ROME–Italy’s Mussolini-channeling, selfie-taking, race-baiting far-right leader, it might be said, knows no shame. Over the course of 14 months as interior minister and vice premier, while acting as if he already ran the government, Matteo Salvini also became something of a cop-impersonating wannabe hero, taking a selfie in every insignia-laden security windbreaker and polo shirt he could squeeze into to try to somehow channel the power of the uniform to puff up his ego and invincibility. He even directed a police officer to take his teenage son on a joyride using an official security service jetski during his summer vacation.
And it all seemed to be working very well–until it didn’t.
Salvini, leader of the former Northern League separatist party, now known simply as the League, doubled his support from a paltry 17 percent in March 2018 national elections to more than 34 percent in European parliamentary elections in May. He had been on the periphery of mainstream politics, thought to be too extreme in his rhetoric and adoration for Benito Mussolini's nationalistic style of governing to ever actually come close to power.
But with Donald Trump’s endorsement on a campaign visit in Philadelphia in 2016 and careful curation by Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Salvini went viral–quite literally. He hijacked social media in a way no Italian leader had ever come close to doing and held Trumpian campaign-style rallies–more than 200 in just over a year–rather than spending time behind the desk. He might have apologized for the jetski incident, but he was unapologetically racist in his policies, most of which were announced via Facebook Live.
Then, last month, Salvini overplayed his hand, provoking a catastrophic collapse of the Italian government in the expectation new elections would put him in office as the full-fledged prime minister.
But the whole time Salvini was reaching for what he hoped would be unbridled power, he was up to something fishy behind the scenes–and, as with his American idol, that something involved the Russians.
A series of journalistic revelations in recent months make the case Salvini was enabling Russian interference in exchange for dirty money filtering into his political party coffers. And in a dramatic parliamentary confrontation, the prime minister Salvini hoped to force out threw the accusations in his face.
Last February, an Italian exposé pulled back the curtain on a scandal that has yet to be fully unraveled. But it involves a group of nefarious Russians with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin attempting to buy influence in Europe's far-right parties through hard cash and dirty fuel.
And Salvini, long an unrepentant Russophile, seemed all-too-happy to oblige.
As accounts of the scandal were drip fed by the Italian press, Salvini attempted his midsummer parliamentary coup. Obviously he hoped early elections would hand him full powers, but may also have wanted to get the “Russian Affair” out of the headlines.
Whatever the reason, the coalition’s mild-mannered professorial prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who had for 14 months carried out Salvini's hardline bidding on migration and national security, suddenly found his voice. In a stunning resignation speech last month, Conte condemned Salvini as a radical lout and a faux Christian. In a scathing 60 minute parting shot in parliament, Conte accused Salvini–seated right bedside him–of everything from blasphemy for kissing his rosary when it was convenient to hedonism for inviting scantily-clad supporters to lap dance during the national anthem at a mojito-fueled beach rally.
But of all the accusations Conte lobbed at his soon-to-be former interior minister and vice premier, one thing stood out. In a not-so-veiled accusation, Conte implied that perhaps Salvini's master wasn't his own ego, but Vladimir Putin.
There was an audible gasp in parliament when Conte crossed the invisible line, putting his hand ever-so-softly on Salvini's shoulder and saying Salvini “still had some explaining to do” about a certain October 2018 meeting Salvini’s associates had in Moscow in which details were discussed about funneling millions of euros into Salvini’s League party through an illicit kickback scheme involving underpriced Russian fuel.
“The Russian affair deserved to be clarified also for its international implications,” Conte told him during his speech. “You refused to share the information.”
In fact, the “Metropol” affair, named for the Moscow hotel in which a secret meeting between Salvini associate Gianluca Savoini and Putin's henchmen took place in October 2018, dominated headlines all summer after it was reported by newsmagazine Espresso, causing many to speculate that Salvini pulled the plug on the government to divert attention.
What is important is that Savoini, the man at the center of the Russian affair, is one of Salvini's closest allies, but has been kept at a discreet distance from his governmental affairs. He is married to a Russian woman named Irina whose personal history is opaque. The couple own homes in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Milan, and he frequently tweets photos of Red Square with the caption “Third Rome.” Savoini is the head of the Russian-Lombardy commercial group set in northern Italy, and has been referred to by Italian Vanity Fair as Salvini’s “sherpa,” who “doesn't speak a word of Russian but who is fluent in the language of politics.”
Not long after the story first broke in February, an Italian magistrate put Savoini under criminal investigation on suspicion of international corruption, along with Gianluca Meranda and a former banker named Francesco Vannucci–the other Italian men reportedly at the table during the Moscow meeting. The mens’ homes in Italy have been searched and documents said to be bad for Salvini have been sequestered. Both have admitted to being at the Metropol, but each has denied wrongdoing, pleading instead that they were negotiating legitimate private business deals that, while they might have looked bad, given international sanctions against Russia, were not illegal.
