The vote results could have a significant impact on Italy's foreign policy, especially with regard to its support for Ukraine in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. The probable effects of the elections will be highlighted in this article, along with the reasons why Salvini's political career is declining.
Italy elections: right parties' success expected
Two weeks before the elections, right-wing parties are expected to receive 45% of the vote, far ahead of the left with 22%. According to Politico.eu, the results of these elections may lead the country to a right-wing coalition. It will include the far-right party Brothers of Italy (25%) of Giorgia Meloni, the anti-migrant League of Matteo Salvini (13%) and Forward Italy of Silvio Berlusconi (7%), which are expected to get 45% in total. Smaller political parties are expected to furnish the remaining votes to get to at least 201 MPs in the lower chamber.
The left, led by the Democratic Party (PD), are expected to get 22%, while the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) may get 13% of the votes.
One year of Draghi's premiership in the government of national unity, February 2021 to February 2022, was marked by Covid stabilization and decent economic growth. However, the League and Forward Italy left the coalition following the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Giorgia Meloni whose party was the only opposition to the Draghi government gained more support from voters by pledging to reduce taxes and bureaucracy while increasing the defense budget. The Brothers of Italy party also advocate the standard far-right European slogans, such as closing Italy's borders to illegal immigration to stop the country from becoming "Islamized" and amending European treaties to transfer back power to Rome from the EU bureaucrats in Brussels.
Lack of unity among right-wing parties
However, there is no unity in this expected coalition. The right is deeply divided over Russia's war against Ukraine: Meloni supports the supply of weapons to Ukraine, while Salvini, a fervent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been pushing hard to ease Western sanctions against Moscow.
The Draghi government has played an important role in supporting Ukraine in both the European Union and NATO. The elections will determine whether the next Italian government will keep consistency of Rome's support for Ukraine and counter Russian military aggression. Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been a strong supporter of Ukraine's fight against the Russian invaders. Hence, the NATO and EU allies of Italy are concerned about the new right-wing government if it starts softening Italy's stance on Russia and its war of aggression.
Brothers of Italy promises to maintain support for Ukraine
The right-wing and national conservative Brothers of Italy party, which is leading in the polls in the upcoming elections, promised to support Ukraine and continue with the foreign policy of the Draghi government that they had opposed on domestic issues. Leading members of Meloni's party assured that a government led by Brothers of Italy would be even tougher on Putin's aggression than the Draghi government. The importance of Ukraine for the Brothers of Italy is confirmed by a recent visit of one of the leading politicians of the party, Adolfo Urso, to Kyiv.
The League party's potential presence in the government, however, raises significant concerns. Expecting the opportunity to get into the government together with other right-wingers, Salvin condemned the sanctions previously imposed on Russia. "They are probably conceived badly. The sanctions were supposed to bring Russia to its knees. Six months later, it is the opposite. Therefore, I think it is normal to review them. Sanctions should be reviewed in Brussels," Salvini said. Salvini's political figure is intriguing for his excessive admiration for Putin. Therefore, it is not surprising that he often supported Russian narratives in Italy and at the European Parliament. More information on his political stance will be explored below.
Russian involvement in the collapse of the Draghi government
Russia benefits from chaos in Europe, especially in Italy. The Italian media started to investigate the political turmoil for any evidence of Russia's role in Draghi's government's collapse, according to Open Online. Judge Carlo Nordio, a Brothers of Italy presidential candidate, pointed to the possibility of Moscow meddling in domestic political affairs:
"I was horrified by the words of Berlusconi and Salvini, which became a kind of support for Putin. Russian aggression against Ukraine is insane, criminal and unjustified. It would be unacceptable for the government not to support Draghi's line in foreign policy, i.e. to support Ukraine without ifs and buts." Although there isn't any evidence of Russian meddling, Nordio said that there are "coincidences that have become serious, precise, coherent indications."
He is vehemently opposed to Giorgia Meloni's fellow right-wingers.
Report on Russia’s attempt to destabilize Draghi's government
An intelligence dossier that was made public, according to Italian media, said that Salvini's aide communicated with Oleg Kostyukov, a representative of the Russian Embassy, in May 2022 to overthrow the Draghi government. As a result, the newspaper La Stampa stated that a diplomat from the Russian Embassy met with a representative of Salvini's League party at the end of May in Rome and asked if any of the ministers had any plans to leave Draghi's coalition.
The meeting was held at the same time Salvini came under fire for engaging in "parallel diplomacy with Russia" concerning the war in Ukraine. Analysts think that foreign intelligence is responsible for the "leak" of information. This report was dismissed by Salvini as "nonsense."
