The Italian Russiagate

Matteo Salvini and Gianluca Savoini in Moscow

What’s going on between Italy’s first far-right party, Russian financiers, two lawyers, an Anglo-German bank and lots, lots of money.

It’s Thursday, October 18th. Six important men sit together in the hall of the luxury hotel Metropol in Moscow. They are discussing the exchange of 65 million dollars in illegal funding for the far-right Italian party Lega, whose leader is the current Italian Minister of the Interior and Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

The identities of the six participants haven’t been fully verified yet. Most of what we know at the moment comes from two sources: a journalistic investigation conducted by Alberto Nardelli and published on the American website BuzzFeed News on July 11th, 2019 and a serie of reportages by the Italian weekly publication L’Espresso, which is following the case since last February.

The story is long and tangled and it went on for several months after the first meeting, coming to involve the first Italian Oil and Gas Company, two lawyers, an Anglo-German bank and lots, lots of money.

Here is what we know about “Moscopoli.”

Matteo Salvini (left) and Gianluca Savoini (right) in Moscow

Of the six men that took part in the muscovite meeting last October three were Italian and three Russian. The first one to have been identified is Gianluca Savoini, Matteo Salvini’s long-time friend — “We firstly met during university days, back in 1992” the vice PM will say — and founder and current President of the association Lombardia-Russia whose official aim is to improve and facilitate the relationship between Italy and Russia. Actually, the association imports Putin’s sovereign and nationalist perspectives while it openly collaborates with media institutions such as Sputnik News Italia, widely recognised as part of the Russian propaganda machine. “Associazione Lombardia-Russia” was virtually unknown before the scandal, and its activities still remain quite foggy.

Savoini used to work as Salvini’s spokesman but at the moment he does not have any official role in the government. Nevertheless, he is always standing next to the Vice Prime Minister during his five official visits to Russia since 2013. So much so that eventually many newspapers started referring to Savoini as an Adviser to the Minister, and he used to justify his presence to the institutional meetings with the same words.

BuzzFeed News published some extracts of an audio file that allegedly recorded the conversation at the Metropol hotel. There, Savoini’s voice is clearly recognisable as he acts as the leader of the Italian group. At the beginning of the conversation, he claims: “Next May will be the European Elections. We want to change Europe. A new Europe has to be close to Russia […] Salvini is the first man that ants to change all Europe.”

Gianluca Meranda (left) and Francesco Vannucci (right)

The other two Italians that took part in the negotiations revealed their identity of their own will shortly after the publication of BuzzFeed’s article. They are Gianluca Meranda, international lawyer who was at the Metropol on behalf of an Anglo-German bank interested in “negotiating the purchase of Russian petroleum products” and his partner and Banking Advisor Francesco Vannucci. Later on, L’Espresso will say that the “Anglo-German bank” in question is Euro-Ib, for which Meranda worked as consultant for 9 months between 2016 and 2017.

For what concerns the Russian representatives, only one has been identified with certainty: he is Ilia Yakunin, a man closely linked to Russia top levels of power. In facts, during the conversation he often reaffirms his need to wait for “his superior” to give a green light to the deal. Yakunin is talking about Vladimir Nikolaevich Pligin, muscovite lawyer and close friend with Vladimir Putin. L’Espresso found out that the night right before the Metropol meeting, on October 17th 2018, the Italian Minster of the Interior and Lega’s Secretary Matteo Salvini met with the Russian Vice PM and Head of Energy Affairs Dmitry Kozak directly in Piglin’s study. When asked on the subject, Salvini refused to reveal the details of the meeting — which was not on the official schedule — and simply said he didn’t remember.

After Savoini’s introduction and presentation, the conversation at the Metropol hotel started getting to the heart. The six men negotiated the delivery of 65 millions dollars to Salvini’s party Lega, which would have been used to finance the upcoming European elections (held on May 26th, 2019.) The transaction would happen through a complex and ambiguous system that involves the sale of 3 millions tons of diesel from a Russian to an Italian Oil Company during the course of a year, meaning an actual exchange of 250.000 tons every month. However, the Russian company would allow a 6,5% discount over the standard diesel price, thus creating an estimated “black hole” of $65 millions that would go directly into Lega’s coffers. Furthermore L’Espresso stated that, at the end of the meeting, the two parts agreed upon the possibility of adding to the diesel a further supply for 3 tons of aviation kerosene, thus actually doubling the final profit.

