Vladimir Putin’s charm offensive to right-wingers and populists around the world seems to be paying off in Italy.
On Monday, Italy’s new strongman Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League and the country’s Interior Minister, sang the praises of the Russian autocrat, fueling worries about where he’s taking the country’s foreign policy.
“Italy could do with dozens of men like [Putin], who act in the interest of their citizens,” Salvini told supporters in his party’s northwestern stronghold of Brescia. The hard-line nationalist leader, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, said he’d be traveling to Moscow to watch Sunday’s FIFA World Cup final and hoped to meet Putin while he’s there.
There’s no meeting scheduled, according to the League, but the open expression of admiration for Putin has fueled speculation that Italy’s populist new coalition government could reorient the country’s foreign policy, traditionally a strong supporter of NATO and the U.S., in a more pro-Kremlin direction.
Last year, Salvini’s League signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party – part of the Kremlin’s push to court far-right and populist movements in Europe. In 2016, United Russia signed a similar agreement with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, the junior partner in their country’s coalition government; last year, senior members of Germany’s far-right AfD also traveled to Moscow on a Russian-sponsored charter flight to meet lawmakers, sparking accusations that the party risked becoming “the extension of Putin's arm in the German parliament.” The Kremlin has also built strong ties with France’s National Front, and Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party.
Salvini, whose party has close ideological ties to the Kremlin, has denied receiving any Russian funds, saying earlier this year he had “never received a lira, euro, or a ruble from Russia.”
But both the League and its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, have advocated pro-Russian positions, calling for an end to sanctions on Moscow – which Salvini has called “useless and harmful” – and backing its stance in the Syrian conflict. Their government has vowed to push for a review of EU sanctions against Russia, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has called for Moscow to be readmitted to the G8.
While Salvini’s upcoming trip to Moscow will be his first since entering government last month, he has made previous trips while in opposition, buddying up to Putin and posing for a photo wearing a T-shirt of the Russian leader in Moscow's Red Square.
On this trip, Salvini will meet with his counterpart, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, to “discuss measures to tackle Islamic terrorism, that might seem defeated but it’s not,” he said Monday.