Italy’s newspapers warn of Russian ‘interference’ in election

Italy's main newspapers printed front-page warnings on Friday of alleged Russian interference in the upcoming election, after Russia's former president urged Europeans to "punish" their governments.

Italy's newspapers warn of Russian 'interference' in election
Italy's League party leader Matteo Salvini, known for his admiration of Vladimir Putin, said Russia has no influence on Italy's elections. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Leading newspapers Repubblica and Il Messaggero published front pages warning of Russian “interference” on Friday, while the Corriere della Sera said Russia was “agitating” political waters ahead of the vote.

The headlines came after former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday called for European voters to be “not only outraged at the actions of their governments… but to hold them to account and punish them for their obvious stupidity”.

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

“Act, European neighbours! Don’t remain silent! Demand accountability!” he said on Telegram.

The government of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, providing Kyiv with military and humanitarian support.

But that support could shift with the likely victory of a right-wing alliance in general elections on September 25th.

Two of the three major parties in the right-wing coalition set to take power are known for their staunch support of Russia.

While Giorgia Meloni has said her frontrunning Brothers of Italy party stands with Ukraine, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia have long nurtured ties with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio accused Salvini and other leaders of failing to condemn what he said was clear Russian interference.

READ ALSO: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni (L) is tipped to become Italy’s next prime minister as part of a strong coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The head of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), Enrico Letta, said Moscow was attempting to “change Italian foreign policy, which since the beginning has been very clearly on the side of the European Union and NATO”.

Letta also called for Salvini’s League to break off a cooperation pact it signed with Putin’s United Russia party in 2017.

Salvini, who has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face, defended himself on Friday, saying he had “not been to Russia for years”.

“Russia does not have the slightest influence on the Italian elections,” he told journalists in Milan.

READ ALSO: Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

Medvedev, who was Putin’s stand-in president between 2008 and 2012, is now deputy head of the Security Council, but is widely believed to have little influence on Russian politics.

Allegations of meddling by Moscow in Italy are not new.

In July, Russia rejected previous accusations of election interference in Italy’s election campaign, which Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said were nothing more than a “myth”.

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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”