Italy: A Russian scheme to fund populists
Can Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini weather the scandal surrounding possible Russian funding for his nationalist League party? asked Alberto Magnani in Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy). Earlier this year, Italian media reported on a rumored meeting between three Russians and three Italians close to Salvini at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel last October. There, they’d discussed a scheme to have a Russian oil firm sell $1.5 billion worth of fuel to Italian energy giant Eni and divert some $65 million of the proceeds to the League. Last week, U.S. news site BuzzFeedNews.com published audio of the meeting and identified one of the Italians as Gianluca Savoini, a longtime close aide to Salvini. After that report, another Italian, international lawyer Gianluca Meranda, said he was also present; he denies any wrongdoing. Prosecutors in Milan said they’d been investigating the meeting for months and this week they questioned Savoini—he also denies wrongdoing. So far, there is no proof that any money actually changed hands, and Salvini, who is also a deputy prime minister and governs the country in coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, swears that Savoini is a rogue operative. “I have never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar, or a liter of vodka of financing from Russia!” he said.
Salvini’s fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin is “an open secret in Italy,” said Dominik Straub in Der Standard (Austria). Before he entered government in 2018, the anti-immigrant Salvini praised Putin as “a clear-headed leader who stands for an orderly, clean, and harmonious society.” More recently, Salvini has called European Union sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea “idiotic, crazy, irresponsible, masochistic.” Salvini has met with Putin frequently, mostly in Moscow and usually in the company of Savoini, who has a Russian wife. At the European Parliament in 2014, Salvini wore a T-shirt that read “No sanctions on Russia.”
The League has always loved tyrants, said Gad Lerner in La Repubblica (Italy). Back when it was the Northern League, a secessionist party that wanted independence for northern Italy, it supported Serbian despot Slobodan Milosevic. It saw Milosevic’s oppression of Kosovar Muslims as heroic pushback against the “usurpers of a Christian land that belonged to the Serbs,” and it denounced NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia—a campaign that included the Italian armed forces. Then as now, League members loved the “Christian pan-Slavism preached by Moscow.” Once Salvini took over the party in 2013, he signed a partnership pact with Putin’s United Russia party.
Salvini is going to try to brazen this out, said Monica Guerzoni in Corriere della Sera (Italy). He claims he has nothing to say to the Italian Parliament on the matter and acts as though Savoini—who functioned as his party’s primary liaison with Russia—is “little more than a ghost.” It could work: If Salvini succeeds in getting a tax cut passed, as he hopes, Italians may be so happy with the extra cash in their pockets that they’ll lose interest in this scandal. ■