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Italy's Salvini embroiled in Russian scheme to aid League party

Matteo Salvini speaking
Italian Deputy Minister Matteo Salvini. Photo: Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Getty Images

The implication of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini in a campaign finance deal involving Russian funds highlights the expanding reach of Russian interference in nationalist, populist political movements across Europe.

Why it matters: Russia's foreign meddling aims to further its goals of weakening liberal democracies in the West and expanding its share of global influence. But the exposure of some of its efforts has come back to haunt the intended beneficiaries.

Details: Leaked audio revealed a meeting between associates of Salvini and Russians with ties to senior officials in Moscow.

  • In the October 2018 recording, Gianluca Savoini and two unidentified Italians discuss a scheme to funnel $65 million worth of oil profits to Salvini’s hard-right La Lega party ahead of Europe’s parliamentary elections in May.
  • It is uncertain whether the transaction took place; if it did, it would have been illegal under Italian law.

Context: This is just one front of a broad Russian campaign that often exploits legal loopholes.

  • In France, the Russian government sought to bolster the fortunes of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen with €9.4 million ($10.5 million) in loans from a now-defunct bank tied to Putin’s inner circle, skirting the ban on foreign election contributions by structuring its donation as a loan.
  • In the U.K., the then-Russian ambassador in London and other officials reportedly offered investment opportunities to the largest funder of the Leave.EU campaign.
  • Russia has a history of using firms in the notoriously opaque energy industry to wield influence through political financing in Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and other countries.

Flashback: Earlier this year, Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign after it was exposed that he offered preferential contracts to individuals posing as Russian businessmen in exchange for kickbacks to his Freedom Party. The episode prompted the collapse of Austria’s coalition government.

What to watch: Two of Italy's former prime ministers have called for an investigation, and the public's reaction could determine the political future of one of Europe’s ascendant populists. On Tuesday, Salvini bowed to pressure and agreed to answer questions at a still-unscheduled hearing in Parliament.

Jessica Brandt is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the head of policy and research for its Alliance for Securing Democracy.