"Russia In The World" is a MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project review of Russia's geopolitical interests and areas of penetration. This installment will deal with the accusations that Russia is meddling in the Italian political process. Earlier in December 2017, Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden wrote in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled "How to stand up to the Kremlin," that Russia interfered in the Italian Constitutional referendum in 2016 that warned against Russia's meddling in the upcoming general elections, which will be held on 4 March 2018. In the article, Biden wrote: "A Russian effort is now under way to support the nationalist Northern League [Lega Nord] and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections." Both parties oppose the EU. However, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the heads of Italy's two intelligence agencies (AISI and AISE) said that Biden's statement in not backed by any evidence.
In January, Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report titled "Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security", which also raised apprehension about Russian attempts to influence the election: "Italy May be a Target of Opportunity for the Kremlin: Given the opportunity to promote an outcome that could weaken the EU’s united stance on sanctions, the Russian government could seek to interfere in Italy’s elections in early 2018." 
This report focuses on Russia's relations with the two Euroskeptic parties that it is presumably targeting to influence Italian politics.
Putin Scoffs At Rumors That Russia Is Meddling In The Italian Electoral Process
On January 11, Russia President Vladimir Putin met with heads of Russian print media and news agencies in the editorial office of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. During the meeting, Putin scoffed at rumors that Russia is meddling in the Italian electoral process. Putin said: "We have absolutely no intention of meddling in any national elections, including those in Italy. This is absolutely out of the question."
TASS Director General Sergei Mikhailov: "Mr. President, the elections in Italy are scheduled to be held in March, that is, one week ahead of the Russian elections. And statements are already being made that Russia is meddling in the Italian political process. What do you think of this?"
Vladimir Putin: "Yes, I have heard about this, and we can see what is happening in some European countries, including Italy and Germany, in the run-up to parliamentary elections. And now, this is taking place in Italy. There is only one goal.
"First, Russia and Italy maintain very good relations. By the way, we have diverse relations with different political forces. I have repeatedly said that I enjoy excellent relations with Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Prodi, who have been voicing and continue to voice diametrically opposing political views, and they compete with one another on the political scene. But I maintain good relations with each of them. What does this mean?
"This means that Russia and Italy have reached the so-called nationwide consensus regarding our bilateral ties and the development of bilateral contacts at interstate level. We highly value this. We have absolutely no intention of meddling in any national elections, including those in Italy. This is absolutely out of the question.
"You see, we perceive our relations with Italy as a state to be much more important, and we consider this to be pointless. We know that, regardless of which political force gains power in Italy, the country has a nationwide political consensus prioritizing expanded relations with Russia. On the whole, we are confident that Russian-Italian relations will develop positively.
"Why should we work on this? These provocations only aim to wreck this nationwide consensus on the development of interstate ties. This is being purposefully done to damage the level of relations that has already been reached. This is being done from the outside, rather than in Italy itself. We can see this, we heed this factor in our work and in dealing with our Italian partners.
"We are in contact with many of them, including political parties and security services. We have suggested long ago that a working group on cyber-security should be established so as to ensure joint efforts in this area that are as transparent as possible, and we have now repeated this suggestion. To be precise, this implies specific threats, rather than activities, in this area.
(Kremlin.ru, January 11, 2018)
Russian MP Zheleznyak Talks About United Russia's Contacts With The Northern League And The Five Star Movement
The Italian news agency AGI published an interview with Russian MP Sergey Zheleznyak, a member of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, on Russia's relations with the Northern League and the Five Star Movement.
