How Matteo Salvini became Putin’s man in Europe

The Italian public suffers from so much scandal fatigue that yet another one barely registers

August 30, 2019
Chamber of Commerce presentation of the book Putin Vita of a Tsar with Matteo Salvini. Photo: PA
Chamber of Commerce presentation of the book Putin Vita of a Tsar with Matteo Salvini. Photo: PA

Last autumn, three Italians travelled to Moscow to broker a deal for discounted oil. Among the group was Gianluca Savoini, a former spokesman for, and a close ally of, the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini. The profits of the oil deal—estimated at €58m—would be used to boost the coffers of Salvini’s far-right Lega Party. But two undercover Italian journalists were also present in the hotel, and someone was secretly recording the encounter. That recording emerged in June, and Savoini is now under investigation by Italian magistrates for breaking party-funding laws.

Salvini—arguably Italy’s most powerful politician—was on an official visit to Moscow at the time of as the meeting. He has refused to give a full account of his movements, and many Italian newspapers claim that Salvini secretly met Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister. Salvini hasn’t answered questions on the subject, calling inquiring journalists “rude.”

Salvini has been open, however, about his admiration of Vladimir Putin. In 2017 his Lega Party signed a co-operation accord with Putin’s United Russia. He has posed for photographs wearing a T-shirt showing the Russian leader’s face both in Red Square and inside the European Parliament. On the latter occasion, in November 2015, he announced he would exchange two Sergio Mattarellas (the Italian president) for half a Putin. He has said of Russia: “I feel at home here, unlike in some European countries.”

This fawning relationship between Salvini and Putin was forged by two men. One was Savoini, himself married to a Russian and, prior to his Lega affiliations, on the fringes of various neo-Nazi parties. The other is the prolific fascist writer (and former adviser to various figures in Putin’s regime) Aleksandr Dugin, who interviewed Salvini in 2016 and is a frequent visitor to Italian salons. His notion of “Eurasianism”—of a new continent centred on Moscow—has attracted far-right nationalists across Europe who are drawn to Russia’s macho opposition to multiculturalism, gay rights, the EU and Islam.

Italy’s far right has been seduced more than most. A constellation of Italian fascists has been drawn to Moscow over the last decade. In March 2015, Roberto Fiore, founder of the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova, attended the “International Russian Conservative Forum” in St Petersburg alongside the BNP’s Nick Griffin and members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Another man present was a representative of the Lombardy-Russian Association, a strange organisation that acts as a bridge between the economic interests of politicians from the Lega and United Russia.

Various far-right Italian mercenaries and ultras (the country’s extremist football fans) are even fighting alongside Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Many of those combatants have made contact with a neo-Nazi organisation called Rusich, inspired by Pan-Slavism and a longing to recreate a 21st-century nationalistic version of the USSR. The exchange of personnel goes in both directions: in recent years various Italo-Russians have stood in local elections in Rome for Forza Nuova and another neo-fascist party, Fratelli D’Italia.

Apologists for this odd alliance say that Russia and Italy have always had extraordinarily close cultural ties. Italian architects were responsible for building many of Moscow’s iconic buildings in the 15th century, and Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky were -notorious Italophiles. Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party for 33 years, lived in the Soviet Union during his exile from fascism and even had a city on the river Volga named after him, where Fiat duly built a huge car factory.

But there are strategic and philosophical reasons, too. Both Putin and Salvini long to weaken the EU because they are nationalists who mix with proponents of racial purity. The bond is also, of course, economic. The commercial exchange between the two countries has almost halved since the introduction of sanctions in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea—sanctions both leaders want to end. Even so, Italy is the fifth biggest exporter to Russia and many major Italian companies are heavily invested in the country. Italy, too, is dependent on Russian fuel: 18 per cent of its petrol and 43 per cent of its natural gas comes from the country. In that context, the allegation that a few million tonnes of discounted oil were intended to grease the Lega’s wheels is almost unsurprising.

And yet the Russian oil story has barely dented Salvini’s popularity. The Italian public suffers from so much scandal fatigue that yet another one barely registers, especially thanks to an often-compliant mainstream media. It was a sign of his confidence that, in the midst of the revelations, Salvini announced that his party was withdrawing from the government. He intended to force new elections that his party, polling at around 35 per cent, seemed certain to win. But Italian politics is rarely predictable: the centre-left Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement patched up their differences and—for the moment—banished Salvini to the opposition benches.