Specter of Russian interference hangs over Italy’s snap election

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Italian minister Mara Carfagna, a former Miss Italy contestant and TV presenter, has long been one of the most prominent faces of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

But Carfagna, Minister for Territorial Cohesion, has now dumped the former media mogul over his role in the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government – and his suspicions that a foreign hand was behind it all. Defecting to the centrist Azione party, Carfagna said she needed “the certainty of being in a party where no one will think of plotting with Russia or with China to the detriment of the current government”.

His belief that global geopolitics is at the root of Italy’s political crisis is not uncommon. Since the implosion of Mario Draghi’s government last month, Italians have wondered if Vladimir Putin helped script the prime minister’s ouster as a reward for his tough stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. .

The trio of politicians who unplugged Draghi — Giuseppe Conte of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, Matteo Salvini of the Right-wing League and Berlusconi himself — are known for their historically friendly relations with Putin and his United Russia party.

Although analysts say the three leaders had compelling domestic political justifications for their decisions, that has not quelled speculation that Moscow colluded with disgruntled members of Draghi’s coalition to oust the prime minister.

In his last speech in parliament before his resignation, Draghi himself warned that Italy must “intensify its efforts to fight against the interference of Russia and other autocracies in our politics, in our society”, although he gave no details – nor explicitly suggested a foreign plot against him.

Yet that idea is now at the center of campaign rhetoric for September’s snap election. “Italians have a right to know if Putin is behind Draghi’s downfall,” the center-left Democratic Party, loyal to Draghi, wrote in a tweet last week.

Action party secretary Carlo Calenda, center, with Forza Italia ministers and former MPs Mariastella Gelmini, left, and Mara Carfagna © Fabio Frustaci/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Carlo Calenda, leader of Azione, which struck an electoral pact with the PD this week in a bid to thwart a right-wing electoral triumph project, called the September 25 poll “a choice between an Italy that is one of the great countries of Europe – or an allied Italy [Hungarian President Viktor] Orban and Putin.

Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, resigned on July 21, after the Five Star Movement, the League and Forza Italia withdrew their support for his leadership amid a crisis sparked by Conte.

Conte was agitated by a recent split in the party and keen to solidify his credentials as an anti-establishment rebel. Salvini and Berlusconi were eyeing polls that showed both bleeding support for Giorgia Meloni’s increasingly popular far-right Italian Brotherhood, but also poised for a decisive electoral victory if they teamed up with Meloni .

But Italian analysts say amid domestic political calculations, geopolitical factors loom.

“It is a fact that Draghi was overthrown by the three parties that have the closest ties to the Kremlin,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs. “It is also a fact that Draghi was not exactly liked by the Kremlin,” she added.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Draghi turned his back on Italy’s traditionally close ties with Moscow. He was at the forefront of the EU’s tough response to the Kremlin, pushing sanctions against Russia’s central bank and championing Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership; a stance that baffled members of his national unity government.

“Important politicians like Salvini and Berlusconi clearly have feelings of friendship and ties with Russia, especially with Putin’s Russia,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO. “Their support for the Italian, European and NATO position on Ukraine has been half-hearted at best.”

In May, Salvini announced plans for his own “peace trip” to Moscow organized by the Russian Embassy in Rome, which confirmed it had bought the politician’s plane tickets. The trip was canceled amid public anger and an outcry from other parts of government. But last week, La Stampa, a major Italian daily, reported that the League’s talks with Moscow did not end there.

In a front-page exposé, La Stampa cited leaked intelligence documents claiming Rome-based Russian diplomat Oleg Kostyukov asked a senior League official in May if the party would remove ministers from Draghi’s cabinet.

“What is strange and bizarre is that in May no one – no observer – in Italy was talking about the fall of the Draghi cabinet – not so quickly at least,” said Jacopo Iacoboni, who wrote the exposé. , to the Financial Times.

Iacoboni, author of: Oligarchs: how Putin’s friends are buying Italyadded “I don’t think the Russians alone have the power to bring down Draghi, but they certainly have the ability to amplify, sow discord and use useful idiots.”

Salvini called La Stampa’s report “fake news”. Moscow also dismissed the report. “It’s not true. Russia has nothing to do with domestic political processes in Italy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Financial Times. But various rival Italian parties and analysts independents asked that the case be investigated.

The prospect of an investigation into alleged Russian interference is dim. Italy’s parliamentary committee on national security is chaired by a Brethren of Italy lawmaker who has already ruled out an investigation into the League, which is now its electoral ally.

“I think it deserves proper investigation,” Tocci said. “To what extent were these ministers encouraged by the Kremlin to vote against the government or to have their ministers resign? . . There is a war against Europe, and you have an enemy state trying to interfere with your democratic process. Whether they succeed or not, you should be concerned.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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