ROME Four-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Sunday the Crimean people had made a democratic choice to split from Ukraine and hailed Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world's greatest political leader.
Earlier this month, Berlusconi became the most prominent Western politician to visit the Black Sea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia last year in a move that has driven a wedge between Moscow and Washington.
Pro-Russian separatists are fighting the Kiev government in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that will most likely be raised at a meeting on Monday in New York between U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin.
Berlusconi, who has long had a close relationship with Putin, criticized Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis for hurting Italian businesses. He called the 2014 Crimean referendum "democratic" and "valid".
"Eighty-seven percent of Crimean citizens voted, 93 percent voted to cede from Ukraine, voted to be an autonomous republic, voted to become part of the Russian Federation," Berlusconi said in a speech in northern Italy broadcast on television.
"You should see the love, the gratitude and the friendliness that welcomed Putin" in Crimea, Berlusconi said, calling the Russian president the world's "number 1" political leader.
"Women threw themselves into his arms saying, 'Thank you, Vladimir. Thank you, Vladimir.'"
The Ukrainian security service has banned the Italian media tycoon from entering the country for three years over his visit.
Berlusconi, who turns 79 this week, dominated the Italian political scene for almost two decades, but is struggling to keep his center Forza Italia party together as it faces a wave of desertions.
At Sunday's party rally near the city of Brescia, he said that it marked "my return to the political scene".
(Reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Elizabeth Piper)