Within Italy, the big winners in the March 4 elections were the two populist parties, who between them pulled in roughly 50 percent of the vote. The 5 Star Movement, which emphasizes the “drain the swamp” part of the populist message, was the leading party, with 32 percent of the vote for both chambers of the Italian parliament. The League, more akin to the anti-immigrant policies Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, pulled about 17 percent, easily topping the center-right Let’s Go Italy (Forza Italia) of Silvio Berlusconi, disappointed in his hopes of returning to the forefront of Italian politics. Outside Italy, though, the undisputed winner was Vladimir Putin. Steve Bannon, who was in Italy for the election, may spin Italian events, not without reason, as confirmation of a populist wave that hit the U.S. as well in 2016. But the strong and public Russian connections of Italy’s populist parties could have very concrete impacts on Italian policy going forward.
The League, for example, has regularly protested European Union sanctions against Russia. In March 2017, League chief Matteo Salvini even signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, Putin’s political party, which holds the lion’s share of votes in the Duma. Much of the agreement reportedly deals with exchanges of information and meetings between party and parliamentary representatives, but promotion of Italy-Russia trade and economic cooperation evidently also figured. A few weeks ago, Italian weekly newsmagazine L’Espresso, a left-of-center publication unfriendly toward the League, published a very detailed (Italian language) exposé of the League’s Russian connections, identifying key intermediaries in the relationship.
Evidence of the 5 Star Movement’s friendly ties with Russia is also abundant. Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have identified 5 Star as a conduit for Russian electoral interference, e.g. in Italy’s December 2016 constitutional amendment referendum, which led to the downfall of then center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Denials of interference have not been accompanied by disavowals of ties to Russia. On the contrary, on February 1, the Russian official news network RT’s Sputnik website carried an interview with 5 Star Member of Parliament Manlio Di Stefano. He stressed the importance of Italy-Russia cooperation, criticized alleged NATO expansionism, called for greater Italian autonomy in foreign policy, and argued that sanctions against Russia should be eliminated.
Full Article: Putin is the real winner of the Italian elections | TheHill.