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Italy’s Far Right Factions Investigated For Russia Ties, Weapons Cache

Matteo Salvini
Matteo Salvini, center, in 2015. (Photo: Fabio Visconti, CC BY-SA 3.0)

“We have our allies. We really want to begin to have a great alliance with these parties that are pro Russia, but not pro Russia for Russia but for our countries.”

Italy’s far-right is under intensifying public scrutiny, as not only have prosecutors opened an investigation into leaks allegedly revealing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party sought financing from Russia, but police also discovered a large cache of combat weapons during raids on extremist groups Monday.

In February, Italian media outlet L’Espresso reported that Gianluca Savoini, a close aide to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, met with Russian businessmen in Moscow in October 2018 to discuss a scheme that would funnel illicit oil money to Salvini’s League party. Last Wednesday, Buzzfeed published a transcript of an audio recording where Savoini can allegedly be heard speaking about the terms of the deal with the Russian businessmen.

“Judging by the way Savoini moves around Moscow, that is his second home,” journalist Giovanni Tizian told the Washington Post. “He probably felt quite certain of himself and protected from unwanted listeners.”

Salvini has denied the claims, declaring he has “never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka in financing from Russia.” Neither the Washington Post or BBC have been able to independently verify the recording, but it has led to public outcry in Italy, with opposition members calling for a parliamentary inquiry and the interior minister’s resignation.

“Someone who tells lies to cover fraud can’t be the interior minister of a major democratic country,” tweeted Paolo Gentiloni, a leader of the opposition Democratic Party.

Salvini has long held an openly pro-Russia stance, having repeatedly called on the E.U. to lift sanctions on the country.

Weapons Cache Discovery

On Monday, Italy’s far-right came under further scrutiny as Italian police announced they had uncovered a large cache of combat weapons during raids on extremist far-right groups in northern Italy. The weapons included a variety of assault rifles and an air-to-air missile, allegedly from Qatar, that the group was trying to sell.

The raids were part of an investigation into Italian far-right nationals who fought in the Russia-supported insurgency in Ukraine, according to police. In addition to weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, police also found Neo-Nazi paraphernalia.

Three men were arrested, including a former Senate candidate for the neofascist Forza Nuova party. While the raids have not been connected to any Italian political parties, they represent another alarming indicator of foreign involvement with Italy’s far-right. Giuseppe De Matteis, Turin’s chief of police, called it a seizure “of weapons of war with few precedents in Italy.”

“During the [previous investigation], telephone contacts were found between a militiaman and an arms expert who proposed the purchase of a missile,” Carlo Ambra, director of Turin’s counterterrorism unit, told Sky Italia. “The investigations led to the discovery of a considerable arsenal, with a high offensive capacity. We will retrace the chain backwards, to understand where it leads us.”

Europe’s Resurgence of Far-Right Nationalism

Far-right nationalist groups, founded on anti-immigrant and anti-E.U. sentiment, have enjoyed a European resurgence in recent years. Populism has been driven largely by the refugee crisis and the economic failures of the European Union, but also through direct influence from the Kremlin and other foreign actors.

According to Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia and Eurasia studies at the Henry Jackson Society, “Almost all European populist parties have direct ties to Russia, although this is most often through individual connections rather than institutional ones.” According to a U.S. Senate minority report last year, Russia sought to influence the democratic process of at least 15 E.U. states.

Critics argue the hardline anti-immigration stance of the League and other successful populist parties has contributed to growing hostility in the country. In February, Italian intelligence officials warned racially motivated attacks had tripled between 2017 and 2018.

Most political analysts don’t believe the scandal will damage Salvini’s domestic popularity, but may strain his party’s relations with anti-corruption coalition party Five Star.

“I do not see this harming Salvini’s popularity,” Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, an expert on Italian politics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., told Newsweek.

“Italians have other worries, and anyway, a lot of people will buy the line that this is all fake. In any case, there is no smoking gun—so far—that any money has in fact been paid, and no, I don’t think he will resign, nor that it will harm his chances of becoming PM, which I think it is realistic to expect by spring next year,” said Albertazzi.

One of the Russian businessmen in the recording called Salvini “the European Trump,” because he is now the far-right’s leading figure in Europe.

“We want to change Europe. A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty,” Savoini can be heard saying in the recording, referring to Salvini’s desire to form an alliance of far-right parties across Europe. “We have our allies. We really want to begin to have a great alliance with these parties that are pro Russia, but not pro Russia for Russia but for our countries.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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