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Russian fuel for Salvini’s EU election campaign?

Interview with Stefano Vergine, an Italian investigative journalist and co-author of the recent book The black book of Lega. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio.

April 5, 2019 - Mario Giagnorio Stefano Vergine - Interviews

Stefano Vergine. Source: Private collection

MARIO GIAGNORIO: The results of your investigative report are pretty interesting, and important for understanding what is going on in Italy and the relations between Salvini and Russia, especially since the EU elections are coming up soon. Could you briefly talk about what you have discovered?

STEFANO VERGINE: My colleague Giovanni Tizian, co-author of the book Il libro nero della Lega (The black book of Lega), and I witnessed a meeting in Moscow on October 18th 2018 in the hall of the “Metropol Hotel” – a five-star hotel in the centre of the Russian capital. The meeting was attended by six people, three Russians and three Italians. We managed to identify one of the Italians as Gianluca Savoini, Matteo Salvini’s former spokesperson, who presented himself as the coordinator of the meetings between Salvini and the “Russian circle”. (Salvini is the deputy prime minister of Italy, Italy’s minister of interior and head of the right wing party, Lega Nord – editor’s note.)

We also identified, among the Russians, Ilia Andreevich Yakunin, a company manager very close to Vladimir Pligin. Pligin is a lawyer who – the night before the meeting at the Metropol Hotel –  hosted another private meeting between Salvini and Dmitri Kozak, the Russian deputy prime minister responsible for the energy issues. Those six people present at the Metropol Hotel were talking about a plan to finance Lega in view of the upcoming EU elections. According to what we witnessed, the plan involved the Italian and Russian national oil companies, ENI and Rosneft. ENI had to purchase at least three million tonnes of diesel from Rosneft, with a discount of four per cent thanks to an intermediary. This intermediary was not specified, but it was said to be a European bank. One Italian, whom we could not identify but was described by the other people present at the meeting as a lawyer, said – and I am quoting – “The plan done by our political guys is simple. Given the four per cent discount, it’s 250,000 per month, for one year. This way they will sustain a campaign”. Right after he added: “This is a political issue, we want to fund a political campaign, and this is positive for both sides.” Basically, the six people were saying that the four per cent discount was meant to finance Lega, making it able to sustain a campaign.

Il libro nero della Lega (The black book of Lega) written by Giovanni Tizian and Stefano Vergine

According to what you wrote in your book, there were references to other Eurosceptic or far-right parties, during the meeting, such as the Austrian Heinz-Christian Strache, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Swedish Sverigedemokraterna.  Would you say that these types of “financial meetings” could have gone beyond Italy?

I do not know. What I can prove is just what I wrote about Russia and Lega. We all know that, some years ago Front National was financed with Russian funds. Of course, Russia has lots of interests in financing Eurosceptic parties, but in these past two years Giovanni Tizian and I have been investigating only the situation between Italy and Russia.

This is not the first time that Salvini has been accused of being financed by Russia. What is different now? The fact that negotiations have come to an end? Or is it more important because of the political relevance of what happened?

I would say that it is important because it is politically relevant. We do not know if the negotiations came to an end but we have proof that Salvini’s former spokesperson was negotiating to find a way to finance Lega with Russian funds, which means that the Italian nationalist party was trying to get money from another country.

What was the reaction of the Italian public and of the Italian political opposition of your revelations?

To put it simply, not a single word was said about it on television. There was some coverage from Italian newspapers and on the radio. On the other hand, there has been a lot of coverage by international media.

What countries covered your reporting?

It was mostly in the United States, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France and Belgium. I was interviewed by British radio stations. It was an important piece of news even in Russia whereas in Italy there was no big coverage of the issue.

Is this because of the government’s control over the media or is it rather a lack of interest?

Well, this is my hypothesis: people basically just watch TV so you can really change the public opinion through television. At the moment, Italian public TV Rai is controlled by the government; when it comes to “Mediaset” – Silvio Berlusconi’s station – Berlusconi does not have any interests in attacking Salvini, since he is trying to understand if the government will collapse or not after the EU elections (according to the polls, the Five Star Movement is in decline). Without the Five Star Movement, Salvini will need an ally, and Berlusconi can be the right one.

Given what you said, should we expect a more open friendly attitude of Italy towards Russia?

Since Salvini knows that this report is out and that it has received media coverage abroad, he will probably not show himself as too friendly towards Russia, but it is hard to predict.

Maybe Salvini would also like to legitimise his Lega as a “proper” European party, so he will be careful before openly speaking in favour of Russia…

I can tell you what Salvini did after the news was out. He tried to undermine it, first by saying that Lega did not receive any money from Russia, but we have never said that. We just wrote that the negotiations took place. Then he made some jokes, as Lega usually does when there are these kinds of investigations. Moreover, the mainstream media did not cover this news story so it is pretty easy for them to avoid hard questions.

What kind of pressure did you feel? You have been investigating this for two years now: was there any kind of pressure, from internal or external actors (trolls, etc. …?)

