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This Week in Info War

Italian elections open the door toward Russia wider

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In Italy’s 4 March parliamentary elections, voters—angered by high unemployment, stagnant wages, uncontrolled immigration, and a self-serving political class—gave half their ballots to two populist parties, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Northern League. Both are hostile to the European Union and sympathetic to Moscow’s geopolitical claims in Europe.

Mathematically, no new government can be formed without them. The results are likely to help undermine EU unity in general, weaken the consensus behind EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and strengthen the Kremlin’s energy agenda, which includes using Gazprom energy shipments to Europe as a political weapon.

Although evidence points to Russian meddling in the campaign, Moscow’s influence on Italian politics dates back decades.

During the Cold War, the Italian Communist Party controlled some regional and city governments and received financial support from the Kremlin. Many Italian right-wing and neo-fascist intellectuals have been in contact with Russian ultranationalists since the early 1990s.

Italy depends on Russian energy, and Moscow for years reportedly has given money to some Italian politicians. In recent years, as the country’s economy has stagnated and worries about immigration and corruption have increased, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared. Italians widely view him as an effective leader who opposes globalization—an image fueled by Russia propaganda.

In 2012-13  the Kremlin began actively engaging anti-establishment forces in Italy, encouraging them to embrace a pro-Russian stance and using them to exert influence inside Italy.

Today, Russia supports both 5SM and the Northern League, primarily in the form of visibility in Kremlin-controlled international media. However, no publicly available evidence exists to suggest that Moscow provides them financial support.

During the campaign and in discussing the results, Russian news outlets and officials usually avoided covering accusations of Kremlin interference. They instead focused on the EU’s alleged failure to govern effectively—and they expressed hope the results would strengthen Russian-Italian ties.

“We regard [the election] as Italy’s domestic affair, the sovereign right of Italian citizens to cast their votes for the political powers which they see fit for the future of their country,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He added that Russia “want[s] Italy to remain our gracious and long-term partner, and [we want] Europe to be prosperous, while fostering and holding benevolent relations with the Russian Federation based on the principles of mutual benefit and shared respect.” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Moscow expected to cooperate with the future Italian government and maintain the continuity in Russian-Italian relations.”

In parliament, one Russian senator compared Italy’s elections to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The similarity, he argued, was that both Italians and Americans chose to go down a “new policy direction.” Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s Federation Council International Affairs Committee, wrote on Facebook: “The outcome of Italy’s polls holds three key pieces of information, but none of them contain anything sensational. The first is that Italian voters made an articulate decision to change the authorities in their country. Consequently, the socialists’ years-long rule had ended up letting [the voters] down, and demand for a new policy course has emerged. Things like this happen.” He also wrote that the results are “another headache for Brussels because now it will have to come to terms with not only “the newcomers” from Hungary and Poland, but also with the Italian giant. And this is a serious challenge.” 

Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had no doubt that “given the election’s outcome, Russian-Italian relations will evolve constructively. Members of the coalition, as well as the Five Star Movement, which came second, call for strengthening the partnership with Russia and removing the European Union’s illegal sanctions from our country.”

In the press, Russia’s RT mostly stuck to reporting the facts of the election, sometimes sprinkled with bits of analysis, apparently to deflect charges of Russian interference. On 6 March, for example, RT ran an analysis examining the rise of right-wing populist groups in Europe. The article highlighted how “left-wing officials, analysts and media blame anything from Russian bots to uneducated voters,” but in reality the rise of the right is attributed to the fact that “euroskeptic, anti-immigration and nationalist outlooks seem to be ever more appealing to the public.” Elsewhere, RT published an article discussing Russia’s vehement denial of accusations by Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that it had meddled in the Italian elections. “Russia’s utility as the universal scapegoat cannot be underestimated these days,” RT wrote, painting Power as an ineffective policymaker. Sputnik, meanwhile, published articles by “experts” on why the Five Star Movement had succeeded. Most of them blamed the EU and its “inability to solve its economic and financial problems.” One expert told Sputnik that Italy’s elections show it is “unclear where the whole idea of Europe’s unification is going.”

Whether M5S or the Northern League end up in a governing coalition will be determined by negotiations in coming days. There is little doubt, however that in Italy, events are moving in a direction favorable to the Kremlin’s interests.