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ROME – When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Italian parliament in March, the number of empty seats was striking. A estimated One in three parliamentarians did not attend.
The non-appearance was a telltale sign that the Kremlin still has friends in Italy, even after invading Ukraine.
Although Italian Russophilia is often attributed to the strength of the Communist Party and close ties to Moscow after World War II, populists across the political spectrum are comfortable with Putin. In fact, there is a solid bloc of right and left in Rome’s parliament that has consistently opposed arms sales to Ukraine and government plans to increase military spending, fueling tensions in Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s ruling coalition.
Bianca Laura Granato, a senator from Alternativa, a party made up of former members of the populist 5-Star Movement previously known for its anti-vaccination views, called parliament a “servile clique” for admitting Zelenskyi and insisted on a telegram channel This Parliament should also hear from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is “waging an important fight against the globalist agenda not only for Russia but for all of us”.
Vito Comencini, an MP for the far-right League, said attending Zelenskyy’s speech would have been “disrespectful” to the people of Donbass, the eastern Ukrainian region where Putin-backed rebels seized lands in 2014.
While the leaders of the main political parties have all condemned the invasion, grassroots support for Ukraine is more patchy, particularly among the populist 5-Star Movement and the far-right League, both of which have pro-Russian tendencies.
These members of what is called Italy’s “Russian party‘ have variously invoked pacifism to avoid arming Ukraine, blamed NATO enlargement for the invasion and claimed that it is the Russians in separatist regions who are suffering.
Nicola Fratoianni, leader of the far-left Sinistra Italiana, which condemned the invasion but voted against supplying arms to Ukraine and against increasing defense spending, said: “We are… hostile to NATO. It was created in a different historical time when the world was divided. This world no longer exists, so maybe we need to rethink.”
Politicians are not the only ones defending Russia. According to a, around 12 percent of ordinary Italians think the Russian invasion is justified opinion poll for the SWG, for right-wing voters the figure rises to 36 percent.
Since the invasion, Italian current affairs television programs have received numerous guests who blame the invasion on the West.
Iryna Matviyishyn, a Ukrainian journalist and disinformation researcher, was shocked to have to refute claims aired on an Italian podium show about Nazis in Ukraine. “The extreme right has only 2 percent support in Ukraine, much less than in Italy.” Italian media are “intoxicated” by Russian propaganda, she said. “They try to balance opinions, but it’s not balanced. It’s … a distorted, separate Russian reality.”
Alessandro Orsini, university professor and security expert, divided Italy when his contract was canceled after he said on state television that the West should make sure Putin wins the war to avoid the risk of a nuclear bomb.
Ivan Scalfarotto, deputy interior minister and MP for the centrist party Italia Viva, criticized giving equal weight to views that amount to propaganda. “Everyone has the right to speak their mind, but I would not speak to the Ku Klux Klan.”
“If someone underestimates the war, that’s not right. When someone denies reality, they spread disinformation.”
culture and communists
The friendship between Russia and Italy has deep roots, built on centuries of cultural, political and economic exchanges. Writers like Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in Italy, while Italians designed the palaces of St. Petersburg.
In the 20th century, Italy’s powerful Communist Party, the strongest in Western Europe, forged strong ties with the USSR and promoted Russian studies in university departments even in small Italian towns, nurturing a new generation of Russophiles. Many on the left, including elements of the 5 Star Movement, labor unions and former partisans, are taking a pro-Russian position, criticizing perceived US and NATO meddling around the world. An Italian Communist was killed in battle with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine last week.
There are also strong economic ties dating back to USSR times, including business giants like energy giant ENI and automaker Fiat, which built the Soviets’ largest auto factory in the town of Tolyatti, named after Italian Communist Party leader (and Soviet citizen) Palmiro Tolyatti. Russia remains an important export market for Italy, especially for machinery and luxury goods.
Russian tourism has also gained in importance. In Tuscany, the region that was once called “Chiantishire” because of the spread of Britons is now often referred to as “Ruscany”. The ongoing economic ties were demonstrated days before the invasion when an online meeting between Putin and Italian business leaders took place in Rome, despite government protests.
Since the end of the Cold War and at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Russia has forged close ties with Italy’s right-wing parties. In the 2000s, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Putin forged a personal friendship based on economic interests, with Berlusconi even giving a bizarre name bed at his home after Putin. Berlusconi orchestrated the signing of a NATO-Russia cooperation treaty in Rome in 2002 to reshape post-USSR relations.
Russia was not then viewed as an enemy of the West, and Italy’s positioning reflected its nuanced long-term foreign policy strategy. As Aldo Ferrari, head of the Russia program at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan, put it: “Italy is quite weak, with no geopolitical ambitions, so we’ve always tried to build a bridge on a cultural level and have good relations.”
As far-right Eurosceptics gained support in Italy, some expressed admiration for Putin’s firm and authoritarian style of government. They see him as a role model for their opposition to migration, support for Christian values and an ally in undermining the EU.
The Lega has become the party closest to Putin. Her regional government in Venetian Crimea following its 2014 annexation and its leader Matteo Salvini have slavishly expressed their admiration for Putin. The league signed an agreement to work with Putin’s United Russia in 2017. Those connections became embarrassing in 2019 when members of the league were accused of seeking illegal party funding from Russia, though Salvini claimed he “never received any.” ruble.”
Salvini’s decision to wear a t-shirt with Putin’s face and the “Army of Russia” logo in Red Square in 2014 hit him last month when a Polish mayor used the incident to beat him during a visit to the Ukrainian border .
changing of the guard
While Italy has historically been seen as a weak link in the EU (even after the Crimean invasion of 2014, Italy played a key role in opposing tougher EU sanctions on Russia), the Draghi government’s tone has signaled a definite shift.
In his inaugural speech to Parliament, he strongly reaffirmed his support for NATO, and after invading Ukraine in February, Draghi quickly aligned himself with NATO and EU sanctions, and Italy did not hesitate to send arms to Ukraine. Italy has confiscated the oligarchs’ assets and Draghi has urged other EU countries to act with similar speed. Draghi was among the biggest supporters of Ukraine’s EU accession.
This executive is one of the most pro-US and pro-NATO in Italy, Ferrari said. “It was only with Draghi that Italy took such a clear pro-NATO position. It was a surprise for Russia.” He added: “You can see that Draghi was trained as an economist in the US.”
As a sign of these NATO priorities, Italy dispatched the aircraft carrier Cavour to join American and French counterparts in a joint show of force in the Mediterranean after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But while the executive branch is staunchly pro-NATO, the challenge will be to keep the ruling coalition parties in line as war and inflation continue to hamper the economic recovery. Energy prices remain high as parties switch to electoral mode.
Last week there was opposition from the 5 Star Movement to plans to increase defense spending from 1.4 percent to 2 percent of gross domestic product, in line with NATO commitments, prompting a meeting between Draghi and the leader of the 5 Star Movement, Giuseppe Conte, who was courting widely left-wing elements in his party, called for a slower increase to 2 percent by 2030 or beyond, rather than government plans for 2028.
While Draghi expressed his satisfaction with the end result, the dispute shows the nature of the challenges still posed by Italy’s so-called Russian party.
https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-russia-love-affair-no-end/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication A love affair that is not quite over yet - POLITICO