A representative of Italy’s right-wing League of the North party may have discussed at Russia’s embassy the possibility of breaking up the government’s coalition, La Stampa newspaper reported last week. The meeting, according to Italian intelligence sources, took place in May, a few weeks before Mario Draghi’s government collapsed.

Draghi, who had been in office for a year and a half, resigned July 21 after the League of the North, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Go Italy party and the populist Five Star Movement refused to participate in a vote of no confidence in the prime minister in the Senate. The president accepted the resignation of Draghi, who has remained acting prime minister ever since.

Details of the alleged meeting at the embassy
According to La Stampa, a Russian embassy official, Oleg Kostyukov, son of Ilya Kostyukov, head of the Russian General Staff GRU, approached Antonio Capuano, Salvini’s foreign affairs adviser, in May of this year. The embassy official wanted to know if Salvini intended to recall his party’s deputies from Draghi’s ruling coalition.

It is known about Oleg Kostyukov that he owns expensive suburban real estate in the “Lipka” cottage village on Novorizhskoe highway in the Moscow region. In 2021, The Insider estimated its value at 170 million rubles.

It is difficult to say exactly what position Oleg Kostyukov holds – the website of the diplomatic mission lists only the last name of the ambassador. La Stampa newspaper calls Kostyukov Jr. “vicar [deputy] of the Russian embassy in Italy. Vremya Vremya reached the Russian Embassy in Rome, but was unable to comment on the situation on the spot.

Speaking on Radio 24, League of the North Secretary Matteo Salvini described as “nonsense” the suggestion that Russia might have influenced the breakup of the ruling coalition in Italy: “Nonsense, this is nonsense! I have worked and am working for peace, against a war that entails death and economic problems for everyone.”

The newspaper La Repubblica followed with a report that former Italian prime minister and longtime Putin ally Silvio Berlusconi spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov on the day his party announced it was quitting the ruling coalition. Berlusconi stated that he had never met or spoken to the Russian ambassador in Rome.

Why would Russia influence elections in Italy?

Draghi’s government has repeatedly voiced support for Ukraine, and the prime minister himself recently visited Ukraine with French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz. Against this background, many pro-Putin activists, called putiniani, have appeared in Italy. They are everywhere: on social networks, in the news and on talk shows.

In May 2022, Alex Orlowski, an activist and Internet propaganda researcher, analyzed 639 thousand tweets from 551 accounts that use the letter Z as a symbol of Russian invasion. The researcher characterizes these accounts as “Italian. Before becoming pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian, they spread conspiracy theories about vaccines.

“If you look at political preferences, there are supporters of Italy’s exit from the European Union,” Alex Orlowski says. – There are those who are against NATO and, of course, on the side of Russia. On Twitter, they support politicians, journalists and media who spread Russian propaganda. What else is striking is that many of these accounts are owned by supporters of far-right ideology. And it was pretty wild to read their posts about [Vladimir Putin’s] “denazification” in Ukraine. The cherry on the cake was the fact that in addition to the far-right accounts, we found a lot of far-left accounts, such as supporters of the Italian Communist Party.

According to Orlowski, some of these accounts belong to real people who have been “brainwashed. Some are far-right and far-left activists who make money from propaganda. “In principle, all this work is paid for by various schemes through oligarchs or security forces. I don’t blame anyone, but all these cultural associations “Russia – Italy” get money from Russia. Theoretically, this is one of the channels for paying for such propaganda activities,” concludes the researcher.

What comes next
Di Maio, head of the country’s foreign ministry, has proposed the creation of a committee to investigate links between Italian politicians and the Russian Federation. Italy’s new elections are scheduled for September 25.

“To create a government, you have to create coalitions that can reach up to 17 parties,” explains La Stampa columnist Anna Zafesova. – It’s a system that is completely unstable. As a rule, these governments then fall. One of the reasons why governments in Italy do not last long is because they fall because of the contradictions within their own coalition, because it is very broad.

Anna Zasefova believes that the current election campaign could put a “fat cross” on the political career of Matteo Salvini. “This political firing, apparently, will go to the benefit of Giorgi Meloni, this is the head of the neo-fascist party “Brothers of Italy”. According to the program, they are the same fascists as the League of the North-the same xenophobia, the same love of traditional values, of Putin. But Meloni, unlike Matteo Salvini, who kept trying to get on the plane that would take him to Putin, stands for Atlantic unity, she supports Ukraine in the war. I have the feeling that someone decided that if you have to choose between two fascists, which in itself is a hard choice – between two evils, then Salvini as a friend of Putin is absolutely unacceptable.”