Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi stayed cool in the face of charges that could end his political career, saying he was not worried about his impending prostitution trial or calls for his resignation.
Wednesday’s public comment was the first by the 74-year-old leader since he was indicted on Tuesday, accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl then using his influence to cover it up.
He spoke shortly before holding talks and a working dinner with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, his first international meeting since the indictment.
Mr Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the accusations as “groundless” and the case as a “farce” and a “shame”. He has accused prosecutors of trying to topple his government.
On Wednesday he dodged questions about the case during a news conference on economic themes in Rome and, in contrast with recent days, did not go on the offensive to defend himself. “Out of love of my country, I won’t talk about this,” Mr Berlusconi told reporters. “I can only say one thing – I’m not worried at all.”
He also avoided the topic in remarks before a meeting with Mr Medvedev, focusing instead on the close ties between Russia and Italy.
“I believe that I am a point of reference for Russia within the European Union, and I have personally tended to all of the relations that the EU has and will develop with the Russian federation,” Mr Berlusconi said, emphasising his close personal friendships with Mr Medvedev and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.
The prostitution trial starts on April 6 before three female judges – an ironic twist for the premier. Italian women staged nationwide protests last week contending that the scandal and Mr Berlusconi’s view of women was degrading to female dignity. The three judges were picked at random.
The indictment marks a serious challenge to Mr Berlusconi’s grip on power at a time when the PM is weakened by an acrimonious split with an ex-ally. It reignited calls for his resignation, with the opposition saying the scandal – with allegations of wild parties at the premier’s villas with scantily clad women – has embarrassed Italy and damaged its image abroad.
“A premier who is a defendant, who spends his days disputing the magistrates, is undoubtedly a man with no time to govern, and probably with no authority to do so effectively,” a leading political analyst, Stefano Folli, said in Wednesday’s financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.