Kremlin Playbook Spotlight: Italian Political Financing and Russian Oil
by Heather A. Conely and Holly Geffs
August 7, 2019On October 18, 2018, six men—three Russians and three Italians—gathered in the lobby of the historic Metropol Hotel in Moscow to discuss a “great alliance.” Unbeknownst to them, an incriminating recording of the conversation was made and recently released by BuzzFeed News (news of the meeting was initially reported by Italian newspaper L’Espresso in February 2019).
The Plot: On the tape, someone identified by BuzzFeed as Gianluca Savoini, a top aide to Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and five other individuals discuss an arrangement to clandestinely funnel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to the far-right Lega party (the League), led by Mr. Salvini. Matteo Salvini has been very supportive of pro-Russian policies and has sought institutional ties with the United Russia party, but this financial arrangement would be a violation of Italian electoral law, which prohibits political parties from accepting large foreign donations. The recording shows the participants understood these legal constraints and reveals detailed plans to hide the transaction. The Russian members of this meeting warmly referenced Salvini as the “European Trump,” as they discussed plans to channel around $65 million of Russian oil money to Lega (an undefined amount would be “returned” to the Russian protagonists at a later date). The Russian participants appear well connected as they are heard promising to notify a Russian “deputy prime minister” of the negotiations. At the time of writing, there has been no evidence that the deal ultimately went through (Italian energy company Eni denies any involvement or agreement) or that Matteo Salvini was directly involved in the negotiation, although he was in Moscow at the time of the clandestine meeting. Nevertheless, this is a textbook example of Russia’s malign economic influence and alleged conspiracy to support pro-Russian political parties and the systemic diminishment of democratic processes and their required transparency.
The Players: The Salvini aide, Gianluca Savoini, declared on the tape that his party wishes to “change Europe,” and this “new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty.” While it is unclear whether any Italian law was officially broken, the taped conversation reveals an overt request for corrupt practices between Lega and the Kremlin, which aims to erode the integrity of the Italian electoral process and the European Parliament elections (for which Lega intended to use the funds). Savoini has long-standing ties with Russia as the president of the Lombardy-Russia Association, and he reportedly has ties to pro-Russian mercenaries who have fought in eastern Ukraine.
The Playbook: This pattern of influence has repeated itself many times in Europe. We call it the “unvirtuous cycle of influence,” in which an economic relationship is used, through corruption and other non-transparent means, to enhance the Kremlin’s political influence over a country as well as erode its democratic institutions (and in this case Europe’s). The Kremlin Playbook 2, published in March 2019, outlines Italy’s particular vulnerabilities to this unvirtuous cycle as well as its role as an enabler of Russian malign influence. The report investigates Moscow’s “exploitation of governance gaps in key markets and institutions” and demonstrates Russia’s use of shared economic, political, and societal interests, such as the rise of Euroskepticism. The report also identified Italian energy as one of the most vulnerable sectors for use by Russia, a finding strengthened by the Buzzfeed recording. Finally, The Kremlin Playbook 2 describes strong regional interaction between Northern Italian commercial and cultural interests, Lega, and the Kremlin.
The revelations in the recording of the meeting and conversation are not surprising, but reports that Italian authorities began to investigate these allegations in February are a positive development. (In 2018, Lega already risked bankruptcy over fines related to charges of embezzlement of public funds by its previous leader.) Yet there is alarming ease with which some European officials or political actors casually make deals to undermine their own country’s national security and democratic standards. This alleged affair proves Europe urgently needs to strengthen its transparency requirements and foster greater public awareness of (and punishment for) political figures who engage in such malign activities with Russian (and other) counterparts. Italy could show its fellow EU members how a country can break the unvirtuous cycle, but it must take these steps now before Russian influence grows too great.