Italian government officials are warning of possible foreign interference in the March 4 general election, sounding the alarm following the U.S. indictment of Russian trolls and evidence of Russian-sourced fake news on popular Italian platforms. Premier Paolo Gentiloni on Tuesday released Italy’s annual security report, which aside from highlighting the threat of Islamic extremism, warned about online “influence campaigns” that aim to “condition both the sentiment and political orientation of public opinion, especially at election time.” The report didn’t mention Russia by name. But for months, U.S. and Italian analysts have warned that European elections are prime targets for Russian meddling, with the Italian contest particularly ripe because two key opposition parties — the nationalist League and the anti-establishment, populist 5-Star Movement — have cultivated ties with Moscow.
League leader Matteo Salvini has made several high-profile trips to Russia, including a March 2017 visit to sign a cooperation agreement with ruling party United Russia. The 5-Stars, meanwhile, have fostered similar relationships and called for the lifting of European Union sanctions against Russia.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said he inquired about the risk of Russian meddling during talks in Rome Monday with officials from Italy’s foreign and interior ministries.
“They believe there will be a free election that will reflect the will of the Italian people on March 4,” Sullivan told a forum at the Rome-based Center for American Studies. “But they are very cautious and keeping a close eye on any potential for an outside party, such as those we saw in the election in the United States in 2016, interfering.”