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MILAN, Italy – “Putin’s Patriots” was plastered across the front page of Italy’s La Stampa newspaper Thursday under a photo of the far-right Lega, or League, party leader Matteo Salvini giving a thumbs-up as he smiled in a T-shirt emblazoned with the Russian president’s likeness.
It is an old photo. But it’s a story with brand new legs. There are allegations the Russians actively pushed for certain Italian parties to pull their support from outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, one of the European leaders who’s been toughest on Russia in the wake of its war on Ukraine.
Salvini insists Russia was not behind the fall of this government. But he does advocate dialogue with Vladimir Putin. Before the war, he even advertised support for the Russian leader in slightly better days. All of this adds to fears about Russia ending up somehow the winner of next month’s Italian elections.
Enrico Letta, leader of the center-left PD, or Democratic Party, earlier this week raised the alert because he says Russia has meddled in Western elections before in the United States and the United Kingdom, and this time the stakes couldn’t be higher.
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“I launch a red alarm on that. And I would like to have the Italian government and Italian intelligence (on the case),” Letta said. “And I would also like to ask the European Union because there’s a unit within the European Union focused on that to help us to have elections without any external Russian influence.”
Mario Draghi resigned earlier this month because some parties in the coalition government he’d been charged with leading last year when former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stepped down pulled their support for him. They did so partly over resistance to some of his reforms.
The former central bank president, often called “Super Mario” and credited with saving the euro, had been considered by many a safe choice for both Italy and Europe in rocky times. But Draghi wasn’t part of all the all-important political parties. And Italy’s political landscape does not stay calm for long. The next government will be the 70th since World War II. If you believe the polls, it is likely to be a coalition of the right.
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Gianluca Paolucci, co-author of “Oligarchs” and “How Putin’s Friends are Buying Italy” doesn’t suggest, as some have speculated, that the Kremlin actually bought the no-confidence measure. But he does say those who engineered Draghi’s demise are more sympathetic toward Putin and may give him a break going forward. That may not change the trajectory of the war. But it could do a number on European cohesion.
“We all know about the relation between Mr. (Matteo) Salvini and the League Party and United Russia, the party of President Putin,” Paolucci told Fox News. “And about oligarchs and the far right here. And then there is the Five Star Movement.”
Paolucci recalled how the leader of that party and then prime minister invited some Russian emergency teams in to help handle the COVID pandemic in its early days when Italy was hit hard. It turned out those Russians were not just medics and sanitary technicians but members of the military. And the images of them fanning across towns in northern Italy raised eyebrows.
“That was quite shocking to see this long queue of Russian military (vehicles) in Italy,” Paolucci said. “I mean, the whole country was closed at home at the time.”
Experts and the polls say the next government will be right leaning, likely a coalition. But it is the most far-right party of the grouping that looks set to take the helm.
Giorgia Meloni is the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy. And if that party gets the most votes as predicted, Meloni will probably be Italy’s first female prime minister. The party insists it will not go easy on Russia. Party officials say they’ll be in lockstep with Europe, NATO and the United States in standing up to Putin as long as this war rages.
“We have strongly condemned the invasion of Russia, and we have a solid sense of belonging and conviction within the Atlantic Alliance,” said Raffaele Fitto of Brothers of Italy and co-president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament.
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The center-left PD, the second-strongest single party, isn’t convinced that Brothers of Italy will work well with the country’s European allies on Russia and beyond. The party is accused of being anti-Europe. Its detractors say the party is born of the fascist tradition in this country, but Letta suggests that label may be too simplistic.
“Our electoral campaign could be an electoral campaign in which the word ‘fascism’ can be repeated many times,” Letta said this week. “But I think, to win this election, I have to explain to voters why it is better to vote for us because it’s in their own interests in terms of social dimension, in terms of salaries, jobs and the fight against climate change.”
Leaders of the Brothers of Italy say they will effectively champion all those causes — except for fascism, which they call a smear.
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“It is a party that today has the consent of one in four Italians and probably even higher in a month,” Fitto says. “We are a party that has deep roots in democracy, and what we strongly ask (Italians) is to go and vote to have a government legitimized by the choice of citizens.”
These are citizens — like many across the globe — who will ultimately be most worried about fuel bills, jobs and inflation. Russia plays big in this equation. But obviously it is just a piece of the political puzzle. And for sure, Russia will be eagerly awaiting the results of Italy’s Sept. 25 election. Maybe almost as eagerly as the Italians will be.