Luigi di Maio, then the foreign minister, denounced "the Russian side's attempt to push the League Minister to resign from the Draghi government." A Five Star Movement representative in the government, Di Maio, like Draghi, has been a fervent supporter of EU sanctions on Moscow, Italy's arms sales to Ukraine, and financial support to Kyiv. He demanded from Salvini to "explain his relations with Russia."
Whether there is evidence of direct Russian meddling in the Italian political process or not, the League, Silvio Berlusconi's Forward Italy, and the populist Five Star Movement all left the government, prompting Mario Draghi to step down and trigger early elections.
Libya and Putin
According to Italian media, the Kremlin supports the rightwing parties' electoral campaigns by pushing thousands of migrants from Libya to Italy. According to Italian media, this operation is being carried out by Russian mercenaries called "Wagner" who are also deployed in the war against Ukraine. They have been stationed in the Cyrenaica area to aid Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar. The Italian government hasn't formally accused anyone of such manipulations, though.
Italian politician wearing a T-shirt with Putin's face
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Salvini was an outspoken and ardent admirer of Vladimir Putin, showily posing in Moscow's Red Square wearing a T-shirt with the Russian dictator's face on it. "The League opposed sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, arguing that it could harm Italian exports.
Salvini has twice worn a T-shirt with Putin's face on it, including in the European Parliament saying that "Putin is more democratic than the EU". In 2017, the League also signed a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party. In 2019, Salvini called Putin "one of the best rulers in the world".
After the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, Salvini found himself in a situation where he could no longer openly praise Putin. He condemned war and aggression. The Italian right-wing radical leader even arrived in Przemyśl in early March to help Ukrainian refugees. However, there he met criticism from the mayor of the city Wojciech Bakun: "Let's go to the border and the refugee center and see what your friend Putin has done", he said.
Russian funding for extreme right-wing parties in the EU
New evidence has surfaced against Russia's attempts to influence European political processes, particularly in light of the upcoming elections in Italy and the rise of ultra right-wing sentiment. According to evidence provided by Politico, the US State Department thinks that since 2014, Russia has been funding political groups that support Moscow. Allegedly, $300 million in cash were transferred to groups and individuals all across the world.
A leaked document addressed to American embassies warned that the money would be given to international political organizations that supported the Kremlin. The State Department acknowledged the cable's existence but did not name the nations or political parties they believe are responsible for obtaining the Russian funding.
Russian election meddling, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price, was "an effort to deprive people around the world the ability to choose the government they believe will most effectively represent them, their interests, and their values." He claimed that by calling attention to them and informing allies, the US sought to expose Russia's methods.
In Italy, the leak sparked rumors, charges, and denials. Some groups have been worried and others have been angered by reports of a $300 million covert Kremlin influence operation detailed in a U.S. intelligence dossier.
Right-wing or populist parties with a history of close relations with Russia, as well as politicians who frequently repeat Kremlin propaganda, may suffer as a result of suspicion of Russian meddling.
Left-wing politicians called for any involved individuals and parties to be named before the vote. Benedetto Della Vedova, leader of the centrist More Europe party, wrote that any funding from Moscow is "very serious and clarity is needed before the election." Salvini started refuting the suspicions that fell on his party and said that he was working on the development of Italy. His other supporters also began to dissociate themselves from the Kremlin's money. Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the 5 Star Movement, which opposes an increase in weapons supply to Ukraine, said that his party is "transparent" and has nothing to do with the scandal with Russian funding.
Scandals involving Salvini and Russia
The financial relationship between Salvini and the Russians was confirmed at least in one instance. The Russian Embassy in Italy revealed that it had paid for Salvini's trip to Moscow in 2022. However, he chose not to travel there due to widespread criticism.
Salvini, though, continues to be cast in the shadow of earlier scandals involving Moscow. Gianluca Savoini, Matteo Salvini's close and longtime aide, and five other men, three Russians, and two Italians, met on October 18, 2018, at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow to discuss the terms of a potential deal to covertly transfer about $65 million in Russian oil money to Salvini's League party and its European election campaign. BuzzFeed News was able to obtain an audio recording of this meeting in 2019.
Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini's League's representatives and unnamed individuals promoting the Kremlin's interests met at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in October 2018, according to a tape released by BuzzFeed News. In the recording, Russian negotiators requested the Italian side for a payback in their favor.
When asked about the Metropol meeting at the time, Salvini's spokesman said he would not comment, referring to the recording as "fiction." "I never brought back from Russia a dollar, a euro, a ruble, or a liter of vodka. I have previously launched lawsuits. I'll do it again", Salvini stated in response to media claims that his party had accepted cash from Russian investors.
An Italian politician, Salvini's ally, Gianluca Savoini, was recorded talking about a plan to "change Europe, which should become close to Russia".
On the recording, Savoini can be heard telling his colleagues that he was the "total link" between the Italian and Russian sides, and that other Italians were his partners. He mentioned "Alexander", possibly Alexander Dugin, a well-known Russian far-right politician with whom Savoini was photographed the day before.
