Monday

20th May 2019

Opinion

Italy-Russia links highlight threat to EU democracy

  • 'Dig deeper behind the curtain of business interests in Russia and we find an intricate web of cultural, political and ideological ties' (Photo: Kelly)

Behind the small non-descript brown door of a mansion block in Moscow lie the headquarters of the company, Orion LLC.

This mysterious entity, which has an eclectic range of specialisms - from business consulting to heavy industrial machinery sale, construction projects, engineering design and market research - is owned by two key figures in the Italian political party, the League: Gianluca Savoini, president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, and Claudio d'Amico, a senior foreign policy adviser to the party.

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  • Matteo Salvini's Legaue party signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia (Photo: European Parliament)

Both wield significant influence.

Savoini is a former spokesperson for Italy's deputy prime minister and League chief, Matteo Salvini, and now attends meetings alongside him with high ranking Russian politicians.

And d'Amico is an advisor on the party's 'strategic international activities', who failed to declare ownership of the company when he was made city councillor of Sesto San Giovanni in 2017.

At the weekend, the Italian magazine L'Espresso published a series of cases where senior figures in and around Lega were linked to businesses based in Russia, and, more significantly, allegations that the party was in talks to secure funding through an oil deal brokered by Savoini.

The League has never hidden its desire to forge close economic and ideological links with Russia.

League representatives have frequently travelled to Russia and appeared regularly on state-controlled media there.

In 2017, a formal "cooperation and collaboration" agreement was signed between Russian president Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia and the League, aimed at boosting business, legislative and cultural ties between the two countries.

And last year, Salvini tweeted his support for Putin in the Russian presidential elections, alongside an article denying claims of Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the UK last year.

Key to a lot of this activity is the Lombardia-Russia Cultural Association, which Savoini runs and in which d'Amico plays a pivotal role.

Set up soon after Salvini took over the League, it aims to build a unity of mission between the two countries based on the core pillars of "identity, sovereignty and tradition".

There has been a lot of public attention on the role the Russian state may or may not be playing in setting political agendas abroad, particularly on the potential spread of disinformation aimed at undermining more established political parties, inciting division and anger, and fragmenting the European political landscape.

These are extremely serious accusations, which potentially threaten the very bedrock of Western democracy and it is right that they are fully investigated, whether by legal inquiries, as is underway in the US, or via counterintelligence operations.

But are we missing a trick by not putting these in the wider context of Russian business interests pursued by those holding political power across Europe?

Not alone

As L'Espresso's coverage clearly highlights, neither Savoini nor d'Amico are alone in having a mix of political and business interests in Russia.

In Kalmykia (a federal district of Russia), for example, a fruit growing business, receives investment from Palmiro Zoccatelli, prominent member of the League and a key figure within the non-profit organisation 'Family and Civilisation', which organises pro-life events providing platforms for Alexey Komov, a protege of the Russian oligarch, Konstantin Malofeev and another key figure in the Lombardia-Russia Cultural Association.

Sanctioned by the EU and US for providing financial assistance to pro-Russian extremists in Eastern Ukraine, Malofeev has been described as "the Russian billionaire carrying out Putin's will across Europe", and is also widely known for running homophobic conferences in Russia, allegedly assisting the Front National in securing loans from a Russian investment company, and seeking to build alliances between European far right parties.

Of course, this is not a trend isolated to Italy - politicians from across Europe have sought to find benefits in the economic potential of Russia's vast lands.

At the Yalta Economic Forum held this time last year, a coterie of representatives from Europe's far right and other radical political parties gathered to discuss investment opportunities in Crimea, despite the EU sanctions regime.

These included individuals from Austria's FPO, AfD in Germany, Belgium's Vlaams Belang and the National Front (now called the National Rally) in France.

There may be nothing in any of this.

After all, Russia is a global superpower with economic and political influence that extends well beyond the reach of almost any other country.

In an uncertain and turbulent world, of course it makes sense to form global alliances that could potentially offer economic and security benefits.

But perhaps it is the blurring of lines between the business and the political that should make us uneasy.

This is not just politicians drumming up investment support or opening doors for businesses - there are examples here of direct ownership and personal investment, with allegations of more serious divergence of cash directly into the coffers of political parties.

Dig deeper

Dig deeper behind the curtain of business interests in Russia and we find an intricate web of cultural, political and ideological ties, which make it difficult to be sure how much of the pro-Russian rhetoric deployed by some of the individuals involved is for their own personal benefit or because they genuinely believe it is in their party's interest - or their country's.

Does it matter, for example, that d'Amico, owner of the undeclared Russian company, travelled to Russia to observe the recent presidential elections there?

Or that he had previously been one of the observers to the hugely sensitive public vote on the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2016?

Is it concerning that the company's co-owner, Savoini, who is at the centre of the latest allegations related to Russian funding of the League, confirmed to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that he has been present at meetings between Salvini and members of Russia's national security council.

Politicians' business interests have long been a matter for public scrutiny, but the systems to record these - and hold those individuals to account who vie for the power to take decisions on the future direction of their country - must now be strengthened.

That means introducing tough rules that comply with the principles set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Paris-based club of wealth nations.

These ought to include ensuring clear and comprehensive asset declaration and conflict of interest rules, regular required updates (at least annually), proper monitoring and enforcement, a sanctions regime that can lead to loss of office for a serious breach, and the easy access of this information to the public.

How can we be sure those holding public office are not acting in the interests of their business dealings if we simply do not know what these are?

A series of weak systems across the continent leaves European democracy ripe for exploitation.

And if we cannot act to protect that, we're facing a very dangerous future.

Author bio

Amy Richards is director of Global Witness, a London-based NGO, whose mission is 'exposing the economic networks behind conflict, corruption, and environmental abuse.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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