True stories

of, resp. by

Wolfgang WOESS


- "Staying permit" (Permesso di soggiorno), Italy
- "The ambassador dispute" (Botschafter-Streit), Austria
- "Protect your corruption by becoming a politician !" (Italy)

"Stayig permit" (Permesso di soggiorno), Italy

In 1988, I had moved from Leoben University (Austria) to the University of Milan (Italy), where I remained until coming back to Austria in 1999.
In '88, Austria was not yet member of the European Union. For living in Italy, I needed a staying permit (permesso di soggiorno), to be obtained from the division for foreigners (ufficio stranieri) of the police (questura di Milano). Already at that time, foreign non EU immigration had become considered as a "problem" in Italy, and the politically correct word had become "extracomunitario" (person from outside EU), replacing the politically incorrect "marocchino" - a tag resulting from the fact that many of those immigrants were illegal and coming from North Africa.
So together with those "marocchini", I became an "extracomunitatrio" in Italy. For these human beings, entering the "ufficio stranieri" was similar to entering one of the antechambers of Dante's Inferno.
There was an Italian law saying that foreigners could apply and be nominated for professor positions in Italy under certain reciprocity conditions (an Italian citizen should have the analogous possibility in the foreigner's country), which had been certified to hold in my case. So, as a professor, I became a regular public functionary in Italy, while at the same time being "extracomunitario". Of course, the officers ("marescialli", usually wearing fancy uniforms) of the Questura di Milano had never heard of that law, and neither had the head of of the "ufficio stranieri"). In fact, they only knew one procedure how a non-EU foreigner could obtain a working and staying permit in Italy, namely that before that person could enter the country, the employer ought to have settled all the issues via some complicated burocratic procedure. However, that procedure could at no point be applied to the other procedure for the selection and nomination of a university professor as a functionary of the Italian state. Indeed, I just had received a formal letter saying that I had to start my work at the university on a certain day, while otherwise I would loose my nomination ("pena scadenza dalla nomina").
The people at Questura di Milano were extremely puzzled that my employer (the university, i.e., the state himself !) had already employed me without going through that procedure. So they just gave me a staying permit for three months as a university visitor - a type of figure they were acquainted with.
The main point is that the law regulating the admission of foreigners for professor positions had come from the ministry of education, while the rules which the people at the foreign division were used to obey came from the ministry of Interior: it is of course absurd to believe that in Italy, a subject subordinated to one ministry would know, or accept, laws that had been elaborated at another ministry.
So I was forced to return to the antechamber of the Inferno for repeated renewals of my staying permit, which caused me anxious heartbeat and similar distress.
Well, it is true that one could always find some solution - this is Italy ! At a later state, a puzzled maresciallo had sent me to the secretary of the head ("capo") of the ufficio stranieri. I told this guy (in Italian, in which I'm fluent) that I was a functionary of the Italian state like he was one ("Sono un funzionario dello Stato Italiano come Lei !"), at which point he looked at me like wanting to send me to a mental clinic immediately. Then I even spoke with the "capo" in person, who also was unable to believe that I was right. But my institute's director (Italian citizen, whence recognizable as a functionary of the state) phoned the "capo", after which I got a staying permit for a whole year (wow !) for my permanent position. It was still under the title of a temporary visitor. I had to go on like this until Austria joined the European Union in 1995, after which things got significantly simpler for me.
Given these very absurd experiences, I started a small enquiry among other foreign mathematics professors in Italy about their different experiences (not just "permesso di soggiorno"), whose results I even published in the newletter of the Italian Mathematical Union (mid-1990s). I found that all of the other "professori extracomunitari" in different Italian cities had had to face similar problems, and at no stage had it been possible to obtain a clarification from the involved ministries (Interior, Education, and also Foreign affairs). One of the funniest examples was that of a Polish colleague at University dell'Aquila, where even the Rector of the University had tried to explain those things to the Questura, without success. As a tenured full professor, the Polish guy permanently had to go on with three months' staying permits as a University visitor (like myself at the beginning, before the upgrading to a one year's duration), and nobody at the "ufficio stranieri" had the courage to sign a regular long term staying permit. This went on until the day when the colleague met a young employee (of lower rank) at the office, whose boyfriend happend to be a student of that professor. Only because of this, she took the (utmost) personal responsability to issue a long term staying permit. Apparently she was not fired, and probably nobody in the Questura even became aware of her extremely courageous act.

