Italy’s largest far-right policy, La Lega (“the League”), has long had close ties with Putin’s regime in Russia. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, has been a vocal supporter of Putin for years (see also here, here, and here), and in 2017 the League signed a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. Even before then, the League (then known as Lega Nord, the “Northern League”) often advocated within Italy and the EU for Russian interests. Notably, while the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the League opposed sanctions and tried (unsuccessfully) to upend the solidarity necessary to keep EU sanction in place. That opposition to sanctions only intensified after the 2017 cooperation agreement: At a 2018 conference in Moscow, Salvini—then Italy’s Interior Minister–insisted that Italy would work “day and night” to repeal the 2014 sanctions. Salvini’s efforts proved unsuccessful, as he was unable to convince his coalition partners to change Italy’s stance. But the Kremlin still benefitted from the League’s vocal opposition to sanctions, as it showed that Russia wasn’t isolated diplomatically and that the West is internally divided.
The League’s long history of cooperation with Moscow could be chalked up to shared ideology and policy goals. But it appears that corruption, not policy, might explain why the party is so close with Putin.
In October 2018, a former League spokesperson, Gianluca Savoini, met with three Russians in Moscow. A leaked recording of the conversation revealed that they discussed an oil deal between the Russian parastatal corporation Gazprom and Italy’s largest energy company, Eni. A discount of approximately 65 million euros would then be funneled, via a financial intermediary, into the League’s coffers and used to fund the League as it geared up for European Parliamentary elections. (At that time, the party was in dire financial straits, scrambling for money to make up for a debt of 49 million euros owed to the Italian state after a 2018 graft trial implicated the party previous chief.) In choosing their intermediary, the group discussed which institutions would avoid European “know your client” procedures and evade anti-money laundering laws. They landed on the Russian arm of Italy’s largest bank, Intesa, which was then led by a Russian sympathizer who publicly condemned the Crimea sanctions. And what would Russia get in return? The recording is not explicit, but Savoini did tell his Russian counterparts the League’s success would be “of benefit, I would say of mutual benefit, for the two countries.”
Six months after the clandestine meeting, the League achieved unprecedented success in Europe’s May 2019 election, doubling its vote share from the 2018 national elections and emerging as Italy’s largest party for the first time in history. But in August 2019, after the secret recordings of the Moscow meetings were released by journalists, Italian prosecutors opened an investigation. That investigation has yet to result in any prosecutions, and it is unclear what, if any, laws were broken. (For one thing, it’s not clear whether there was a sufficiently explicit agreement to constitute a quid pro quo under law. For another, Savoini is not a government official, nor is he, technically, a member of the League. Publicly, the League has distanced itself from Savoini in recent years. Privately, however, Savoini has been present during nearly all of Salvini’s meetings in Russia (see here and here).)
Putting the details of this particular case to one side, the larger issue is that Italian laws make it far too easy for foreign money from places like Russia to corrupt Italian politics by secretly influencing the positions of parties and politicians.
Before 2019, it was legal for parties to accept money from foreign donors up to €100,000. In 2019, the League’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, sponsored a complete ban on foreign funding for political parties, but the League successfully weakened the ban by adding an amendment in an unrelated economic bill to exclude “foundations, associations, and committees” from the law’s scope. And it appears that the League has taken advantage of that loophole as a way to channel Russian money into Italian politics. In particular, Savoini—the same former League spokesman caught on tape at the Moscow meeting—co-runs a supposedly private foundation called the Lombardy-Russia Culture Association together with a Russian named Aleksey Komov. Komov is active in conservative and religious circles in Russia, Europe and the United States, has close ties with both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, and previously worked for Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch sanctioned in 2014. Together, Savoini and Komov go to bat for Putin’s Russia in Northern Italy by hosting conferences, publishing pro-Russian articles, and lobbying the public. Leaders of the League and the Association frequently visit Russia together, and the two organizations are, probably not coincidentally, headquartered in the same building in Milan. By loosening restrictions for foreign donations to “associations,” Rome let Moscow pump money into an organization that, for all intents and purposes, functions as an arm of a political party.
The League wants to weaken restrictions on foreign funding of political parties even further. For example, in August 2019, nine League deputies proposed an amendment that would effectively permit parties to receive any amount of foreign funding. Though this amendment did not pass, Italy has a serious problem: One of its major political parties appears to be relying substantially on a hostile foreign power for funding and advocating for that foreign power’s interests in Italy and, by extension, in the EU. That sort of blatant and corrosive corruption cannot be permitted, and Italy needs to adopt strong measures to counter this threat. For starters, the Italian parliament should immediately repeal the April 2019 amendment that allows for foreign money to fund associations, like Lombardy-Russia, with close ties to political parties.
In addition to legislative reform, Italian prosecutors must continue to aggressively pursue investigations of possible violations of existing law. Those investigations should extend to Savoini and his associates, as well as the Italian bank (Intesa) and the energy company (Eni – already under fire for alleged bribery, covered elsewhere on this blog) involved in the 2018 deal. In addition to investigation by prosecutors, the Italian Senate should launch its own investigation, and should compel Salvini to appear in Parliament to address the allegations. Previous attempts to force Salvini’s appearance were shot down by the president of the Senate, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia. Despite opposition, Italian parliamentarians must hold Salvini accountable. The European Parliament would be wise to do the same. Prosecutors and parliamentary investigators should also open investigations into Putin’s relationship with other parties in Italy. The country’s right has long enjoyed close ties with Moscow, including a close-personal relationship between Berlusconi and Putin. The Five Star Movement has also publicly softened its tone towards Putin following the Crimea annexation, causing some to worry that Putin’s influence extends beyond the League.
Addressing the corrupting influence of Russian money on Italian politics has become even more urgent in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. The West has so far responded with a united front, imposing unprecedented and wide-ranging sanctions on the Russian state, as well as Russian institutions and individuals. But if recent history is any indication, Europe’s hard line against Russia will slowly soften. Once it becomes acceptable to criticize the sanctions, Italy’s far-right will do so at the behest of Russian money. Emphasizing and widening the divide, Putin will exploit Italian corruption to further divide Europe and legitimize his war in Ukraine. The best way to avoid repeating history is to disentangle Putin’s corruption network,