Everything changes. And yet ’twas ever so. Once more Italy is under the influence of Mother Russia. In the post-war period, it was the Italian Communist Party, the most powerful and influential in Western Europe that set NATO and the CIA fretting. Was it being used as a conduit for Soviet influence? The Americans did all they could to bolster and support the Christian Democrats who ruled the country pretty much forever until the Mani Pulite (clean hands) corruption scandals in the early 90s sunk their battleships along with those of the centrist Socialist Party, but by that time the Soviet Union was no more and the Italian Communist Party had splintered into various Popular People’s Front of Judea factions. Chaos, confusion and finally a cruise ship crooner called Silvio Berlusconi slid into power. At which point Vladimir Putin had a pal who he could merrily mime machine-gunning journalists with on the world stage and everyone just had to stomach it because Berlusconi was just a clown, a sui generis, a laughable Italian joke good for political panel shows. Such things would never be permitted to happen in the English-speaking polity. Right? Am I…? Do you…? Never mind.
But Berlusconi bunga-bunga-ed himself out of power and the etch-a-sketch of the Italian political scene was once more shaken to an unrecognisable degree with the ascension of actual comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement and a resurgent far right party The League, formerly the secessionist Northern League which had collapsed under the weight of its own corruption scandal. Now under young leader Matteo Salvini, it had reinvented itself as an Italy First movement, wilfully lobotomizing any memory of the time when Italy was the enemy and the Tolkienian Padania was the country they all swore fealty to. In last year’s election, Salvini’s Instagram-friendly brand of fascism scored notable successes even in the south which can only be explained by the electorate being hit by the Men in Black do-dah that wipes minds. No one remembered when the League almost constantly referred to anyone south of Florence as a ‘terrone’, an insulting reference to anyone south. Italians having the dubious distinction of being racist towards Italians from a different bit of Italy. And so it goes…
Such Olympian amnesia fuelled Salvini’s success along with the almost hilarious alacrity with which the hitherto holier-than-thou 5 Star Movement jumped into bed with the League, despite ongoing scandals of financial wrongdoing concerning their coalition partners (the party still owes 49 million euro that it embezzled from the state under the leadership of the Mugwumpian Umberto Bossi and his son Renzo, nicknamed (and this isn’t a joke) the Trout.
Now with Buzzfeed publishing a recording of an aide of Salvini’s Gianluca Savoini discussing with Kremlin emissaries schemes to receive 65 million euro from Russia to finance the League, Sebastiano Messina in La Repubblica this morning helpfully reminded his readers of the many times Salvini has rushed to praise Vlad. Asked to name a defect of Putin’s, Salvini fluttered: ‘He doesn’t have any.’ On another occasion, sneeringly: ‘Who messes with Putin is an idiot.’ Simperingly: ‘If we had ten Putins in Italy he’d sort things out.’ Hopefully: ‘I’d have Putin tomorrow morning as Prime Minister.’ When the UK had the temerity to accuse Putin after the Litvinenko poisoning, Salvini scoffed more than the audio descriptive subtitles on Netflix: ‘Either they have proof or we’ll laugh it off’. After the hacking of phones linked back to Russian security services, ‘Now everything is the fault of Putin. Your TV doesn’t work? Russian hackers. You lost at Risk? Russian hackers…’ Likewise, the League has consistently voted against sanctions – wearing t-shirts to the voting session (incidentally one of the few serial-absentee Salvini attended) in Brussels – and defended Russian actions in the Ukraine and Belorussia, even visiting the occupied area.
It’s weird. Why would Salvini feel so inspired by the ex-KGB man? Obviously, Salvini – being a fascist – likes a powerful man. In his role of Interior Minister (and despite it being illegal), he wears as many uniforms as Mr. Ben for the benefit of photo opportunities, childhood fantasies and Facebook likes. Like many homophobes, he enjoys dressing up. But surely his whole political credo is about sovereignty – initially of an independent north, but let’s not split countries … I mean hairs … here – about Italy first? Not Italy, just after Russia? If your criticism of the EU is that it lacks transparency and is undemocratic in some of its practices, how is Russia the model you run to?
The reality of course is that as much as far right nationalists bleat about saving their respective nations, none of them appear behindhand when it comes to money, from Russia, with love. Lots of love. The National Front’s Marie LePen, the leader of Austria’s far-right FPÖ party, Heinz-Christian Strache and Brexit bad boy Aaron Banks are all suspected of shady financial ties with Russia. Nor do any of them respect the democratic institutions of their own countries. Judges, journalists, broadcasters, opposition parties, or activists are all enemies of the people and the people is just their own interests misspelled. Salvini and his ilk will break any law, any rule in order to gain and maintain power that they will then in part use to dismantle any oversight of them and any protection for their enemies. The sooner the activities of Vladimir Putins and his European and American proxies are regarded as an existential threat to democracy, the sooner we will arrive at a strategy to counter them. Otherwise we’ll beat them at chess – a game of 100% informational transparency – but they’ll be playing Russian roulette with the gun always pointing in one direction.