Linked with this story, there would be further absurd ones, relating to the abovementioned reciprocity, needed at that time for foreigners to become professors in Italy...

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The "ambassador dispute" (Botschafter-Streit), Austria

In 1999, university professors in Austria formally were still functionaries in the higher administration of the republic. All nominations of higher functionaries had to be approved by the council of ministers and signed by the president of the republic - including my nomination as a full professor at TU Graz. One knew that the official nomination decree would usually arrive only shortly before the scheduled commencement of duties, and all necessary steps had to be completed before that, anyway. Thus, in late spring 1999, I already had comunicated to University of Milano-Bicocca that I'd quit by September, I had signed a pre-contract for selling our house near Milano, and a contract for buying a new house in Graz. At this point, by chance, I came to know of the "ambassador dispute".
For this, you must know that Austria had been governed for decades (with an unhappy period of a right-wing governement at the beginning of this millennium) by a "big coalition" of the social democrats and the people's party, who profoundly hate each other but could hardly avoid governing together and (simultanesously) against each other. In 1999, the position of the Austrian ambassador at the European Commission had become vacant. Typically, any such position is owned by one of the two parties. The EU ambassador had been from the people's party, who claimed the new ambassador for their party again. On the other hand, the Austrian member of the EU commission, Franz Fischler (one of the very few competent Austrian politicians), also was a member of the people's party.
So the social democrats said: "now we should get the ambassador, you already got the commissioner". Reply of the people's party: "not even dreaming, that ambassador belongs to us", then social democrats: "NO", then people's party: "OK - then we block the nomination of the EU ambassador in the council of Ministers", then social democrats: "well - then we block all ambassador nominations in the council of Ministers", and finally people's party: "in response, we block all nominations of functionaries in the higher administration".
So, at that point (late June 1999), with one house being sold, another being bought, subject to valid contracts, and already having resigned from my position in Milano, I learned that it was completely unclear if I would be able to receive my nomination decree in due time, or at any time.
Well, I got really angry, and without any hesitation I phoned the offices of the minister of science, Caspar Einem (one of the last social democrat intellectuals in the government; usually social democrats in leading positions carefully avoid any suspicion of being intellectuals) and the vice chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel (popular party, soon later leader, with some Machiavelli-Fouche'-type aspirations, of the unpleasant right wing coalition with the "freedom party"). Of course, my intervention had no effect at all.
At this point, I remembered that the Austrian EU commissioner Fischler had been a distant study colleague of my sister, who also knew his wife quite well. So I phoned my sister in Innsbruck, who phoned Fischler's wife, and it turned out that Fischler was a true gentleman. Coming home from Brussels only for a short weekend, with hardly any time for his family, he had political obligations to attend events such as maybe a parade of a Tyrolean Schützen company, a fire brigade feast or a performance by the brass music band of some village. Nevertheless, I could speak with him personally on the telephone, and he explained the situation quite clearly: namely, that for solving my case, Einem should approach Schüssel asking for an exception to the blockade, but that Einem would be too proud to do this, while Schüssel would say no anyway. Fischler promised me that he would speak with one of his friends in the government (the minister of agriculture Molterer, at this time still a bearer of hope for his party), and that I could phone him again on the next day at a certain hour. Not only did Fischler keep that promise, but he phoned me back by his own initiative ! Result: maybe there would be a general solution of the ambassador dispute in the next council of ministers. Otherwise, he might suggest to Molterer to undertake some step.
Well, luckily, in the next council of ministers, they solved the dispute (the social democrats gave in, as so often), and in the end I did receive my nomination decree still in time. But anyway:

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The next true story regards real history, of CAF, Tangentopoli, Mani pulite and Berlusconi - nowadays I realise that even young Italian friends and colleagues do not know too well this part of recent history.

