Perspective: Foreign interferenceLega Nord’s Bedfellows: Russians Offering Illicit Funding to Italian Far-Right Party Identified

Published 9 September 2019

In the last four years, the Kremlin has engaged in a broad, systematic campaign – consisting of hacking, a vast social media disinformation effort, and illicit funding – to weaken the West by helping far-right, populist, pro-Russian politicians and movements reach power. One of their successes was in Italy, where the far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant Northern League and the eclectic, anti-establishment 5 Star Movement won enough seats in the Fall 2017 election to form a coalition government (which collapsed last week, after more than a 1.5 years in power). Prosecutors in Milan have launched an investigation of The League after recordings emerged of meetings between League leaders and Kremlin emissaries, in which a scheme to secure funding for The League in the upcoming European parliament elections was discussed. The funding – in the millions of Euro – was to be funneled via artificially underpriced Russian oil export transactions.

In a previous joint investigation with BuzzFeed News and the InsiderBellingcat disclosed the inordinately frequent travel of two Italian politicians from the close circle of the head of Italy’s far-right party Lega Nord, and self-styled “Italian Trump” Matteo Salvini. As previously reported by Italian media and BuzzFeed, one of the frequent travelers and advisers to Italy’s deputy prime minister  – Gianluca Savoini – took part in a meeting in Moscow last October with three so-far unidentified Russian speakers.

Chrisot Grozev writes in Bellingcat that at that meeting, which took place at the Metropol hotel and was surreptitiously recorded (likely by one of the participants) – Savoini and his Russian counterparts discussed an illicit scheme to secure funding for Italy’s far-right party in the upcoming European parliament elections. The funding – in the millions of Euro – was to be funneled via artificially underpriced Russian oil export transactions, allowing room for a “value added” allocation to a sham broker, which was to be secretly channeled to Lega Nord.

Grozev writes that during the meeting, the audio recording of which was obtained by BuzzFeed, Savoini can be heard repeatedly pledging political support to Russia in the context of the “common interests” between the Kremlin and Europe’s extreme right.

“The disclosure of the meeting and its purported goals have rocked Italian politics, and prosecutors in Milan are investigating the proposed deal,” Grozev writes. “Salvini himself did not attend the Metropol meeting, but was in Moscow at the time. He has consistently refused to answer questions about whether he knew the meeting was taking place or was aware of the proposed oil deal.”

Three Russian male voices can be heard in the recording published by BuzzFeed. “During their deliberations on how best to structure the funding scheme, they refer to leading Russian political figures with whom the project needs to be coordinated – including Vladimir Pligin and the ‘deputy prime minister,’ arguably referring to Dmitry Kozak. The three men’s identities have, however, remained unknown until this investigation,” Grozev writes.

A joint investigation by BellingcatBuzzFeed News, and the Insider (Russia) has been able to identify two of the three Russian voices heard on the recording.