Putin Offers Berlusconi Escape Route
It pays to have friends in high places (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin has met Pope Francis in Rome, amid rumours in the Italian media that he is set to appoint the disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as Russia's Ambassador to the Vatican.

Berlusconi is to face a period of community service after his conviction for tax fraud, but could be offered an escape route by his long-term Russian friend. 

As ambassador to the Vatican, Berlusconi, who is also appealing a conviction for sex with an underage prostitute and facing new allegations of a £2.5m bribe to a senator, would receive diplomatic immunity from any custodial sentence and be free to maintain his lavish lifestyle.

Libero, the right-wing Italian newspaper and a supporter of Berlusconi, claimed Putin is ready to appoint the media mogul as his papal emissary, citing unnamed MPs from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

"Yes, Vladimir Putin intends to give Silvio Berlusconi a passport, a diplomatic passport, which would allow him to spend the rest of his days in his foreign residences: Antigua or Bermuda, or perhaps St. Moritz," the MP said.

An unknown political source told another Italian newspaper: "Putin's idea is clear: he plans to nominate Berlusconi as ambassador to the Holy See, a strategy that would save him from persecution by the judiciary."

Speculation about the appointment arose as Putin arrived in the Italian capital to meet Pope Francis and other Italian politicians, just days before Berlusconi faces a Senate vote over his removal following his fraud conviction. Putin has reportedly dined with Berlusconi during his visit.

Il Fatto, the left-wing paper and a strong critic of Berlusconi, called Putin's move "an elegant solution" to Berlusconi's problematic situation with the impending Senate vote and likely arrest.

"So here's the conclusion to the spy story in which the former Prime Minister, the leader of the right, Italy's richest man, escapes from his destiny with a last, incredible disguise," wrote the paper.

During the pair's long friendship, Putin has allegedly attended the Italian's infamous bunga bunga parties, they have watched extreme fighting events together, and holidayed in the Black Sea. A bed has even been named after Putin at Berlusconi's mansion.

During his visit Putin has held a private meeting with Pope Francis about the Syrian civil war, coming after the Pope sent a letter in September directing the Russian President to work with other world leaders in order to solve the crisis.

This year he has already passed a ruling which granted the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who sought refuge from the newly-elected French President François Hollande's super-tax on the rich, Russian citizenship.

However Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov has described the Berlusconi rumours as "pure fantasy", Ansa news agency reported.

Berlusconi also denied the claim. "It's something I've never considered," he said. "I'm 100% Italian and I'm not looking for way outs abroad. There hasn't been any passport offer, not even in my dreams, not from Russia not from other countries."