Italy's Berlusconi Says He's Down But Not Out on 20th Anniversary of Political Start

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Silvio Berlusconi

The former prime minister and media mogul, who has been facing personal financial problems, recently "laid off" a dozen show girls he paid to have around for his pleasure.

ROME – On the 20th anniversary of his official entry into politics, billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi vowed to remain relevant despite a string of legal and person woes.

Sunday was the anniversary of the day the 77-year-old Berlusconi entered politics in 1994. By March of that year, the party Berlusconi founded released its slate of officials for the upcoming national elections. And in May, Berlusconi began the first -- and shortest -- of his three stints as prime minister.

In the two decades since, Berlusconi’s Mediaset television and cinema empire grew to become a major European player, while Berlusconi himself helped reshape Italian politics until he was brought to his knees by personal and legal issues in recent years.

His last term as prime minister ended in 2011 amid fears his government would make Italy fall victim to the European debt crisis. Since then things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Last year he was definitively convicted to tax fraud and false accounting and will serve a year of house arrest. He was also stripped of his seat in the Senate and could face a lifetime ban from politics.

He is also on trial or appealing rulings for illegal wire taps, bribery, abuse of power and paying an underage girl -- former erotic danger Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 at the time -- for sex.

Though he remains one of the richest people in Europe, he has begun a series of cost-cutting measures in recent days. The most notable: He has cut off monthly payments of more than $3,000 and ended a free-housing arrangement he had with around a dozen young women in return for them being available to Berlusconi when he needed them.

His plans to set up a university inside a $100 million villa he acquired have been shelved indefinitely. AC Milan, the top-division soccer team Berlusconi owns, is also cutting back on player salaries.

"He is on a strict financial diet," the daily newspaper La Repubblica said in a recent editorial.

But for his part, Berlusconi remains defiant: In a television interview (on TG4, one of the networks Mediaset controls), Berlusconi said he and his political alliance are "facing challenges" but predicted a budding alliance he is striking with a former rival politician, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, would "emerge victorious" in upcoming European and local elections.

He also predicted that reports of his political demise were premature. "Be careful not to count us out," he said.

Twitter: @EricJLyman