"Protect your corruption by becoming a politician !" (Italy)

When I moved to Milano in 1988, Italy was governed by the CAF, Craxi - Andreotti - Forlani, the leading trio of the Pentaparito, a 5 party coalition of Christian Democrats (DC), Socialists, Liberals and 2 more, very small parties. Andreotti and Forlani where the leading figures (which does not mean friends) of the DC, while Craxi was the boss of the Socialists, second biggest party in the Pentapartito with considerably fewer seats in parliament. However, Craxi was very clever in exercising much more governmental power than would correspond to his party's size, because the participation of his party was crucial for keeping the coalition alive. He had been a very smart and successful politician. In the case of mister C, I believe that the - already apparent - missing moral was lived as a pleasant side effect of the games of political power.
The mentality of the politicians of that period is very well described in an excellent movie from 1991, "Il Portaborse" by Daniele Lucchetti and with Nanni Moretti in the role of a politician who makes one think of mister C - whose friends, indeed, protested with indignation against the film. Unfortunately, that movie (highly recommended !), even though it has not lost its actuality at all, has been forgotten by many Italians and was never synchronised in any other language.
In that period, a successful entrepreneur had erected a modern satellite city nearby Milano: Silvio Berlusconi. He also was a media tycoon, owning three nation-wide TV channels plus the daily newspaper "Il Giornale". The acquisition of the publishing house Mondadori (with many journals and magazines) against the other aspirant De Benedetti was accompanied by bribery and various disgusting events that became visible in the early 1990ies. In a long series of trials, some collaborators of mister B were definitively condemmned, but not mister B himself because his lawyers had - as so often in other cases - succeeded in protracting the lawsuits until they fell under prescription. This was the first clamorous and very well visible case (probably preceded by others) of the corruption surrounding mister B.
Already in the late 1980ies, democratic institutions became aware of the fact that it did/does not foster democracy if a single person or group owns several public TV channels, because of the possibly partial impact on public opinion. The parliament prepared a law that was to limit to one the number of nationwide channels owned by a single person or group. At this point, mister B sought help from his friend, the powerful politician: At the last moment, Craxi blocked the decision in parliament, and that law was not enacted. One may guess that the friendship between misters B and C had various other mutual benefits.
At the beginning of the 1990ies, the lasting CAF government(s) gave many Italians a feeling of deadly stagnation. At this point, a new populist - separatist movement emerged in the northern parts of Italy, the Lega Nord, which in the regional elections of 1992 scored a first success that was dreadful for the CAF and Pentapartito.
That very moment also marked the beginning of the Mani Pulite (clean hands) era that ended in overthrowing Italy's political system completely. In February 1992, the director of the old-age home "Pio Albergo Trivulzio", Socialist party member Mario Chiesa was arrested in flagranti while taking a bribe of 7 million Lire for a public contract for a private cleaning enterprise. (Italian has the illustrative mathematical-geometrical term tangente for this type of bribe.) The enquiry was conducted by the public prosecutor Antonio di Pietro, who gained fame with the subsequent avalanche of enquiries against corrupt leading politicians of almost all Italian parties. In ordinary circumstances, an enquiry such as the one against Mario Chiesa would have come quickly to a halt: the public prosecutor would unexpectedly receive a promotion and/or order of transfer to another unit or town, therefore having to leave the enquiry behind which then would end up in some drawer below many other documents. (For this, Italian has the illustrative term insabbiatura - putting sand into, or over the enquiry.) However, in that moment, the Socialist leaders and their assistants, like those of the rest of the Pentapartito, were staring immobilised at the Lega Nord and her success like the rabbit staring at the snake, and missed the right moment for the insabbiatura. The enquiry gained too much momentum to be stopped anymore.
