The suspicious death of a former Russian agent in London was enmeshed in alleged dirty tricks in Italian politics on Friday after Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister, announced legal action against people linking him to the KGB, the former Soviet intelligence service.
The main person who has made this accusation, which Mr Prodi rejects as utterly unfounded, is Mario Scaramella, a self-styled expert on Soviet espionage in Italy.
Mr Scaramella met Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent, in a London sushi bar on November 1, shortly before Litvinenko fell ill.
Before he died on November 23 of poisoning from polonium 210, a rare radioactive substance, Litvinenko accused Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and a former KGB agent, of ordering his death. The Kremlin dismissed his charge as nonsense.
The Litvinenko affair has spilled into Italian politics because Mr Scaramella was appointed in 2003 as a consultant to a parliamentary inquiry, known as the Mitrokhin commission, which was investigating KGB activities in Italy.
The commission wound up its work before Mr Prodi’s victory in Italy’s general election last April. But Mr Scaramella reported to the commission’s chairman in January that he had been looking into alleged links between Mr Prodi and the KGB.
He told the chairman, Paolo Guzzanti, a member of then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, that there was no evidence Mr Prodi was a KGB agent, but that some signs pointed to “friendly relations” between Mr Prodi and the KGB.
Mr Prodi was so offended by Mr Scaramella’s allegations, which appeared in the Italian press this week, that he announced on Thursday night that he planned legal action against the people behind them. He named no one in particular.
Mr Scaramella had no background as a specialist in Soviet affairs before 2003, and Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s foreign minister, said on Wednesday that Mr Scaramella “has had and has no organic relationship with the Italian secret services”.
Politicians in Mr Prodi’s centre-left coalition suspect that one purpose of the Mitrokhin commission, which was set up under Mr Berlusconi, was to plant material to discredit the centre-left, especially ahead of the April election. Mr Berlusconi’s party has ridiculed the idea of a smear campaign.
“They have tried to upset the country’s democracy,” said Piero Fassino, leader of the Democrats of the Left, the largest party in Mr Prodi’s government. “A campaign of personal denigration and institutional destabilisation has been pursued.”
Mr Prodi’s camp contends that there have been other attempts to destroy his reputation. Prosecutors said in October that several members of the Italian tax police and other state employees had illegally broken into the financial records of Mr Prodi and his wife Flavia.
During Mr Berlusconi’s five-year premiership, Mr Prodi was plagued by allegations – which he denied adn were never proven – that, when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1998, he took kickbacks in the purchase by Telecom Italia, the Italian telecommunications group, of a stake in Telekom Serbia, the Serbia telecoms company.
Last month Mr Prodi’s government shook up Italy’s espionage services by dismissing the country’s three top intelligence officers.