1981 he was revealed as being a member of a Freemason's lodge which included several influential politicians, businessmen and media figures.

Pushed to limit

The group was disbanded, and Berlusconi emerged from the affair unscathed.

Part of his success can be attributed to his willingness to push the rules to their limit, American journalist Alexander Stiller, author of a book on corruption in Italy called "Excellent Cadavers" told the BBC's World Business Report.

The Italian Supreme Court once ruled that private broadcasters could broadcast locally but not nationally, Stiller recounts.

Berlusconi purchased several local transmitters, broadcasting the same programme within minutes of each other, enabling his company to sell advertising on a national basis.

After his success in May's election he vowed to resolve any conflict of interest between his public office and private business, but crucially without selling any part of Fininvest.

"Berlusconi has said more times than one can count that he does not believe there is a conflict of interest problem... how could he solve a problem that he believes to be non-existent?" said Alexander Stiller.

BBC World Business Report's Louise Greenwood
Silvio Berlusconi's ascent has been truly dynamic
Alexander Stiller
"How can Berlusconi solve a problem he believes to be non-existent?"
See also:

18 Jun 01 | Europe
Berlusconi replies to critics
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