Prosecutors looking into the affair have told The Daily Beast that they do not think the dirty oil deal was ever carried out, but the plans alone constitute a crime whether they came to fruition or not because of the ties to Salvini's political party. Salvini was called to the Italian senate to answer questions earlier this summer, but he refused, calling the allegations “fantasies” brought on by political opponents. He said he had never taken a ruble from the Russians, although it appears he would have had the deal not fallen through.
(One is reminded of U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure a huge real estate deal in Moscow. It failed, but not for want of trying, even as he ran for president in 2016.)
The Moscow meeting was first reported by the Italian newsmagazine Espresso last year and was picked up by BuzzFeed, which has since teamed up with the investigative news site Bellingcat and the Russian site the Insider to dig deeper. Earlier this week, BuzzFeed and the others published new audio tape from the Metropol meeting in which a voice identified as Savoini’s can be heard trying to close a deal for $72 million that would have been funneled into Salvini's League party ahead of the European Parliamentary elections last May.
The Russians caught on tape are identified as Andrey Yuryevich Kharchenko and Ilya Andreevich Yakunin. A third man at the meeting known only as “Yuri” has not been identified by name.
In a hearing on the case Thursday in Milan, lawyers for Savoini argued that the BuzzFeed audio is inadmissible because its origin cannot be verified. It is widely thought to have been taped by one of the men in attendance at the Moscow meeting, found during the police investigations of Savoini and the other men, then leaked to the press by someone who wanted to do damage to Salvini.
The journalists who had been trailing Savoini in Moscow also have photos of all the men at the Metropol that day which have been entered into evidence in the case. Lawyers also argued that Salvini had not been privy to the details of the meeting and that Savoini was acting on his own to benefit the League.
The Russians identified on the tape are no strangers to Putin's inner circle. Kharchenko is an aide to Russia’s most notorious alt-right leader, Alexander Dugin. During the five-year-long war in Ukraine, Dugin emerged as a nationalist leader, denying globalism and liberal values; but after the failure of the Russia-backed forces to claim more territory in eastern Ukraine he claimed “Devil disrupted the Russian Spring.”
That Putin would court someone like Salvini is hardly surprising. Salvini has posted selfies from Red Square wearing a t-shirt with Putin’s image and is no stranger to Moscow, traveling there often both officially and privately. He has been a strong advocate of lifting European sanctions on Russia and campaigned for the European Parliament on forging closer ties to Russia.
In the past three or four years Putin has supported far-right ideologues and has met frequently with one of Salvini’s closest allies in Europe, French politician Marine Le Pen. Putin also has met Hungarian leader Victor Orban, who refers to George Soros as “Satan,” and with the far-right Czech President Milos Zeman, who are all part of the same umbrella group that is now pushing to lift Russian sanctions in the European Parliament.
Putin’s ruling party United Russia has even gone so far as to sign cooperation agreements with Salvini’s League and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO). Putin ally Dugin has told The Daily Beast that Steve Bannon is “the last hope in the United States, Salvini in Italy, Le Pen in France.”
It is impossible that Putin would not have known about the multi-million euro deal being forged with Savoini and Salvini. As has been proven in the past, when Putin gives the “green light,” Russian banks, businesses and government spring into action to find ways to discreetly channel Russian money to Europe’s far-right parties.
“We openly act against the West’s mainstream political powers,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin advisor active on the international scene, told The Daily Beast. “We share the same values as Europe’s far-right groups, such as Christian beliefs, strong families, the defense of private property.” Markov named the Kremlin’s key political allies as France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Spain.
Markov also told The Daily Beast that Salvini is crucial in Putin’s plan. “There is nothing strange about our businesses wanting to help him,” Markov said. “He will block the anti-Russian sanctions at the European parliament.”
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the head of research at the Russian State University of Management, says that the Kremlin’s current strategy is to build a network of friends in the West. “Putin personally approves the list of far-right leaders that Russia should be dealing with, then his elite, including politicians with soft liberal views, like Vladimir Pligin, promote, because they serve him as soldiers,” Kryshtanovskaya told The Daily Beast.
The BuzzFeed report about Salvini’s dirty Russian money also mentions Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s close friend from St. Petersburg. During his Moscow visit last October, Salvini met him and later denounced the West’s sanctions against Russia as “cultural folly” and met with Kozak and Pligin. Shortly after that the U.S. put Kozak on the sanctions list. "The Russian elite is dreaming about the end of tensions with the West but since Putin is not going to give Crimea back for anything, he chooses to redesign the West, and Russian elite is helping him," Kryshtanovskaya told The Daily Beast.
For now, Salvini is out of office in Italy, but he is still a member of the European Parliament, where he can bide his time waiting for the new Italian government–presided over by none other than Giuseppe Conte–to fall. Salvini can also use his time out of the spotlight and off the government's clock to do as he pleases, meet with old friends, fund raise for the next elections, and, very likely, take more selfies in Red Square.