Savoini denied that the League was financed by Russia. He called the publication of the American portal a "political attack". "We have never received a single ruble from anyone. These are just empty words," - the politician stated. In an interview with Euronews, he said that he went to the Metropol Hotel to meet with Russian businessmen. That's said, Salvini confirmed his presence in the same Moscow hotel at the same time.
Salvini, whom Russians enthusiastically called "European Trump" on the same recording, was not present at the meeting, but he was in Moscow at the time. There, he gave a speech denouncing sanctions against Russia as "economic, social and cultural nonsense" before reportedly meeting with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and Vladimir Pligin, an influential member of Putin's United Russia party. The Metropol recording provided the first hard alleged evidence of Russia's covert attempts to fund far-right parties in the EU.
However, the relationship between Salvini's party and Moscow and its war does not end there. In September of the same year, again BuzzFeed, referring to the court materials, reported that Salvini's assistant Gianluca Savoini was in direct contact with Nierre, a recruiter for the LDPR militants. Contacts included joint trips to Russia to participate in various events with Russian right-wing radicals and militant commanders in Donbas. The scandal was loud, but quickly declined, which was, possibly, due to a widespread support for the far-right populist party in Italy. We need also to recall that Salvini himself then held the post of the Interior Minister.
Later, in 2019, Italian carabinieri searched numerous provinces and recovered a large number of weapons as part of an inquiry into the involvement of Italian citizens in the war in Donbas among the Luhansk and Donetsk secessionist militants.
It is not unexpected that the League party's popularity has been progressively declining since the start of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine because Italian voters are well aware of Salvini's loyalty to Putin. 13% in September compared to 19% in January. Just compare these figures with what Salvini's League party's result in the 2018 elections - 37%. It appears that the Italians discovered Salvini's identity, which caused his career to decline.
It is certain that those politicians, who for a long time were seen as the architects of Putin's interests in Italy, are likely to gradually leave the political scene. Luigi Di Maio, for instance, announced his departure from the party and the creation of a separate parliamentary group under his leadership during the tense period between Giuseppe Conte and him within the left-wing populist Five Star Movement party.
Di Maio cited the Five Star Movement's ambiguity on Russian military aggression in Ukraine as his primary motivation for leaving the party: "You must not hesitate in the face of Putin's crimes. In Ukraine right now, history is being made, and we must stand on the right side of it." 60 MPs joined Di Maio in resigning from the party. As a result, the Five Star Movement, and particularly its pro-Russian wing, took a powerful blow.
The League leader Matteo Salvini can also join the cemetery of political dead because he has been unable to say "Russia invaded Ukraine" since the start of the massive invasion, hiding behind the phrase like "we are on the side of the weak."
Moscow is losing its figure of influence in Italy
For many years, Matteo Salvini was a reliable and helpful ally for Vladimir Putin. The League leader has consistently demanded that the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia be lifted. He even went to the unlawfully annexed region in 2016 and referred to the takeover of Crimea as legal. Salvini has repeatedly flown to Moscow over the years.
Salvini questioned the coordinated response of NATO and the EU to the Salisbury nerve agent attack by Russian military intelligence in March 2018.
Salvini has become a much more valuable ally to Putin since that time. After all, the Kremlin gained a significant influence when the League expanded from a regional movement in northern Italy to a national far-right anti-migrant party and entered the Italian government. When the League joined the coalition administration, Salvini was appointed Interior Minister as well as Deputy Prime Minister.
The Kremlin's trusted ally and Trojan horse in Europe, however, is progressively losing influence and the capacity to promote Moscow's narratives. It seems that the League will join the coalition if right-wing forces win the Italian elections. Salvini, however, will not be able to aim for the same key position that he had before, due to a low support of his ideas - 13%.
How to keep unity in Europe
Every time one of the Western politicians, supporters of the agreements with Moscow, mentions fatigue from sanctions or the economic crisis related to the war in Ukraine, Russian occupation forces commit a new brutal war crime that shocks the world. Then doubts about the need for sanctions and a tough diplomatic and economic rebuff against Russia disappear.
But how to ensure that the citizens of European countries and the politicians they elect constantly remember the true face of Russia, the war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Olenivka, Kremenchuk, Vinnytsia, Izyum, and many other cities? Europe supported Ukraine during seven months of the war with Russia, financially and with weapons, but the Kremlin did not retreat, including on political fronts with the West.
Given the trends, it is expected that European politicians, tainted by their close friendship with Putin, who is responsible for the war against Ukraine, will receive a verdict from the voters. The Italian elections and the performance of Salvini's party will be the first test on one hand. On the other hand, the policy of the future new Italian government will be a new test of unity among the EU states.