Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Exposed: How Russia offered to fund Italy's Salvini

  • Matteo Salvini on Russian TV wearing a pro-Putin T-shirt at the Kremlin (Photo: russia.tv)

Russia offered Italy's far-right League party €3m to help contest the European Parliament (EP) election in May, according to two Italian investigative journalists.

The offer was discussed at a meeting between a Kremlin-linked Russian businessman, Ylia Yakunin, and a senior League member, Gianluca Savoini, at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow on 18 October 2018.

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  • France's Marine Le Pen with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow (Photo: Marine Le Pen/Facebook)

The proposal was for a Russian state oil firm, Rosneft, to sell diesel at a discounted price to Italian energy firm Eni via an intermediary, such as a European bank or a Russian company.

Details on how the kick-back would be channelled to the League were not discussed at the Metropol meeting, Stefano Vergine, one of the two Italian investigative journalists, told EUobserver on Sunday (24 February).

But an Italian lawyer who accompanied Savoini did reportedly say to Yakunin: "The plan made by our 'political guys' is simple. Given the four percent discount, they [Rosneft] pay €250,000 a month, for a year [totalling €3m]. So that can support the [EP] campaign".

"We want to finance the election campaign, so this is good for both parties," the lawyer, whom Vergine did not name, added.

The Italian journalists stressed they had no proof the deal was ever implemented, but they said they had firm evidence to back up their report on the negotiations.

"We were at the Metropol on 18 October and we've got all the pieces of evidence proving what we wrote," Vergine told this website.

The revelations were published in a front-cover splash by Italian magazine L'Espresso on Sunday.

They are also contained in a forthcoming book, entitled The Black Book of the League, written by Vergine and by his colleague Giovanni Tizian.

The League denied the report and threatened to sue L'Espresso.

The article was based on "absurd and unfounded suppositions," a League spokesman said.

Rosneft likewise denied it and threatened to sue.

"Who's saying [this]? What sources? What are they based on? ... Let's ask the newspaper what they're basing this on," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said last Friday, when the news first trickled out in a teaser article by L'Espresso.

The League party of Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is polling to storm to victory in the EP vote in Italy, boosting its number of MEPs from six to almost 30.

But it needs money after the Italian Supreme Court froze some of its funds last year in a previous fraud case.

Salvini himself is a fan of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and goes around wearing pro-Putin T-shirts.

He also went to Moscow last October where he held a clandestine meeting one day before the Metropol Hotel talks with Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, the Italian journalists, who followed Salvini to his secret tryst, said.

Savoini, who is Salvini's former spokesman, and another senior League member, Claudio d'Amico, also own a consulting and engineering firm in Moscow, called Orion, amid a multiplication of links between the Italian party and Russia, Global Witness, a British NGO, noted in an op-ed in EUobserver on Monday.

The Metropol Hotel meeting did not discuss a quid pro quo for the Russian funding, Vergine, the Italian journalist, said.

Salvini has in the past criticised EU sanctions on Russia - but he has stopped short of wielding Italy's veto in the EU Council to block their renewal.

He also went against the Kremlin line on the Venezuela crisis by recently calling for Venezuela's pro-Russian president, Nicolas Maduro, to step down.

Putin's lapdog?

"He [Salvini] is not quite Putin's lapdog. He hasn't even touched the anti-Russia sanctions," an EU diplomat noted.

"We're not sure what ties him to Russia ... maybe it's just the traditional fascination with Russia that's so deeply rooted in certain EU states," the diplomat added.

But "Russia is one of the most powerful countries in the world ... and it's pretty obvious that if they give you money, they'll expect something back, so it's not something a political party should do", Vergine, the Italian journalist, told this website.

"The new Europe must be close to Russia," the League's Savoini also reportedly said at the Metropol Hotel meeting.

"We want to change Europe together with our allies, like Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, Alternative fur Deutschland [AfD] in Germany, Mrs. [Marine] Le Pen in France, [Viktor] Orban in Hungary, Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden," Savoini added, referring to other far-right and pro-Russian politicians and parties in EU member states.

The L'Espresso revelations came after Russia was caught secretly funnelling millions of euros to Le Pen's party, the National Rally, to contest French national elections in 2017.

It has been caught giving tens of thousands of euros to a minor, far-right Polish politician called Mateusz Piskorski, in what some say is part of a much wider EU interference campaign.

It has also been accused of financing Strache's FPO party in Austria and Germany's AfD, but the FPO and AfD accusations were "never proved", according to Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the EU far-right at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a think tank in Kiev.

The Le Pen-type funding was "more the exception than the rule", Shekhovtsov said.

For their part, Italian opposition parties called for Salvini to explain himself over the weekend.

"Russia is financing the League? The worrying report by L'Espresso needs to be immediately clarified by the government," the left-wing Democratic Party said.

"If it's confirmed, it would be really worrying," Laura Boldrini, a centre-left politician who used to be the Italian parliament speaker, also said.

International reactions to the L'Espresso revelations were more outspoken.

"This shames Italy. If you ever wondered why Salvini is so pro-Russia, now you know," Guy Verhofstadt, a leading Belgian MEP and former prime minister, said on Friday.

"Unbelievable and shocking," Bill Browder, a British activist who campaigns for tougher sanctions on Russia, said on Sunday.

"Russia is funding the Italian far-right politician Salvini and his party as a way to have a Trojan Horse in EU political decisions. This should be investigated and prosecuted if true," Browder said.

Vergine, the Italian journalist, told EUobserver that under Italian law the League could obtain outside funding, but would have to declare it in its official records.

"In theory, it might be legal, but I don't think they would have declared the money from Russia" if they did go ahead with the Rosneft deal, he said.

'Shocking'

What was "shocking" for Browder might be less so for Italian voters in the EP election, Shekhovtsov, the Ukrainian expert noted, however.

"Italians are fine with Russia. It's not a problem for Italian society. Many people don't care about foreign policy and don't care if someone is friends with Putin or not," he said.

"So far, there's been more coverage [of the L'Espresso revelations] in international media than in Italy, so that's quite telling," Vergine also said.

"As far as what Italian people might feel, it's hard to say. There will be some who're outraged and some people who might be happy about it, people saying: 'The only thing I care about is that Salvini gets rid of the migrants'," Vergine added.

Asked by EUobserver if he and his colleague, Tizian, felt at risk over their Russia investigation given the fearsome reputation of Putin's intelligence services, Vergine said: "We were there for two days with a lot of other colleagues from the international press at a public event the day before [the Metropol Hotel talks]".

"When you do an investigation like this, you always have some concern, but there are more dangerous things you can do than going to a five-star hotel," he said.

"I wouldn't feel so comfortable about going back to Moscow after this," Vergine added, however.

Salvini invokes God and Russia on Poland trip

Orthodox values, opposition to EU institutions, and friendship with Russia should form the backbone of a new Italian-Polish league, Italy's Matteo Salvini has said.

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