Below are excerpts from AGI's article:
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Northern League leader Matteo Salvini announced the signing of the "historic agreement" between his party and United Russia, represented by Zheleznyak. (Source: Twitter.com/matteosalvinimi, March 6, 2017)
Salvini sports a Putin T-shirt in Moscow (Source: Dagospia.it)
"According to Obama's former deputy, Joe Biden, the Kremlin is maneuvering in order to favor the League and the Five Star Movement [M5S]. in the incoming Italian elections. These allegations are branded, by the persons involved… as fake. The man who is considered to be the link between the League, the M5S and the Russian Federation, Sergey Zheleznyak, a MP for the ruling United Russiaparty , has no doubts: from Moscow there is not, and there has never been, any interference in Italian internal affairs orchestrated through disinformation campaigns or fake news. It is however true that with the League and the M5S we are much in line with the [political] views. In particular with the League, with which an agreement of cooperation has been signed [in Moscow on March 6, 2017] … In the interview with AGI, Zheleznyak insists that the story of an alleged manipulation of the web by the Kremlin, in order to spread disinformation, aimed at supporting the rise of the League and of the M5S in Italy, is part of a wider "hybrid war" waged not by Russia but mainly by 'its western opponents', first of all by the American establishment, engaged in 'hindering the restoration of normal relations between Moscow and Europe'…
"[Zheleznyak says:] 'With our partners in the League - he says - we are in regular contact and we exchange opinions on issues of concern to our fellow countrymen. We organize meetings and discussions and there are visits to Russia. Recently, the colleagues of the League visited Kaliningrad, were they met with representatives of the business community, and the intention of attracting Italian entrepreneurs to contribute to the region's development was expressed'.
"Zheleznyak reiterates the views shared with the League: 'We do not conceal the fact that we share the line of parties, who follow a responsible national policy, which are ready for dialogue on equal terms, and reciprocal respect for national interests'. For these reasons, United Russia continues to be 'open' to a cooperation with the M5S, 'with which we had meetings, a constructive exchange on the most important issues of international affairs and bilateral cooperation, but we haven't signed any agreement. We respect the activities of the M5S and we are ready to develop our relations to the extent that will match the interests of both parties', stresses Zheleznyak, and reiterates that, so far, 'it doesn't make any sense' to talk about perspectives for an accord with the M5S, because 'the governing bodies of both parties have not issued any decision in this sense'.
"Concerning the suspicions that Russia is providing financial support to the M5S, Zheleznyak clarifies: "We have no right to provide financial assistance to other parties, but we can share experiences, ideas and utilize them in this work of ours, since many problems have a similar nature, and often have a global nature and require a joint effort for their solution'. Zheleznyak, who in March 2016 met with M5S' MPs Manlio Di Stefano and Alessando Di Battista, says that he has 'never spoken to [M5S co-founder Beppe] Grillo', but that 'he is aware and understands his positions on key issues'…
"Zheleznyak reiterates that 'in principle, Moscow does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and respects any legitimate change in their politics. The electoral processes that are taking place in Italy, the struggle of the different parties to get votes from the electorate, are sovereign rights of the Italian people. Russia is interested in having peace and stability reigning in Europe'. At the same time, Zheleznyak admits that, in Russia, an analysis of the situation in Europe is under way: 'We see that, in different countries, the political entities, which are determined to defend national interests and to protect traditional values, are gaining strength. Our party, as well as our country, is open to cooperation with all the constructive forces that are supporting human universal values, international law and which are ready for a dialogue and for collaboration, on equal terms, in order to solve the global problems which are affecting all the peoples.' According to Zheleznyak, to attribute to Russia the 'ongoing changes in Europe' signifies a failure to understand that these changes 'are linked to the changes of voter moods and preferences, and that they are due to their dissatisfaction; wise European politicians should take this into account in their activities'…"
(Agi.it, December 14, 2017)
Meeting Between Lavrov and Northern League Leader
On March 6, 2017, the leader of the Italian party Northern League Matteo Salvini met with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. The Italian pro-League media outlet Ilpopulista.it described the meeting as "historical" for Salvini. Ilpopulista.it wrote: "The meeting is of relevance if we consider that it is most unusual for a Russian foreign minister to meet a political leader who, presently, does not hold any government position... Therefore, this is an important token of esteem and friendship." During that trip, Salvini signed the agreement with United Russia.
Below are excerpts from Salvini's interview describing his meeting with Lavrov:
Matteo Salvini and Sergey Lavrov (Source: Ilpopulista.it)
Q: Salvini, what were your impressions?
