Italy's far-right leader calls allegations of Russian influence a 'James Bond' fantasy
By CHICO HARLAN | The Washington Post | Published: July 24, 2019
ROME - The question hangs over Italian politics: Did the country's ruling far-right party solicit illegal funding from Russia?
For that party's leader, Matteo Salvini, the corruption allegations are "fantasy." For a significant portion of voters, the prospect of Russian influence hasn't made much difference; the League has only gained support in the weeks since a leaked audio recording allegedly showed a Salvini ally discussing a secretive funding scheme in a Moscow hotel lobby.
But for others, the scenario is grave. Some newspapers call the saga "Moscopoli," a wordplay echoing a massive corruption scandal that redrew the Italian political landscape in the 1990s. Opposition politicians say Salvini owes the country answers - and he has so far resisted invitations to address the Senate.
Instead, on Wednesday, Italian parliamentarians got a far less satisfying scenario: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appeared in the Senate instead, speaking cautiously, pausing amid repeated jeers, and shedding no new light on whether Salvini knew about his ally's dealings in Moscow. The performance all but guaranteed that Italy will remain divided deeper into the summer over whether its most powerful politician is guilty of corruption, bad judgment, or nothing at all.
"Surely, there are currently no elements to crack the trust that I have in all components of this government," said Conte, who at several points needed the Senate president's help to calm the politicians he was addressing.
Conte said he was on guard about undue outside influence on Italian foreign policy.
"I was always quite careful about that," said Conte, a lawyer handpicked last year by the two parties, the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, that formed Italy's ruling coalition.
Italy is just the latest Western nation to deal with the prospect of Russian influence in its politics, a possibility that marks the first major test for the staying power of Salvini and the nation's far-right nationalism. Salvini has transformed the League into the country's dominant party with his brand of ever-present personality politics, posting tirelessly on social media, giving rollicking speeches and pledging to defend Italians against the dangers of migration.
Salvini, who is the Italian interior minister, has denied taking money from Russia. In one recent newspaper interview, he compared his own situation to that of President Donald Trump, who was investigated "for two years without finding anything," he said.
Conte's appearance Wednesday was not enough to satisfy Italy's opposition politicians, who have been relegated to the margins during Salvini's rise. After Conte finished, one left-leaning politician rose to speak and called the prime minister evasive. Another said the shadows of Russian influence had not been dispelled. Several criticized Salvini for "fleeing" from questioning. The political day finished with a live Facebook video in which Salvini held his phone close to his face, discussed new public funding for schools and infrastructure, and dismissed the Russia inquiry as the "fantasies of James Bond."
Salvini has long had warm relations with Moscow, advocating against Russian sanctions, and extolling President Vladimir Putin as an example of strong leadership. But focus has zeroed in on one of Salvini's longtime associates, Gianluca Savoini, who was depicted on the leaked audio tape as discussing a plan last October with three as-yet-unidentified Russians to allegedly help fund the League party. No evidence has surfaced that the deal went through or that Salvini knew about it. But Salvini was in Moscow at the time of Savoini's meeting, which also included two Italian lawyers.
Savoini is the president of a regional pro-Russian lobby and is not part of the Italian government. But he has managed to gain influence. He was among the attendees at a July 4 dinner when Putin visited Rome.
The participants in the October meeting in Moscow are under investigation by the Milan prosecutors office, which is exploring the possibility of international corruption. Italian newspapers have reported that authorities have seized the phones and computers of Savoini and the other Italians in the Metropol Hotel meeting.
Conte mentioned that investigation and said it was separate from the "actions of the government." The government has teetered for months amid infighting between the League and the Five Star Movement. The Five Star Movement has so far been vague about its stance on this issue, calling for transparency, and most Five Star parliamentarians did not attend Wednesday's Senate hearings. A member of a small far-right party, the Brothers of Italy, said the allegations of corruption brought to mind a "B-rate spy movie."
After the hearing, the center-left Democratic Party proposed a no-confidence motion against Salvini that, in theory, could oust him from his position. A party spokesman said the motion would not draw enough support to succeed, but it also had a secondary goal: to prompt Salvini to show up in parliament and speak for himself.
- - -
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.