What followed was a domino effect: when some lower party rank was found to have been involved in some activities of corruption, his leaders would take their distance, with statements of the type: "these misdeeds were committed against the purity principles of the party by an isolated smaller figure, of course without our knowledge, it is a misfortune that he could become a party member, and he will of course be expelled" and so on and so forth. At that point, the lower rank would unveil some facts he knew about some higher rank and/or some member of some other party. In this way, higher and higher party ranks, first of the Socialists, then of the Christian Democrats and soon the others, received an avviso di garanzia (notification of enquiry, something the Italian prosecution was obliged to send to any citizen against whom some enquiry is taken up).
At that time, at least the political moral was such that a politician who received a few avvisi di garanzia would step down. Nowadays, thanks to the devastating effects that mister B had on the public moral, no member of parliament or senate (protected by immunity) cares at all about a giuridical sentence, let be just any kind of notification of enquiry.
In the course of the enquiries, some high party ranks such as the Socialist Sergio Moroni and the Christian Democrat treasurer Severino Citaristi committed suicide. Soon, the enquiries reached mister C himself: in February 1993, Bettino Craxi resigned from the Socialist party lead (secretary). In 1994, he escaped from all lawsuits and convictions by moving to his villa in Hammamet, Tunisia. (He did not return to Italy before his death in 2000.)
At this point, Berlusconi had lost his principal political protector. He could expect that sooner or later the enquiries would reach also himself, and that after the elections of 1994, the number of nationwide TV channels owned by himself and his group might be limited to one by a new government. He decided to enter politics. With help of his newspaper, three TV channels, an elaborate electoral campaign and promises of a future wealth reminding the tales of 1001 nights, he and his newly founded party won the elections.
Many Italians seemed to happily believe those fairy tale - promises. I also had the impression that there was another motivation behind this: at first, it was pleasant to see the mighty politicians fall under the Mani Pulite accusations. But after two years of scandals and enquiries, not only a certain saturation of that pleasure was gained. It became clear that after sweeping through the political caste, the new requirements of correctness were also about reach the doorsteps of all ordinary Italian citizens. This was maybe not so well perceived in a country where the civil responsibility, the acknowledgement of a "res publica" is in part painfully underdevelopped. Mister B became the voice and spiritus rector of this part of the Italian people.
The new role as a politician, and in particular as the prime minister, suited mister B perfectly. Soon the first avviso di garanzia, followed by many more as well as summons to appear in court, lawsuits, and so on arrived. Every day of the year is close to a recent, current or imminent political activity: thus on each occasion, mister B could claim something like "it proves the obvious partiality of the public prosecutors that they deliver this notice exactly today, in this moment of very delicate political issues" and so on and so forth. On every day, he could (as used to do until the end) transform judiciary actions against his (presumed or proven) corruption into "political attacks of judges who are biased by communism" or similar. Also, he could - as he did - change laws in his favour, such as tightening the rules for prescription (mister B's lawyers have been very successful in delaying his lawsuits beyond any such limit) or transforming false accouting into a minor delict.
The first Berlusconi government did not even last for a year, because the Lega Nord left the coalition with the Berlusconi party (re-entering in 2001). There are different interpretations for the motivation. My idea has been that this was in part due to a "trap" of the Christian Democrat leader Rocco Buttiglione towards the Lega boss Umberto Bossi: the aim seems to have been to replace the Lega with the former Christian Democrats, at that point re-baptised Partito Popolare, in a coalition with Berlusconi's Forza Italia. However, this lead to a division of that party into two pieces, after the party's majority rejected an orientation towards Forza Italia, so that Buttiglione's activities signed the end of the Christian Democrats as a major political force on their own in Italy.
After a one-year "technical" government led by Lamberto Dini, a middle-left government under Romano Prodi came to power. It had to face three main issues: (1) the restoration of the economy, and in particular, the path towards the European Monetary System, (2) the resloution of the "conflict of interests", i.e., a law regulating private possession of TV channels and other mass media, (3) an electoral reform aiming at the reduction of the presence of the many small political parties in parliament which are one of the main obstacles for stable governments. Already prior to 1992, the constitution had allowed for the presence of too many of such tiny parties; after the Mani Pulite scandals, this number had again increased. Indeed, every former portaborse (suitcase porter) of some dismissed high rank politician believed to be an important new politician once he managed to fill a large audience hall with his applauding fans - but the subsequent elections would prove that the nationwide echo was not so impressive, and there was another tiny parliamentary fraction.
