10th Jun 2023

Does Draghi have a Russia problem?

  • Mario Draghi's Italy was one of three countries singled out by Donald Tusk for having 'disgraced' itself over Russia sanctions (Photo: European Parliament)
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Italy is among EU member states facing the opprobrium of central and eastern Europeans in the aftermath of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And no wonder.

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  • Photos of The League's Matteo Salvini wearing a T-shirt with Putin's face circulate on social media (Photo: Twitter)

Italy was among the handful of countries at a summit in Brussels on Thursday night (24 February) that opposed booting Russia out of the SWIFT international banking payments system.

On Friday morning, Italy was specifically named by former president of the European Council and ex-Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, as among three countries that "disgraced themselves" at the summit for blocking more forceful sanctions against Russia.

Rome has long enjoyed something of a special friendship with Moscow, not least because of the presence of historically pro-Russian political forces in the Italian parliament.

And while much of the infatuation with Russia among some Italians may be hard to explain, it's still a factor that its leaders, like prime minister Mario Draghi, must contend with.

The leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, has been praising Vladimir Putin for years. Photos of Salvini wearing a T-shirt with Putin's face circulate on social media.

And in 2016, a leading member of the League in the northeastern Veneto region traveled to Crimea calling for an end to the embargo with Russia.

There's also been a measure of hostility on the far-left toward Ukraine in the lead up to the war. Some academics repeated on social media the trope that Ukraine is a Nazi country — the very language used by Putin himself.

The Italian media, too, often has a Russian flavour.

"In the Italian news the voice of Ukraine is missing — there is an authentic void," said Yaryna Grusha, a professor of Ukrainian language and literature at the University Statale of Milan, who has been living in Italy for seven years.

"The vast majority of news talk about Russia, not Ukraine," she said, adding that television reporters in particular use "typical Russian narratives" in their reports.

Luxury goods

Then there's the economy. Italy is known for its export-driven small and medium-sized businesses.

And while there is a perception that these firms — and not just the luxury fashion brands — would suffer from loss of the Russian market, the evidence may not quite back that up.

Italian companies exported food, clothing, luxury goods and furniture to Russia totalling €7.1bn 2020 — far less than to tiny Belgium.

Even so, most most business lobbies representing these SMEs are extremely hostile to international sanctions against Moscow

Alessandro Vitale, associate professor of economic and political geography at the University Statale of Milan, says Italian exports to Russia have been in decline over the past three years and now represent a mere 1.5 percent of their overall sales.

What is undeniable, however, is that Russia is a crucial energy partner for Italy.

The country is heavily dependent on gas for electricity production, and with 40 percent of that gas coming from Russia, according to Davide Tabarelli, president of the research center Nomisma Energia

Increasing energy prices already are striking many businesses hard with many foregoing investment and hiring.

Low-income south Italy

Ordinary Italians were already worried about high energy bills, and now low-income families, especially in southern Italy, are finding it extremely difficult to pay for electricity and gas.

To make matters worse, Italian media have amplified the fears many Italians have of a gas supply disruption.

By Friday morning, Draghi was eager to say Italy would be in tougher on Russia in future if needed.

Europe, including Italy, is ready "to take even harsher measures if these do not prove sufficient," Draghi told the Chamber of Deputies.

That stance was backed up by undersecretary Giorgio Mulè, of the pro-Nato, pro-EU Forza Italia party.

"If diplomacy fails any option must be on the table and must be examined," said Mulè, who also noted that "sanctions can hit a country like Russia very hard."

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


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