ROME—“Immigrants are criminals!”—“Our interests first”—“What’s wrong with being friends with Russia?”
If the rhetoric coming out of Italy’s newly minted government sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just a day after being sworn in as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on Saturday, the far-right League party’s Matteo Salvini vowed to lock up migrants rescued at sea in closed detention centers, calling them “criminals” and “felons” and telling them their “free ride is over.” If it sounds an awful lot like what U.S. President Donald Trump says about Mexicans crossing into the United States, it could be because Salvini is a YUGE fan of the man who vows to make America great again.
Salvini was inspired when he visited Trump in Philadelphia in 2016 when the then-candidate reportedly said he “hopes this man is leader of Italy someday.” At the time, it seemed preposterous and Trump initially backpedaled from the statement after being told of Salvini’s far-right leanings. On Wednesday, Salvini’s populist coalition, forged with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, passed a confidence vote with a comfortable majority, meaning their mandate could last for the five-year term if they can avoid infighting.
The similarities between Salvini and Trump don’t stop with an anti-immigration stance. While Salvini was warning migrants in Sicily and tweeting to Italian-born Ghanaian footballer Mario Balotelli to “just follow the ball” and stop complaining about citizenship birth rights, Hungarian financier George Soros told a group of economists at the Festival of the Economy in northern Italy that he was “very worried” that Russia “influenced Italian elections.”
Soros suggested that the Russian government financially supported Salvini’s party, which continues to steadily climb in popularity after waging a powerful social-media campaign.
“I am very concerned about the proximity of the new coalition government to Russia,” Soros told the conference. “There is a close relationship between Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Putin. I do not know if Putin actually finances his party, but Italian public opinion has the right to know if Salvini is on Putin's paycheck.”
Salvini has denied the claims that Putin owns him, telling an Italian radio station that his multiple trips to Moscow over the years were, much like his trip to Philadelphia during Trump’s campaign, to show his respect for a leader he admired. He also said that any support he received from the Russian leader amounted to nothing more than free advice.
“I've never had a lira from Russia, or a matryoshka, or a fur hat,” he told the radio show, clearly forgetting about that time he posted a selfie wearing a fur hat in Red Square. “There is a relationship of esteem with Putin, I believe he has done a lot for his people and with interventions against Islamist terrorism like the intervention in Syria.”
Salvini backed up his denial with a toned-down official statement, minus the hat comment. “We never received a rouble from Russia,” he said. “I consider Putin one of the best statesmen and I’m ashamed that an unscrupulous speculator like Mr. Soros is invited to speak in Italy.”
Salvini’s appreciation for Putin is well documented. He was famously photographed in a Putin t-shirt in 2015 in Moscow ahead of a strategic meeting with Putin and others. He was asked then if he was in Moscow to beg for financial backing for his Northern League party, just like his top ally Marine Le Pen, a frequent guest on Salvini’s campaign trail, apparently had done.
He denied fundraising in Russia.
When asked by a local media outlet whether or not the relationship could be perceived as compromising, Salvini echoed almost word for word what Trump said when asked the same thing last year. "I think it is better to have a good relationship with Russia,” Salvini said, adding, “The Italian economy would only gain from good relations with Russia.”
That sentiment is reflected in the 56-page contract the League and Five Star drafted, on which to base their coalition. It makes lifting sanctions on Russia a top priority. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the coalition’s new environmental minister also plans to scrap a $5.3 billion gas pipeline currently under construction under the Adriatic Sea that was meant to wean southern Europe off Russian oil currently piped down through the continent. The so-called TAP pipeline has been hotly contested in southern Europe, the Five Star Movement’s base, because it would destroy hundreds of ancient olive trees in Puglia. But ditching the pipeline is clearly even more beneficial to Russian companies who would have lost profits in oil exports if the pipeline had been completed.
Part of the loyalty to Putin is likely a nod to Salvini’s erstwhile coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he ran with in a center-right coalition, but whom he ditched when it became impossible to reach an agreement with the Five Star Movement to govern so long as the beleaguered Berlusconi was involved. Berlusconi has enough seats in parliament to be a thorn in Salvini’s side, or to give him a boost if Five Star parliamentarians disagree with legislation he supports.
The well-known bromance between Berlusconi and Putin remains strong. The two have always shared a kindred spirit and then some. Putin gave Berlusconi a bed on which he is alleged to have ordered a paid escort to wait for him while he prepared for sex. More recently, Berlusconi gave Putin a peculiar bedspread emblazoned with a photo of the two of them shaking hands.
But the complicated relationship between the two nations started long before either Putin or Berlusconi entered the political stage and extends far beyond beds and bunga bunga. Italy was a major supplier of industrial equipment in the Soviet era, and Italy’s ENI oil company was and still is instrumental in the Soviet oil industry. The Russian city of Tolyatti is named after Palmiro Togliatti, the head of Italy’s Communist party—the largest outside the Soviet Union at its peak. The Russian city is home to a still-existent Fiat car factory, the largest automotive plant in the country. Business dealings between the two countries are worth billions, which has been particularly difficult for cash-poor Italian private and state companies in the era of Russian sanctions. Lifting those sanctions will be instrumental in pleasing both the voters who supported the League-Five Star coalition and Putin himself.
Ahead of the parliamentary confidence vote, Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte, toed the populist party line. “We'll be the advocates of an opening towards Russia, which has consolidated its international role in various geopolitical crises in recent years, he told the Senate before the confidence vote. “We'll be promoters of a revision of the system of sanctions, starting with those that risk crucifying Russian civilian society.”
That, of course, will put Italy on a collision course with much of the rest of Europe, which has vowed to support the American-led sanctions—unless, of course, the coalition crashes on its own first.