In the run up to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, it felt and looked like the clock had been turned back a good 20 years as Mr Putin took the opportunity to scold the US and its allies about their proposed missile defence shield and protestors took to the streets in Rostock to grind their axes over globalisation. If you ignored the vintage of the cars burning in the streets, the images could have easily been mid-1980s stock footage of anti-nuke demonstrators.
Commentators filled pages and airtime with cautionary words about the rise of a new Cold War. Some said it never really went away. Others felt it would all blow over by the time the world’s leaders took off to their summer retreats and inhaled a bit of fresh air. What everyone missed was the new front opening up on Europe’s southern flank.
During a reconnaissance mission to find a summer house for my mom and grandmother in Italy, I flew into the middle of a brewing conflict between Russia and the West – a full week before Putin decided to take a swipe at Washington. While there were no Tupolevs in the vicinity of Pisa airport, there was enough anti-Russian industrial action to close part of it and delay air traffic. When I asked my pilot what the problem was, he explained that the Italians were protesting about the amount of Russian investment in Tuscany and were doing everything they could to ensure visiting Muscovites would have an uncomfortable start to the summer.
There’s no question that moneyed Russians like to take their style cues from Italy. For the better part of a decade now, the main drivers behind Italy’s luxury goods industry have been only too happy to open stores from St Petersburg to Samara, staff their Milan stores with Russian-speaking staff and maybe even tailor whole collections to suit Moscow oligarchs who need more fabric around the midriff and their mistresses who want just one more panel of beading down the sleeve. Not content just wearing Italian labels or plopping themselves down on high-ticket sofas, residents of Rublyovka decided they wanted to hang out with Italians, too. First came the invasion of St Moritz around 2000 and, soon after, pretty much every other enclave where wealthy Milanese or Romans like to take the sun was also flooded with Russians. Now the Italians – or at least their countrymen at Galileo Galilei airport have had enough.
Of course we could see this coming. Like the admiring, slightly pudgy schoolyard geek who yearns to be friends with the bronzed, athletic, well-dressed school football star, the same has happened with the Russo-Italia relationship. The geek started to dress like the footballer, the footballer let the geek get a little bit closer to his circle, the geek started to copy the style of the footballer in hope that he’d be officially let in, the footballer noticed this and decided to give the kid the flick. This is what Italy is currently going through, only the story’s taken an interesting twist.
Once the geek’s become one of your most important markets and you’ve also subdivided your resort property and sold it to him for an absurd amount, it’s difficult to tell him you don’t really want him around any more.
In corners of Italy both small and large, residents and officials are scrambling to stop monster homes from going up beside quaint farmhouses. At beach clubs, owners are being conscious of how many Russian-sounding names they rent cabanas to for the summer. The same is happening with hotel bookings.
Why the sudden sense of panic? It could be good business sense telling Italia Incorporated that it shouldn’t rely on Russia alone to support its economy. It could also be that Florentine families are finding that Muscovites don’t make such good neighbours. Tuscany’s been here before, however. Remember the rise of Chiantishire and the protests that went up when Englishmen started snapping up estates? We also recall similar complaints when Bavaria descended on rolling properties around Siena. The only difference for summer 2007 is that this time it’s personal.
We’re back 23 August with our September issue. Until then have a relaxing summer (if you’re in the southern hemisphere we hope you’re having a prosperous winter) and if you have any comments or queries please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.