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RUSSIA

EU to aid parmesan hit by Russian ban

The European Commission has announced an aid package to help cheesemakers hit by Russia’s embargo on food imports, a move greeted with “satisfaction” by Italy’s parmesan consortium.

EU to aid parmesan hit by Russian ban
Italy exported €45 million worth of dairy products to Russia last year. Parmesan photo: Shutterstock

The Commission said on Thursday it would provide financial aid to help dairy companies store their produce, covering the costs for three to seven months. Funding will initially be offered to producers of butter, skimmed milk powder and cheeses with protected status such as Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano (parmesan).

The move follows Russia’s decision earlier this month to ban European food imports in response to EU sanctions over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict. Cheese exports from Europe to Russia were worth almost €1 billion last year, while the total value of dairy exports reached €2.3 billion in 2013.

SEE ALSO: Russia import ban could cost Denmark

The decision was welcomed with “satisfaction” by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.

“This is the response we have been waiting for,” said consortium president Giuseppe Alai.

“These measures allow producers to be supported in a critical phrase for the market, in which the Russian embargo closes one of the commercial channels that in recent years has been one of the most interesting in terms of growth,” Alai said in a statement.

Italian agriculture association Coldiretti said that while many producers will come to depend on the EU support, the European Commission had not gone far enough.

“The total sum allocated is not sufficient to cover the losses and some important Italian products hit by the block remain excluded, for example certain dairy products and those with protected origin,” Coldiretti said online.

The agricultural organization put the value of Italy’s dairy exports to Russia at €45 million last year, including €13 million worth of mozzarella not yet covered by the EU aid package.

SEE ALSO: Russian import ban has cost Austria millions

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RUSSIA

‘Look for the rubles. Good luck’: Salvini fends off Russia claims

Salvini is fighting tooth and nail against suggestions that his far-right League party tried to get covert Russian payments during talks in Moscow last year.

'Look for the rubles. Good luck': Salvini fends off Russia claims
Matteo Salvini has claimed his support for Russian president Vladimir Putin comes "for free". Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
But the revelation by news website Buzzfeed of a conversation recorded in a Moscow hotel between one of Salvini's top lieutenants and three Russians discussing covert payments has put him on the back foot.
   
The first reports of these meetings surfaced in the Italian press in February. But the scoop by online news website Buzzfeed — based on an audio recording of the talks — pushed it back centre stage and was widely reported in Italy.
   
The deal under discussion was to covertly divert $65 million (58 million euros) to the League by means of discounted Russian oil transactions through intermediaries.
   
Buzzfeed identified Gianluca Savoini of the League as one of three Italians talking to three Russians. It said the talks took place in October.
   
Former journalist Savoini, 56, is married to a Russian and is president of the Lombardy-Russia association. He is considered one of the League's main contacts with Russia.
   
“A hoax, a fraud, a piece of dirt,” Savoini told Italian daily La Repubblicca, describing the Buzzfeed story.
 
 
When the story broke on Wednesday, Salvini denied it. “Never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a litre of vodka in financing from Russia,” he said in a statement.
 
But he has never hidden his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Italy only last week. And during his visit, Putin referred to a cooperation agreement between his United Russia party and Salvini's League.
 
Salvini's says his support for Putin, his fight to overturn European sanctions imposed against Russia for their 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, comes “free”. His position is a matter of conviction, he insists.
 
 Ongoing investigation
 
According to reports in the Italian press, prosecutors are already investigating Savoini, put on the trail by earlier accounts of the Moscow meetings published in the Italian press.
   
Under the terms of a deal it reached last September, the League is already paying back 49 million euros of fraudulently obtained election expenses claimed between 2008 and 2010, before Salvini took over as leader in 2013.
   
The agreement the party reached with Genoa prosecutors to pay the money back over a period of decades went down very badly with opposition parties, and Salvini has had to take the heat from that agreement.
   
In parliament, opposition deputies held up signs reading “65 million” and “49 million” to link the two affairs. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi of the centre-left Democratic Party described Savoini's talks in Russia as “high treason”.
   
This latest affair bears some resemblance to the scandal that brought down Austrian nationalist Heinz-Christian Strache in May.
   
Leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), Strache resigned on May 18 after a hidden-camera sting filmed in a luxury villa on the island of Ibiza, in which he appeared to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.
   
But Buzzfeed is convinced that its recording is not of a sting but of talks between genuine players on both sides — even if Savoini is not as senior a figure as Strache was.
   
“I've never met him personally,” said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Savoini. The latter, however, was among the guests to a formal dinner given in Putin's honour in Rome last week.
   
He appears in a photo of the event, standing in the background as a smiling Putin and Conte exchange toasts.
   
“He wasn't invited by the interior ministry,” said Salvini at a press conference Friday.
   
With an exasperated air he said: “Guys, let me do my job seriously. Look for the rubles — good luck. And me: I'll do my job. I think this investigation is ridiculous.”
   
But the story was still making headlines Saturday. “Salvini couldn't not know” said one in La Repubblica.
   
International lawyer Gianluca Meranda wrote to the paper to identify himself as one of the other people recorded at the October meeting in Moscow.
 
He confirmed negotiations, but said that the talks about an oil deal had not in the end led to anything. He denied any question that this was about getting funding for the party. But he was happy to talk to prosecutors, he added.
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