Buzzfeed reignites row over Salvini-Putin links

Gianluca Savoini and Russian President Vladimir Putin

ROME – The row over alleged plans to use Russian oil money to finance the League as part of a secret and illegal deal with the Kremlin has been reignited after Buzzfeed News published a transcript of an apparently incriminating conversation from last year. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denies taking money from Russia and there is no evidence the deal was actually carried out, according to government sources.

 The men, including Salvini’s close ally Gianluca Savoini, discuss in the reported conversation a “great alliance” and the possibility of channeling tens of millions of dollars of money from Russian oil to the Italian party.

 Salvini responded robustly to the accusations, which had already surfaced in February in L’Espresso magazine: "I have already sued for libel in the past, I'll do so again today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.” He added, "I've never taken a rouble, a euro, a dollar or a litre of vodka in funding from Russia."

 The conversation, published Wednesday by the American media outlet, supposedly took place between three Italians and three Russians on October 18 last year at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Salvini was not at the meeting but was in Moscow at the time, where the day before he denounced sanctions against Russia as “economic, social, and cultural folly.” The unidentified Russians refer to “yesterday’s meeting,” which Buzzfeed suggests may have involved the League leader.

 The deal discussed in the meeting involves the sale of huge amounts of oil at discount price by a Russian company to Italian oil company Eni for around 1.5 billion dollars through intermediaries. The money from the discount would then be passed to the League in secret via those intermediaries, an amount which Buzzfeed estimates at around 65 million dollars.

 The transcript at face value certainly suggests that the money would be used for political purposes. One of the other Italians says the deal is “not professional, it’s just a political issue… We count on sustaining a political campaign which is of benefit, I would say of mutual benefit, for the two countries.”

 Around 25 minutes into the conversation, another Italian says: “It is very simple. The planning made by our political guys was that given a 4% discount, 250,000 [metric tons] plus 250,000 per month per one year, they can sustain a campaign.”

 “Salvini is the first man that want[s] to change all of Europe,” says Savoini at the beginning of the conversation. Salvini leads a pro-Russian alliance in Europe and in the past has been open in his support for Putin. In 2016 he visited Crimea, which Russia had annexed, and has repeatedly described the takeover as legitimate.

 The deal would be illegal under Italian law, which in January banned Italian parties from receiving funding or support from foreign governments or entities. Before that, it had been legal to accept donations up to 100,000 euros.

 Savoini denies any wrongdoing. He does not recall what was said in the meeting, which was for business, and in any case does not work for Salvini, he told La Repubblica.

 Eni, an oil and gas company based in Rome, also strongly denies any wrongdoing. A company spokesmen said “Eni strongly reiterates that it in no way took part in transactions aimed at financing political parties. Moreover, the described supply operation never took place. Eni, in the presence of any statement alleging the involvement of the company in activities aimed at financing political parties, reserves the right to assess the appropriate legal channels and will act strongly to protect its reputation.”

 Many will see the conversation, even if what was negotiated was never realised, as yet more evidence of Russian interference in the West. There have been notable controversies in recent years over Krelmin meddling in American and European democracy - in the 2016 American presidential election and the business deals of Arron Banks, a major funder of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom in the same year. 

 In May, the leader of Austria's far-right FPÖ party, Heinz-Christian Strache, had to resign after a recording from a set-up meeting revealed negotiation for Russian campaign support in exchange for public contracts. French National Rally Leader Marine Le Pen in 2014 accepted considerable loans from Russian banks, including one which was close to the Kremlin, but claimed the deals were commercial rather than poltical.