6 March 2017

The Italian far right Lega Nord builds closer ties with Moscow

Late at night on 5 March, the leader of the Italian far right Lega Nord (Northern League, LN) Matteo Salvini flew to Moscow. The next day, on 6 March, Salvini and deputy chairman of the Russian "parliament" Sergey Zheleznyak signed a coordination agreement between the LN and the ruling Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia, ER) party.

The Lega Nord's Matteo Salvini is flying to Moscow on 5 March 2017
Matteo Salvini and Sergey Zheleznyak sign the coordination agreement between the Lega Nord and the United Russia. Moscow, 6 March 2017
The document signed by Salvini and Zheleznyak is not available publicly yet, but it seems that it differs from the one signed between the Austrian far right FPÖ and ER in December 2016. In the case of the LN, the document was first called "a protocol of intentions", but eventually the Russian state-controlled media called it "a coordination agreement" (Russian: договор о взаимодействии). In the case of the FPÖ, the document was called "a coordination and cooperation agreement" (Russian: договор о взаимодействии и сотрудничестве). This implies that the value of the agreement is higher in the case of the FPÖ compared to that of the LN. This is also corroborated by the fact that the LN's delegation consisted only of Salvini himself, while only Zheleznyak received Salvini. In contrast, the FPÖ delegation in December 2016 featured several members of the party (including its leader HC Strache), while the Russian host party featured not only Zheleznyak but also three other representatives of the Russian political establishment.

The LN under the leadership of Salvini started building contacts with the Russian actors already at the end of 2013. Aleksey Komov, an employee of Russian ultranationalist Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and the official representative of the World Congress of Families in Russia, travelled to Turin in December 2013 and took part, together with a Russian MP from the ER Viktor Zubarev, in the LN’s congress that elected Salvini as a new leader of the party.

Since the beginning of 2014, the LN has been extremely active in carrying out pro-Kremlin efforts in Italy, in particular through the Associazione Culturale Lombardia Russia (Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, ACLR; more on the workings of the ACLR see section "Italy" here).

Alexey Komov addresses the congress of Lega Nord. Rome, December 2013
The activities of the LN and ACLR in October 2014 were especially important for the development of their Russian connections that led to an increase of their pro-Russian efforts. That month, a delegation of the LN/ACLR visited Russia-annexed Crimea – their trip was coordinated with the Russian Embassy in Rome – and met with the EU-sanctioned “Prime Minister” of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov. After Crimea, the LN/ACLR delegation went to Moscow where they met with a number of high-ranking Russian officials and politicians such as then chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin, his deputy and the head of the “Yedinaya Rossiya” State Duma group Vladimir Vasilyev, the head of the Duma foreign affairs committee Aleksey Pushkov, and deputy Foreign Minister Aleksey Meshkov. The LN/ACLR delegation also visited a session of the State Duma, and Naryshkin personally welcomed the delegation by mentioning that the LN was "one of Italy’ political parties that [was] unalterably opposed to the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the United States and the European Union".

Matteo Salvini and Sergey Naryshkin. Moscow, October 2014
The delegation of the Lega Nord being greeted by Sergey Naryshkin in the Russian "parliament". Moscow, October 2014
Salvini was able to meet and talk to Putin for 20 minutes during a break at the Asia-Europe summit in Milan on 17 October 2014. According to Salvini, he spoke to Putin about "the absurd sanctions against Russia introduced by the cowardly EU that defend[ed] the interests not of its own citizens, but rather those of the economic oligarchs and lobbies of the representatives of the world power".

Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Putin. Milan, 17 October 2014
The LN's trip to Moscow in October 2014 marked the beginning of a series of frequent visits of the LN leadership to Russia and their meetings with high-ranking officials and politicians from the ER. On 22 October 2014, an LN member Claudio D’Amico met with Andrey Klimov, a member of the supervisory board of Malofeev’s Katehon think-tank and a senior member of the ER who was responsible for the party’s foreign relations in 2012-2016. During this meeting, D’Amico reiterated the LN’s opposition to the sanctions against Russia, and suggested that the LN and ER signed an agreement on cross-party cooperation. Klimov and Salvini discussed this idea further during the latter’s visit to Moscow in February 2015. The two of them continued discussing tentative official cooperation between the parties on 17 December 2015 when Salvini and other LN's members arrived in Moscow for a two-day visit.

The LN delegation meets with Aleksey Pushkov (third from the left). Moscow, 17 December 2015
Thus, the LN had been discussing some version of an agreement with the ER since at least late 2014, but was able to sign the document only in March 2017. According to various sources, the coordination agreement between the LN and ER involves the following:

- the parties shall consult and exchange information on current affairs, international relations, exchange experiences in the sphere of youth policies and economic development;
- shall regularly exchange delegations at different levels, hold bilateral and multilateral seminars, conferences and round tables on the most topical issues of Russian-Italian reactions;
- shall contribute to the unification of all forces in the fight against Islamic terrorism, combat illegal immigration, and defend traditional values.

To reiterate, however, the agreement signed by the LN and ER is not as significant as that between the FPÖ and ER. Unlike the far right FPÖ, which is currently the most popular party in Austria, the LN is only fourth in Italy (they may obtain 10-12% of the vote in the next parliamentary election), so Moscow is not ready (yet) to provide full-fledged political support for the LN, trying to find more established and popular allies in Italy, or even in the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement). At the same time, Moscow will definitely keep medium-level contacts with the LN and will turn to the Italian far right in case it fails in its search for the Putinversteher in the Italian mainstream circles.

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