Italy election rocked by allegations Russia sent money to parties

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping

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The worrying figure was revealed by a senior official of Joe Biden’s administration on a conference call, which sparked concern in Italy where voters will head to the polls to elect a new government in less than two weeks. In an unusual move, the US State Department also announced a cable sent by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to numerous US embassies and consulates abroad, many of them in Europe, Africa and South Asia, expressing American concerns.

The cable, marked as “sensitive” but not classified, contains a series of “talking points” that US diplomats will have to raise with host governments about alleged Russian interference.

This is declassified information from a US intelligence report, in the wake of what the White House has already done to anticipate and unmask the Kremlin’s moves in Ukraine. Information that has been shared with the governments of the allied countries involved.

The move has sown panic especially in Europe and has come as a possible “September surprise” on the eve of the Italian legislative elections, where part of the political debate focuses on Western sanctions and positions towards Vladimir Putin.

The information does not indicate specific Russian targets and in any case it is not the first time that US intelligence has denounced a campaign of influence with funding on nationalist, anti-European and far-right parties which represent about 20 percent of the European Parliament.

According to an article published by The Daily Telegraph in 2016, American intelligence agencies had collected information that would show how the Kremlin was influencing some political parties in Europe.

At the time, the National Intelligence led by James Clapper was assigned the task of controlling Russian funding for the previous 10 years by the American Congress – an ongoing operation.

Even then, the parties involved were not leaked but political forces in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy ended up in the crosshairs of the media, with Matteo Salvini’s League denying any involvement at the time.

The link between Russia and Eurosceptic movements has been a subject of study for some time: in 2013 the Eurasian Intelligence Center published a list of anti-European parties, with xenophobic and anti-liberal tendencies, which have relations with Moscow.

In the list are Ukip at the time of the Brexit referendum campaign, AfD and the National Democratic Party (Germany), Jobbik (Hungary), Golden Dawn (Greece) and the National Rally (France) of Marine Le Pen, who was forced in the last election campaign to throw away more than a million printed copies – but not yet distributed – of an election brochure that portrayed her shaking hands with the Russian leader.

A sensational case occurred in 2019 in Austria when the newspaper Der Spiegel published a video dating back to two years earlier, which reported the conversation between Heinz-Christian Strache – leader of the far-right party – and the granddaughter of a Russian oligarch, about financing and media support of the electoral campaign in exchange for public contracts: a scandal that led to the distrust of the government – of which Strache was deputy chancellor – and to new elections.

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On March 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution banning foreign interference in European politics, targeting funding from Russia (but also from China).

However, there are legislative gaps in one-third of the states of the Union to allow this practice while where the ban is foreseen there are some loopholes that make it possible to transfer funds, masking their origin.

In Italy, Mr Salvini, whose party is in the frontrunner coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and backed by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, was once again ready to defend himself against the allegation.

He said: “The only certainty we have is that the Italian Communist Party first collected money from the Kremlin and in recent times (Italian daily) ‘la Repubblica’, which for years had a magazine called ‘Russia Today’, has done the same.”

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Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta has urged Mario Draghi’s outgoing government to publish the list of all political parties and figures who received funds from Moscow ahead of the September 25 vote.

He said: “In Italy, there must be due information and clarity before the vote.

“Before going to the vote, Italians should know whether political parties in this country have been financed by a power, Russia, which today is against Europe, has invaded Europe.

“So we ask the Italian government gives information, and that the Copasir intervenes: it is essential that public knows if there are political parties that have taken positions of support for Russia because they have been paid by Russia itself in all this operation.”

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