We did not feel any direct pressure, but we did feel alone. In our book, we talk about the relations between Lega and the people connected to the mafia, and we wrote about the scandal of the electoral refunds (49 million euros) stolen by Lega (before Salvini became the leader, but he spent the money as well), but almost no one talked about it, there was basically no coverage. We felt as if our work was accomplishing nothing, there was almost no reaction despite all the proof we provided.

Going back to the meetings in Russia, could you say something more about the connection between Lega and Kremlin?

Officially, the political alliance between Lega and “United Russia” started in 2017, and Salvini often remarks on the good relations and his positive opinion of Putin. Yet, it should be remembered that when Salvini was elected as secretary of Lega in 2013, among his supporters there was also Alexey Komov, a Russian representative of the World Congress of Families and partner of Konstantin Malofeev, a very powerful oligarch close to the Kremlin. We could say that it was already a sign of an alliance. When it comes to what happened on October 18th in Russia, Salvini was there the day before because of a conference organised by the Italian industry association (Confindustria) in Russia. On the 17th – as I said previously – there was also a secret meeting between Salvini and Dmitri Kozak, Russian deputy prime minister responsible for energy issues and on the following day there was the meeting about the buying and selling of diesel. We found out about this secret meeting that took place on January 17th, and we asked Salvini why it was secret, both through his personal account and in his public account, but he never replied. After we published this piece of news and the book, he was confronted by the editor in chief of L’Espresso, the magazine where our report was released. He was asked whether he met Kozak or not and Salvini, at first, said he did not remember. Then he said that, if they had met, it would have been “normal” and “legitimate”. It is true, it would be normal for him, since he is a deputy prime minister as well. On the other hand, why did he keep it secret? Why did he not reply to our questions? When he was asked about the diesel trade, he did not answer either. Salvini said that Lega never received money from Russia and that that would never happen. Yet, we did not write that he received money because we had proof only of the ongoing negotiations.

Should we expect the Italian government to push for the end of the EU sanctions against Russia?

Both Salvini and the Five-Star Movement were against the sanctions. I do not know if this piece of news will somehow prevent them from being openly against the sanctions. In my opinion, they could wait for some months after the EU elections (and, in my opinion, this would confirm what we have discovered). Yet, since Salvini is also close to Donald Trump and his administration, he could wait for something to happen in the US.

You mean wait and see if the Trump administration cuts back the sanctions as well?

Yes. I think that they play on two tables, with Russia and Trump. But now, the only thing that matters is that Lega is very strong and if they are able to win in the next EU elections, they will have more power to negotiate with the US and Russia.

Switching to the EU level, Salvini has always said that the “Visegrad group” is an ally for Italy, but some of those countries are traditionally sceptical towards Russia. Can this “special relation” between Lega and Russia be a problem for Salvini in the EU?

Since there are some countries where it is not smart to present yourself as pro-Russia, Salvini could play the “US card” in countries like Poland and show his second face in other countries.

When you were describing the alliance between Lega and Russia, you mentioned Alexey Komov who will be present at the World Congress of Families in Verona, which took place at the end of March 2019. Could you say something more about him? What are the connections between Salvini, Russia and the “pro-traditional family” narrative?

If you connect the dots, it all makes sense. I mean, Komov represents the traditional Russian view on family, against women’s rights, gay rights and the progressive issues. In Italy there is Salvini and other parties like Forza Nuova, which share the same views and people close to Steve Bannon, which support the same perspective. There is also the same view within the Vatican, whose main representative is US Cardinal Raymond Burke, openly against the current Pope’s rhetoric and talks openly about migrants and the “threat” of Islam. At the same time there is Komov, Malofeev and Aleksandr Dugin’s view, which can be called “Eurasia”. According to this view, there are only two options: either Europe and Asia, which basically means Europe and Russia, or “Eurabia”, the EU “invaded” by Arabs. Thus, we must choose the side that we want to be. The Eurasian perspective, connected to the Christian view supported by Burke and the World Congress of Families – they are basically the same thing and the opposite of what the Pope says.

So, there is a connection between the US, Russia, Euroscepticism and the narrative of the “traditional family” which, especially in Russia, is seen as a sign of western decadence…

I think that is a very attractive combination. I do not know what the situation is in Poland, but Italy has fallen back into recession for the third time in a decade and this brings about disappointment in politics. People are then promised a populist view of the need to restore the “old times”. And populist politicians promise to go back to the past in every aspect, from the economy to civil rights – Salvini is presenting himself as the one who can bring Italy back.

It seems that there’s an international network that refuses to improve the current situation and that makes the people of Italy want to go back…

It is true and at the same time the opposition does not have a “big dream” to respond. The central-left parties insist on things like deficit-GDP relations and they claim that some policies cannot be implemented while unemployment rises. After waiting four or five years for something to happen, people want to try something new. They do not know what is going to happen, but Salvini is trying to present himself as a viable alternative.

Stefano Vergine is an Italian investigative journalist and co-author of the book Il libro nero della Lega (the black book of Lega), published in 2019. From 2014-2018, he served as deputy news editor of the Italian weekly L’Espresso.

Mario Giagnorio is an Italian MA student at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.

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