Italy’s Salvini questioned over Russia ties ahead of election campaign

Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini's ties with Russia were again under scrutiny on Thursday following questions about the run-up to the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government.

Anti-immigrant League party leader Matteo Salvini has attracted scrutiny over his ties to Russia as Italy's general election campaign kicks off
Anti-immigrant League party leader Matteo Salvini has attracted scrutiny over his ties to Russia as Italy's general election campaign kicks off. Photo by PEDRO ROCHA / AFP.

La Stampa newspaper reported that a diplomat at the Russian embassy met one of Salvini’s aides in late May in Rome, and asked if any of the ministers from Salvini’s League party intended to resign from Draghi’s coalition.

The League pulled out of the government last week, alongside Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the populist Five Star Movement, causing Draghi to resign and triggering September elections.

The meeting was said to have taken place at the same time as Salvini drew criticism for conducting parallel diplomacy with Russia over the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: ‘No respect’: Polish mayor confronts Italy’s Salvini over Putin support

He planned a trip to Moscow ostensibly for peace talks — with flights bought by the Russian embassy, an arrangement his team insists was only done due to difficulties circumventing EU sanctions.

They said they reimbursed the embassy and the trip in the end never happened.

Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio on Thursday condemned “this attempt by the Russian side to have the League minister withdraw from Draghi’s government”.

Salvini “must explain the relations he has with Russia”, said Di Maio, like Draghi a strong advocate of EU sanctions against Moscow and Italy’s sending of weapons and money to help Kyiv’s resistance.

Przemysl’s mayor Wojciech Bakun (L) confronted Italian League leader Matteo Salvini (R) during his visit to Poland on March 8th over his admiration and support for the Russian president in recent years. Photo by STRINGER / ANSA / AFP

Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, also said the ties between Salvini and Russia were “concerning”.

Salvini hit back condemning “fake news”, putting the claims down to mud-slinging at the start of the campaign for the September 25th elections.

“A divided and desperate left… spends its time looking for fascists, Russians and racists who are not there,” he said, insisting his party was “on the side of the West”.

READ ALSO: ‘Not one ruble’: Italy’s Salvini denies his party took Russian money

The Russian embassy did not comment, but has previously denied interfering in Italian affairs.

Salvini has long admired President Vladimir Putin, even wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face, a stance that has become politically difficult since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

One of his election allies, Berlusconi, is also a personal friend of Putin, although their coalition partner Giorgia Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy and is currently leading opinion polls, has strongly criticised Russian aggression.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter ‘defamation’ trial

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday she will not withdraw her defamation suit against anti-mafia reporter Roberto Saviano, despite growing criticism that her position of power might skew the trial in her favour.

Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter 'defamation' trial

On Tuesday, the hard-right leader told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that she was confident the case would be treated with the necessary “impartiality”.

Meloni sued anti-mafia reporter Saviano for alleged defamation after he called her a “bastard” in a 2020 televised outburst over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but took office last month after an electoral campaign that promised to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the trial, which opened earlier in November, to be scrapped.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia reporter on trial for ‘defaming’ Italy’s far-right PM

“I don’t understand the request to withdraw the complaint on the pretext that I am now prime minister,” Meloni said.

“I believe that all this will be treated with impartiality, considering the separation of powers.”

She also added: “I am simply asking the court where the line is between the legitimate right to criticise, gratuitous insult and defamation.”

Saviano, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

The case dates back to December 2020 when Saviano was asked on a political TV chat show for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck.

On the occasion, he railed at Meloni, who in 2019 had said that charity vessels which rescue migrants “should be sunk”.

Saviano is not the only journalist Meloni is taking to trial. One of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, Emiliano Fittipaldi, said last week the prime minister had sued him for defamation.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Meloni takes another investigative reporter to court

That trial is set to start in 2024.

Watchdogs say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures intimidate reporters with repeated lawsuits, threatening the erosion of a free press.