Dhe election campaign in Italy has a new player: Moscow. On Thursday, the liberal Turin daily “La Stampa”, citing secret service sources, reported that there had been contacts between the right-wing nationalist Lega party of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and the Russian embassy in Rome in the run-up to the fall of Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
During the conversation between Antonio Capuano, Salvini’s advisor on foreign policy issues, and Oleg Kostyukov, a senior official in the political department at the Russian mission, the question was whether the Lega intends to remove its three ministers from the cabinet of the non-party Prime Minister Mario Draghi. The conversation is said to have taken place on May 27, around two months before Draghi’s fall.
In mid-May, Salvini personally discussed the possibility of a kind of peacekeeping mission with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Razov. The flight tickets for his planned trip to talks in the Kremlin were apparently already paid for by the Russian side before the Lega boss had to cancel due to harsh criticism from Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and other cabinet members. The flight costs advanced in rubles should have been refunded to Salvini in euros after his return from Moscow, it was said at the time. Kostyukov is said to have planned Salvini’s trip to Moscow at the time.
Salvini speaks of “fake news”
At the time, Salvini defended his travel plans to Moscow, arguing that everything must be done to achieve peace in Ukraine. Now he describes the reports of his advisor Capuano’s negotiations with Kostyukov as “fake news”. On Friday, Salvini responded to the insinuation spread by media comments and domestic political opponents that Moscow was behind Draghi’s fall and that a future right-wing government in Rome could dance to Moscow’s tune: “We stand by the West and by democracy.”
The Lega has maintained good relations with the Kremlin party United Russia for many years. The two parties signed a five-year cooperation agreement in 2017. The Lega says the agreement has not been extended.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio from the Five Stars was not convinced by Salvini’s statements and called on the Lega leader to provide the public with comprehensive information about his contacts with the Russian embassy in Rome and with Moscow in general. “We must be wary of Russian interference in this election campaign,” Di Maio warned.
Social Democrat party leader Enrico Letta said: “We want to know if those who brought down the Draghi government did so at the behest of a foreign power that is attacking us and with whom we cannot have good relations. We must ensure that this election campaign is conducted without external influences from Russia.”
Demands for parliament’s intelligence committee to look into the matter were rejected by its chairman, Adolfo Urso, who belongs to the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party. This would drag a non-partisan government institution into the government’s election campaign, Urso said. The brothers of Italy are going to the new elections on September 25 in an alliance with the Lega and with Silvio Berlusconi’s Christian Democrat Forza Italia.
On Friday, the newspaper La Repubblica, also citing intelligence sources, reported that most of the refugee boats that have reached Italy, and more particularly the island of Lampedusa, via the central Mediterranean have recently left Libya. Previously, most of them had come from Tunisia. According to La Repubblica, the Libyan stretch of coast from which the boats depart is controlled by renegade General Chalifa Haftar. He is in turn supported by units of the Russian Wagner mercenaries.
Apparently, the newspaper writes, the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner mercenaries ensure that more and more migrants make their way north towards Italy. According to Moscow’s calculations, an intensified migration crisis could play into the hands of Lega boss Salvini in particular in the election campaign.
The 350-person reception center on Lampedusa is currently overcrowded with up to 1,900 migrants. Salvini will travel to Lampedusa next week. For weeks he has been accusing Luciana Lamorgese, his successor in the Interior Ministry, of having failed in refugee policy.
According to the Interior Ministry, more than 39,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy since the beginning of the year. In the same period of 2021 there were 28,000 and around 13,000 in the previous year. Salvini promises that if the centre-right alliance wins the elections, it will ensure that no more migrant boats reach Italian ports.