This is completely forbidden in the Italian legislative system, which allows parties to receive foreign donations only up to a limit of €10.000. In this regard, it is curious that Salvini’s Lega tried to modify twice that particular law and uncap foreign donations within a few months after the reunion in Moscow. The first attempt, failed, was made only 10 days after the Metropol meeting. A second and luckier attempt took place in April, 2019 when the Lega succeeded in legalising grants received from abroad for “foundations and committees,” which — Repubblica claims — are often used as a secondary channel for financing political institutions.

The Oil and Gas companies mentioned during the meeting correspond to ENI on the Italian side, and Rosneft before and Gazprom after for Russia. In fact, L’Espresso published several documents marked with the Euro-Ib letterhead and drawn up by Meranda on October 29th, 2018: only 11 days after the meeting. In the papers the Anglo-German bank expresses its interest to purchase the agreed 6 tons of diesel and kerosene from Rosneft. The request is signed by the Italian manager of Euro-Ib, Gianluca Verdoia. Interviewed by La Repubblica, Verdoia will say that Meranda used Euro-Ib’s name for activities out of his knowledge or control, and he will plead completely innocent.

On February 8th, 2019 Meranda uses Euro-Ib’s name again to communicate directly with Savoini and inform him that another Russian company, Gazprom, refused the deal. During a four months timeframe their foreign interlocutor for the delivery of the diesel has changed for reasons that are still not clear.

For its part, after the scandal blew up the first Italian Oil and Gas Company ENI has categorically denied any involvement in the deal, affirming to have never concluded any economic transaction with Euro-Ib and to have never taken part in activities aimed at financing political parties.

At the moment we do not know if the supply actually went through or if the Lega ever received any money from Russia. Nonetheless, official documents and incriminating audio recording have been spread.

The publication of BuzzFeed’s reportage inflamed the Italian political debate, fostering discussions among the already unstable government. The only one to remain silent is Matteo Salvini who, cornered by journalists and politicians’ demands for transparency, defined the whole set of events as “mere fantasies” and an “unfounded spy movie.”

Salvini is widely known for being particularly active on social media, with an average of 10 tweets per day back in 2018. Nevertheless, his Facebookand Twitter pages lack any reference whatsoever to the Moscow events and to the later developments. Lega’s representatives are desperately trying to divert attention by focusing on other problem which, in all likelihood, in a different moment would easily have gone on the back burner. For instance, they created what Repubblica calls a “social wave” about Bibbiano, a small town in central Italy where about two weeks before the release of BuzzFeed’s investigation a team of journalists discovered illegal operationsin the management of children’s adoptions procedures. The hashtag #ParlatecidiBibbiano (“Tell us about Bibbiano”) became viral in a matter of hours, leaving the developments about the Metropol meeting in the shadows.

A quick analysis on Google Trends confirms this idea. If we compare the number of searches in Italy for the keywords “Savoini” and “Bibbiano”, it’s clear how the latter is by far more popular in the timeframe June 27th — July 27th.

Google trend Bibbiano Savoini
Source: Google Trend, July 27th 2019

The Interior Minister is avoiding the “Moscopoli” topic also in person, refusing to address Parliament in spite of the several demands for clarity. On July 24th the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reported about the case in front of the Senate. Right before his speech, though, the members of the majority party Movimento 5 Stelle — which currently forms the government coalition together with the Lega — left the room as a form of protest, later claiming that the one to speak and explain his standpoint should have been Salvini himself.

Conte did not say anything particularly shocking. The most important declaration relates to the fact that, according to the Prime Minister, Mr. Savoini always took part in muscovite official dinners and meeting thanks to official invites signed by the Ministry of the Interior, even if Salvini states that he did not know why or with whom Savoini attended the events.

For his part, Salvini commented on Conte’s speech by saying: “I couldn’t care less.”

In the meantime, legal measures were taken against the participants to the Metropol meeting. In February 2019 — immediately after the publication of the first revealing article by L’Espresso — the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Milan opened an investigation for international corruption for Gianluca Savoini. On July 15th, 2019 Savoini received an invitation to appear in Court and relate abut the case, but he invoked the right to remain silent.

Later on, following BuzzFeed’s article, Mr. Meranda and Mr. Vannucci were officially indicted and the Custom Corps searched their houses, along with Savoini’s one. What they found there is, up to now, confidential but different newspapers leaked that the police could have got hold of records and chats crucial for the unfolding of the judicial procedures.

July 27th, 2019. To be continued



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