As soon as the news from Washington got out, Matteo Salvini immediately fled to the front. The leader of the Italian Lega party announced that he would sue anyone who accused his party of having received money from Moscow. “I never asked for or received any funds, no rubles, euros, dinars or dollars from Russia,” Salvini explained. It’s funny that such fake news is spread just before the elections.
The reason for Salvini’s anger was a report by the US intelligence services that Moscow had secretly transferred at least $300 million to foreign parties, politicians and think tanks in more than two dozen countries since 2014 in order to influence politics in these states. According to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the aim of this sponsorship is to divide Western societies and thus break open the sanctions front against Russia.
It is not surprising that Salvini in particular is so upset about the US report: he is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin, whom he once described as the “most capable statesman in the world”. On Red Square in Moscow, he was photographed wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Putin on it. He demonstratively wore a similar shirt in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Salvini’s party has long been suspected of being secretly funded by the Kremlin.
In 2017, the right-wing populist Lega had contractually agreed on cooperation “with information exchange” with the Kremlin party “United Russia”. A year later, a close confidant of Salvini was overheard in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol while he was negotiating a gas deal with two other Italians and three Russians, in which the Milan prosecutors suspect that $65 million will be diverted for the Lega should. The deal didn’t go through, but the investigation is still ongoing.
The Lega is not the only party in Italy that maintained a very close relationship with Moscow, at least until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. Silvio Berlusconi has had a personal friendship with Putin for many years; to this day it is difficult for him to distance himself from his “amico”.
But the Five Star Movement, led by ex-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, also has an ambivalent relationship with Moscow. In 2020, the “Grillini” wanted to conclude an agreement with the Putin party similar to that of the Lega (in the end nothing came of it). Party founder Beppe Grillo, who generally has a soft spot for autocrats, was a regular guest on Russia’s propaganda channel Russia Today.
Money from Russian oligarchs flowed to Italy
It is not known whether Italy is explicitly mentioned in the American intelligence report, and the details are not public. The US government wants to inform affected countries confidentially. But the report is another indication that the Kremlin has been trying to systematically influence parties and politicians in European countries for years. Moscow is concentrating on right-wing populist and right-wing radical forces, but also on left-wing parties.
In addition, money from Russian oligarchs has been flowing to Italy for years. It is by no means just about the purchase of luxury villas and yachts, with which the richest men in Russia bring their capital abroad to safety. Some of these oligarchs apparently have another agenda: the former KGB man Alexander Lebedev organized legendary parties in his villa in Umbria, to which even the then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson traveled. Italian intelligence services have linked Lebedev to attempts at influence and espionage.
Italian citizens need to know before the elections which parties have been funded by a foreign power.
Enrico Letta, Chef von Italiens Democratic Party
After the publication of the new US findings on Russian influence, the head of the social democratic Partito Democratico, Enrico Letta, called for immediate intervention by the parliamentary committee on national security. “Italian citizens need to know before the elections which parties have been funded by a foreign power hostile to Europe,” stressed Letta.
Guido Crosetto of the post-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia, who is a close confidante of party leader Giorgia Meloni, joined the call. He demanded “maximum transparency” and declared that it would be tantamount to “high treason” if Italian parties or politicians had allowed themselves to be financed by Putin. The Fratelli d’Italia lead in all polls by a clear margin over the Social Democrats; Giorgia Meloni has the best chance of becoming Italy’s first female prime minister in the September 25 parliamentary elections.
Crosetto may have leaned a bit out of the window with his tweet: According to the former US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Douglas Volker, the Fratelli d’Italia could also have received money from Moscow. “I don’t have any evidence, but with us it has become a refrain that they were supported in any way,” Volker told the newspaper “La Repubblica”.
The US diplomat’s statement is surprising insofar as Meloni has so far supported the policy formulated by Prime Minister Mario Draghi of supporting Ukraine and the sanctions – in contrast to Salvini, Berlusconi and Conte, who supported Draghi at the end of July not least because of his uncompromising attitude had fallen towards Moscow. Meloni now wants to sue Volker and the “Repubblica”. “All our forms of financing are verifiable; I am sure that Fratelli d’Italia does not accept money from foreigners.”
What is certain, however, is that if Meloni were to win the election, he would govern with the two Putin friends, Salvini and Berlusconi – a result that would no doubt be very agreeable to the Kremlin ruler. Because then Italy could work within the European Union to end the sanctions against Russia.
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