Salvini: "The thirty-five minutes of discussions that I had with Minister Lavrov confirmed that the Kremlin has very clear and positive ideas for the future. We discussed the main topics of international politics, the security threats to our countries and the perspectives for Europe. It has been a unique opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen the friendship between Italy and Russia. We also recalled the long and friendly meeting that I had the pleasure of conducting in Milan, in 2014, with president Putin."
Q: Concerning foreign policy, what are the main emergencies?
Salvini: "There is great concern for Libya’s internal situation that is presently out of control, resulting in an uncontrolled immigration [flow] towards Europe and, in particular, towards the Italian coasts. I acknowledge that, also in this case, it is Russia which makes contacts with all the stakeholders in order to compensate for the unbelievable absence of the European Union and of all the remaining international organizations. On behalf of many people, I thanked the minister [Lavrov] for the Russian intervention in Syria against ISIS."
Q: "Despite Moscow’s engagement against Islamic terrorism, which contributes in a substantial manner to the continent's security, the European Union has not yet decided to remove economic sanctions [against Russia] ..."
Salvini: "This is an absurd and paradoxical situation which is causing harmful damages to enterprises and workers. Concerning Italy, sanctions have cost a huge amount, more than 5 billion Euros and thousands of lost jobs. [In Moscow,] we reached the conclusion that we should urgently remove the sanctions, while stressing the League’s commitment in this sense, and my personal one, since the League has always been on this frontline, as the minister is very aware of."
Q: Did you also speak about the political perspectives for Italy?
Salvini: "Of course, I presented to Lavrov the League’s ideas and propositions for governing Italy and for changing Europe. In particular, the minister shares the analysis concerning the excessive centralization of powers in Europe... I also would like to stress one point of which I’m proud."
Q: "Please go on..."
Salvini: "Minister Lavrov thanked me for the sympathy as well as the courage that the League displayed from the very start of the crisis in Crimea. We were in fact the first ones, in October 2014, to officially visit the region after the referendum via which the citizens chose to go home, to the Russian motherland. One of the priorities of our government's foreign policy will not only be the restoration of excellent official relations between our two countries, but also to foster a dialogue between Russia and the United States in the interest of the world’s peace and security."
(Ilpopulista.it, March 6, 2017)
United Russia's Relations With The M5S
The Italian Five Star Movement MP Manlio Di Stefano was invited back in June 2016 to address the congress of the ruling United Russia. Back in 2013, during Russian president Vladimir Putin's visit to Italy, the M5S MPs manifested concern and distrust towards Russia. However, the M5S's foreign policy appears to have shifted. During the United Russia Congress, MP Di Stefano was one of the guest speakers. Di Stefano explained that this was an honor since out of about forty foreign delegations, "only ten representatives were allowed to speak." Di Stefano recounted: "We have good relations with Russia and, just to provide an idea of how we are held in high esteem, I was the third speaker...I said that NATO's eastward enlargement can create great problems and I reiterated the necessity of putting an end to the sanctions against Moscow". He also clarified that "we are not pro-Russia, but we are only pro-Italy and we are concerned with the interests of our companies." In tandem, the M5S MPs demanded a parliamentary vote that would oppose the extension of EU sanctions on Russia.
In the M5S blog, Di Stefano wrote that Russia already understood that the M5S movement is on the cusp of coming to power. He also emphasized the urgency of blocking all sanctions on Russia and initiating a counter-terrorism dialogue with Moscow.
Until now, only center-right parties have displayed sympathies for the Russian president. This was particularly true of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who became a close friend of Putin. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord, has made several trips to Moscow to meet Putin and is considered a most vocal advocate of lifting the sanctions. Corriere della Sera, the main Italian daily commented on Di Stefano's visit to Moscow: "Italy's 'Putinite' army is enrolling new affiliates".
(Corriere.it, June 27, June 28, 2016; Beppegrillo.it)
MP Manlio Di Stefano (Source: Rt.com)