Populist Italy

Salvini hearts Putin. European Parliament, June 2015.

The growth of pro-Russian political parties in Italy and intimately linked to the anti-systemic and populist wave that in the last four years has substantially transformed the political system. A key factor in this wave was the crisis economic crisis that hit the country hard from 2011, causing a profound decline in the conditions of life and economic security for large sectors of society, especially for the middle class.

The growing frustration and anger towards the Italian establishment has been stimulated not only by socio-economic stress, but also from fear of immigration being out of control, from the widespread corruption among political elites, from the bonds between politics and organised crime, as well as the failure of the system to respond effectively to the crisis in economic development and the carrying out long-awaited structural reforms.

In 2011-2012, under EU pressure, the technocratic government of Mario Monti, introduced tough austerity measures which saved the country from financial collapse, but caused widespread social malaise and accentuated the populist wave. In the 2013 parliamentary elections, the M5S anti-establishment movement earned more than 25% of the vote and over 100 parliamentary seats. 5 Star presented itself as an anti-austerity and anti-banks force, struggling to regain Italy’s political and economic sovereignty, usurped by the EU and other international powers and the elites who support globalisation.

A significant phenomenon that has accompanied the last phase of the populist wave, particularly over the last three years, is the growing popularity of Vladimir Putin, perceived by large sections of the population as a strong and efficient leader, the only one able to save Europe from the threat of Islamic terrorism and of mass immigration. In Italy, Putin has also become a cult figure in social media: there are dozens of FB pages for the Russian president’s fan club as well as ‘alternative information’ that promotes a positive image of Putin to a large national audience.

For Italian anti-establishment movements, Putin became a powerful symbol of ‘sovereignism’ in the fight against globalisation. This perception may have also been influenced by Kremlin propaganda, which for many years has emphasised the role of Putin of as the restorer of Russian sovereignty against external attempts to weaken it and destabilise it. The Russian president has been seen by many as advancing populist forces to confront the EU and Western globalist elites and therefore is a potential ally of Italian efforts to regain its sovereignty.

The widespread perception of Putin among the anti-establishment parties as a model and ally is one of the key factors that explains why these forces have embraced pro-Russian positions. Italian political parties can be divided into three groups according to their attitude towards Russia:

1. The Gentiloni coalition: the centre-left Partito Democratico, the centre-right party Alternativa Popolare and other minor parties. They all follow the traditional approach of Cold War Italian governments: Atlanticism and Europeanism are the pillars of Italian foreign and security policy. Rome must always strive to confront Russia in order to safeguard national energy and economic interests.

2. The ‘ambiguous’ approached embraced by  Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia. Forza foreign policy looks at both the West and Russia. It cannot be considered a pro-Russian party, though some of its parliamentarians express a friendly political line towards the Kremlin. Forza Italia maintains good relations with the Kremlin thanks to Berlusconi’s personal relations with Putin and to the war, relations of some of his deputies (for example, Forza MP Valentino Valentini).

3. The pro-Russian camp,  made up of anti-establishment parties riding the populist wave: the extreme right Lega Nord (LN), now renamed Lega dei Popoli, the M5S, neither fully right nor left, the Brothers of Italy (far-right), the neo-fascist Casapound and Forza Nuova and some parties on the extreme left (like the Communist Party, led by Marco Rizzo).

The parties of the third group are labelled pro-Russian because they carry on the following activities: they embrace and spread Russian propaganda, including anti-Western and anti-American propaganda; they support Moscow’s foreign policy and support policies which favour Russian geopolitical interests and which tend to undermine the cohesion of the EU and NATO.

In 2012-2013, the Kremlin started to maintain active relations with Italy’s emerging anti-establishment parties, encouraging them to support pro-Russian positions and using them to exert an influence on domestic politics. This strategy became more aggressive after the Ukrainian crisis when Moscow tried to support the populists and sovereigntists to weaken the unity of the EU and NATO, foment tensions between the Euro-Atlantic countries, promote internal political instability and undermine public confidence in liberal democracy.

The pro-Russian parties – in particular, the Lega and the M5S, but to some extent also the far right neo-fascists – receive political support from Moscow, as evidenced by the meetings between members of these parties and ranking officials of the Russian government and United Russia. (The Lega and United Russia, for example, signed a cooperation agreement in the March 2017.)

These parties and their leaders also receive media support, in the form of visibility through international media controlled by the Kremlin, as well as in the context of Russian information campaigns hostile to the Italian government, even if there is no evidence that Moscow has provided economic aid to those parties.

Adapted from ITALY: The Russian reversible turning point? by Luigi Sergio Germani and Jacopo Jacoboni. Published under a Creative Commons license. Screenshot courtesy of Corriere TV. All rights reserved.