Silvio Berlusconi, scandal-scarred former Italian leader, dies at 86

FILE - In this April 2, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, center, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, smile during a group photo at the G20 Summit in London. Berlusconi, the boastful billionaire media mogul who was Italy's longest-serving premier despite scandals over his sex-fueled parties and allegations of corruption, died, according to Italian media. He was 86. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

MILAN — Silvio Berlusconi, the boastful billionaire media mogul who was Italy’s longest-serving premier despite scandals over his sex-fueled parties and allegations of corruption, died Monday. He was 86.

Supporters applauded as his body arrived at his villa outside Milan from the city’s San Raffaele Hospital, where he had been treated for chronic leukemia. A state funeral will be held Wednesday in the city’s Duomo cathedral, according to the Milan Archdiocese.

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A onetime cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and loathing.

To admirers, the three-time premier was a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. To critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.

His Forza Italia party is a coalition partner with current Premier Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader who came to power last year, although Berlusconi held no position in the government.

His friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Meloni, a staunch supporter of Ukraine. On his 86th birthday, while the war raged, Putin sent Berlusconi best wishes and vodka, and the Italian boasted he returned the favor by sending back Italian wine.

When former U.S. President Donald Trump launched his political career, many drew comparisons to Berlusconi, noting they both had long business careers, sought to upend the existing political order, and grabbed attention for their over-the-top personalities and lavish lifestyles.

Meloni remembered Berlusconi “above all as a fighter.”

“He was a man who had never been afraid to defend his beliefs. And it was exactly that courage and determination that made him one of the most influential men in the history of Italy,” Meloni said on Italian TV.

Former Premier Matteo Renzi recalled Berlusconi’s divisive legacy on Twitter. “Many loved him, many hated him. All must recognize that his impact on political life, but also economics, sports and television, has been without precedent.”

Putin sent a telegram of condolence, hailing Berlusconi as a “patriarch” of Italian politics and a true patriot.

As Berlusconi aged, some derided his perpetual tan, hair transplants and live-in girlfriends who were decades younger. For many years, however, Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite the personal scandals.

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