Putin is the real winner of the Italian elections

Putin is the real winner of the Italian elections
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Within Italy, the big winners in the March 4 elections were the two populist parties, who between them pulled in roughly 50 percent of the vote.

The 5 Star Movement, which emphasizes the “drain the swamp” part of the populist message, was the leading party, with 32 percent of the vote for both chambers of the Italian parliament. The League, more akin to the anti-immigrant policies Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, pulled about 17 percent, easily topping the center-right Let’s Go Italy (Forza Italia) of Silvio Berlusconi, disappointed in his hopes of returning to the forefront of Italian politics.

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Outside Italy, though, the undisputed winner was Vladimir Putin. Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonOvernight Tech: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower meets House Dems | SEC fines Yahoo M over email breach | Senators unveil internet privacy bill The danger in firing Rod Rosenstein CNN: White House circulating plan to undermine Rosenstein MORE, who was in Italy for the election, may spin Italian events, not without reason, as confirmation of a populist wave that hit the U.S. as well in 2016. But the strong and public Russian connections of Italy’s populist parties could have very concrete impacts on Italian policy going forward.

The League, for example, has regularly protested European Union sanctions against Russia. In March 2017, League chief Matteo Salvini even signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, Putin’s political party, which holds the lion’s share of votes in the Duma. Much of the agreement reportedly deals with exchanges of information and meetings between party and parliamentary representatives, but promotion of Italy-Russia trade and economic cooperation evidently also figured. A few weeks ago, Italian weekly newsmagazine L’Espresso, a left-of-center publication unfriendly toward the League, published a very detailed (Italian language) exposé of the League’s Russian connections, identifying key intermediaries in the relationship.

Evidence of the 5 Star Movement’s friendly ties with Russia is also abundant. Both former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenDelaware lawmakers unanimously pass new gun control bill named for Beau Biden The Hill's 12:30 Report Biden to decide on White House run at end of year MORE and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have identified 5 Star as a conduit for Russian electoral interference, e.g. in Italy’s December 2016 constitutional amendment referendum, which led to the downfall of then center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Denials of interference have not been accompanied by disavowals of ties to Russia. On the contrary, on February 1, the Russian official news network RT’s Sputnik website carried an interview with 5 Star Member of Parliament Manlio Di Stefano. He stressed the importance of Italy-Russia cooperation, criticized alleged NATO expansionism, called for greater Italian autonomy in foreign policy, and argued that sanctions against Russia should be eliminated.

The pro-Russian sentiments of both the League and the 5 Star Movement are frankly beyond dispute. And they are not actually surprising within the Italian political context. In fairness, the primary international loyalties of Italian governments have long been clear. Italy has made important contributions to NATO, and its support for the European integration process has been enthusiastic, if perhaps somewhat uncritical. Even a determined Russo-skeptic like myself can admit that it is neither intrinsically crazy nor evil to argue that positive relations with Russia are in Italy’s national interest.

As usual, one has to follow the money. Even at the height of the Cold War, Italy’s economic outreach to the U.S.S.R. was considerable. Remember all those Soviet-built Fiats? Italy’s dependence on foreign sources of energy historically has necessitated constructive relationships with countries like Russia, and in recent years it has competed with Germany over access to Russian gas and construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. When Putin cuts off gas supplies via Ukraine, or threatens to cut them off, Italy goes into fibrillation.  

World Bank trade statistics indicate that from 2013 (i.e. before the Russian seizure of Crimea and subsequent European Union sanctions) and 2016, Italy’s trade with Russia took a large hit, proportionally speaking. Exports to Russia went from 2.76 percent of total Italian exports to 1.61 percent, while Italian imports from Russia went from 5.59 percent of total imports to 2.9 percent.

Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy, was among the European political figures suspected of having been recruited to validate pro-Putin president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich. And Berlusconi himself is known for being close to Putin. There are not a lot of overt Russo-skeptics on the Italian political scene at this point. Paolo Gentiloni, still Italy’s prime minister for the moment, had a cordial meeting with Putin in Sochi last May. His predecessor, Matteo Renzi, reportedly has complained privately about Russian meddling in Italian politics, but in June 2016 had his own meeting with Putin, pitched as an effort to restore EU-Russian relations after controversy over Crimea and Ukraine.

But the Russophilia, or at least the weak Russo-skepticism, of Italy’s mainstream political parties, was always tempered by a strong sense of obligation to Italy’s allies and partners in NATO and the EU, a respect for the practices that have long characterized these exclusive clubs. After the Fascist experience, Italian elites became and largely have remained skeptical about national individualism in foreign affairs. Much better to operate in concert with others.

But on March 4, half of Italy’s voters rejected the limitations of national sovereignty and the commitment to deep international cooperation that are implicit in EU membership. Those same sovereignist impulses extend to NATO as well.

It’s too early to say how this will impact Italian policy, but any possible governing coalition will include at least one of the populist parties, potentially both. Any government also will be internally divided, and hence weak, with little ability to take and sustain difficult policy decisions.

Putin doesn’t need, and presumably does not expect, an overtly pro-Russian shift in Italy. It’s already a help to Russia that one of the largest West European countries, the fourth largest European economy (in the top ten worldwide), an active contributor to NATO, and historically close to the United States, will be effectively paralyzed.

Eric Terzuolo studied East European, Russian, and Soviet history at Stanford University, and taught these subjects at Gustavus Adolphus College and Mount Saint Mary’s College (now University). As a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State, he served twice in Italy, including as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs in Rome, and later negotiated extensively with Russian Federation representatives on chemical weapons issues.