Prodi managed bravely to conduct Italy into the Euro zone, fulfilling task (1) for the time being. But after 2 years, he was overthrown by the withdrawal of the left-wing communists in the coalition (maybe with some secret help of his successor), and followed by Massimo d'Alema from the Democrats of the Left (the former communists). A character with a certain attitude of superiority (as may be typical for some former disciples of Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa), he preferred not to face issue (2) from above immediately, but postponed it while entering into constitutional consultations with the opposion leader Berlusconi. This went on until the d'Alema government approached its end in 2001, at which point Berlusconi withdrew from the consultations. Thus, today Italy is still at the point where the main issues to be resolved are the same as above.
In 2001, Berlusconi managed to become prime minister once more, maintaining this position for 5 years. In those years, in addition to his three TV channels, he gradually extended his grip on the three state-owned channels RAI1, RAI2, and (maybe a little bit less successfully) RAI3. Before the 1992 events, there had been "natural" affiliations RAI1 - Christian Democrats, RAI2 - Socialists, and RAI3 - Communists. Thus, in those years, mister B "owned" at least 5 of 6 nationwide channels. Many good journalists were gradually expelled. Mister B kept on attacking the juridical system, the tax moral, and the opponents, whom he uses to call "communists". For his purposes, he never needed physical violence, such as the mafia organisations: With a public that to a small extent reads newspapers, but to a large extent obtains "information" via TV shows, the people could be influenced by televisive brainwashing.
The period 2006-2008 saw a government of the new Democratic Party, again led by Romano Prodi. In 2008, Prodi lost the confidence of the senate. As one learnt later, a senator of his government coalition confessed to have received a substantial bribe from mister B for changing sides on that occasion.
While until the first years of this millenium, I kept following Italian politics quite closely, I must admit that I'm somewhat less attentive now. Nevertheless: as I had predicted since 2011, the ongoing juridical pressure after various scandals (new and old) prompted mister B to return once more. Once more, with a professional electoral campaign, his TV power, and promises taken from the 1001 nights' fairy tales, he obtained enough votes in the 2013 elections in order to perpetuate the Italian catastrophe.
It will take decades for Italy to recover from the damage inflicted on its civil society by the enormous propaganda machinery and political power of one rich man with the primary (if not only) aim - this is my belief - to safeguard his own dubious activities, not to speak about the economical damage resulting from the acompanying stagnation.
There are two associated mysteries that I can't resolve.
Mystery 1: Mister B appeared to be convinced of himself, to really believe that he has been having a beneficial impact on Italy, to an extent that goes beyond the capabilities of an even very good actor. How can this be ?
Mystery 2: How is it possible that mister B found so much support by persons that can be considered intelligent, honest, civilized, educated, intellectual ?

Added in October 2013: so finally it seems that Berlusconi is being expelled from parliament after finally being convicted in one of the many lawsuits. While I would wish him a peaceful retirement in Hammamet or an analogous place, I'm afraid that this still won't be the end of this everlasting story. Added in December 2023: of course it was not. The end was marked only by Berlusconi's death after which he was presented as a hero of Italian politics.

In this text, you could read my thoughts about misters B and C, while I have omitted my thoughts about mister A (Andreotti), nowadays a bit more out of date. I'm sure that each of my Italian friends will have some different viewpoint on some lines of this text. Nevertheless, this is my true story on how I have been perceiving this part of Italian history and politics since 1988.

What seems to be forgotten: mister B served as a role model for all the new corrupt-illiberal right wing leaders in the "democratic world", such as Netanyahu, Orban, Johnson, Trump, Kickl, and so on.

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Last modified on December 30, 2023.