The specter of Russian interference in democratic elections throughout the west remains pervasive ahead of critical votes. The same concern is prevalent in Italy ahead of nationwide elections on March 4; however, the nature of Russian influence in this case is very different due to strong — and mutual — economic and political relations between the countries.
Allegations against Russia include influence operations, including cyber enabled efforts, to impact outcomes in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, nationwide elections in France and Germany, and independence referendums in Scotland and Catalonia. Due to the large body of evidence in similar elections, alert is on high and many expect the Kremlin to have a hand in the surge of populist parties like the Five Star Movement and Lega in Italy.
Again, Italy is considered one of the closest European countries to Russia, due to their strong economic and political relations. With the chaotic political campaign, diffuse parties, and Italian media environment, distinguishing between national ties and foul play present an analytical challenge.
Berlusconi & Renzi
Sivlio Berlusconi is the current leader of the center-right Forza Italy party. While he will not be able to serve in any government formed after the current election due to criminal history related to tax fraud, Berlusconi served as Italy’s Prime Minister four times since 1994. His friendship with President Putin is well-known and has been object of public attention for a large part of his career.
Another former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, is the leader of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD), which is currently the largest stakeholder in the coalition government. In the two years he led the country, Renzi joined several bilateral and multilateral meetings with Putin and Russian diplomats, as would be expected of any prime minister. According to the Financial Times, Renzi played a fundamental role in impeding the members of the European Union from approving new sanctions for Russia for the bombardment of Aleppo.
One critical aspect of Russian narratives and influence in recent Italian events has supposedly been the referendum in December 2016. Matteo Renzi, then Prime Minister, called Italians to vote on a constitutional reform aimed to change the composition of the Italian Parliament. In the same circumstance, Renzi also promised to resign in case the votes against the reform won over the ones in favor.
This is relevant to our analysis, as Renzi’s diplomatic relationship with the Kremlin started to suffer in the weeks before the referendum, when — he claimed — Russian state-owned RT released a false video. According to the former Prime Minister, the video showed a crowd of "YES" supporters, that RT described, instead, as demonstrators against Renzi’s initiative. According to RT, the video was mislabeled due to a production error and corrected in a timely manner with no intent to mislead the audience.
However, in the aftermath of the referendum, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s best-selling newspaper, reported:
It does not bode well for the failure of the referendum for Russia either. After all, in fact Matteo Renzi, despite the absence of oaths in loyalty and love, strengthen his authority, as a pragmatic person, would operate in relations with us with economic and political expediency, rather than populist slogans.
To trust one hundred percent of his main opponents-both the League of the North, gaining points, “defending” Russia, and the half-stars of the “Five Stars” capable of changing the rhetoric, even tomorrow, would be reckless. There is still a longtime friend of Moscow — Silvio Berlusconi, but it’s hardly worth taking seriously his party’s victory in the next elections.
Russian media also reported on how Sergey Zheleznyak, who serves as Vice President of the Duma and personal contact of both the leader of Lega Matteo Salvini and the founder of the Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo, was among the enthusiasts for the result of the referendum. Zheleznyak stated as much in the aftermath of the Italian vote.
The failure of the constitutional referendum in Italy showed the reluctance of the Italians to change the main law of the country to please the European Union, demonstrated the growing influence of patriotic political forces and the desire for independence from the European bureaucracy. Italy is awaited by political transformations that will seriously affect the situation in Europe.
Sergey Zheleznyak, mentioned above, is the point of contact that both Lega and the Five Star Movement have in the Russian government. When Salvini's Lega signed a political deal with Putin’s United Russia in March 2017, Sputnik and RT provided Zheleznyak’s enthusiastic comments about the deal. His remarks also opened the possibility of a future deal with the Five Star Movement. As of today, the second agreement has not materialized.
The Five Star Movement turns to Russia
The relationship between the Five Star Movement and the Kremlin is less official. Since late 2016, several Italian and foreign news outlets started reporting on the shift in the attitude of the Five Star Movement towards Russia. Sources such as La Stampa, formiche.net, Il Post, The Guardian, describe how Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Movement, evolved from negative to positive sentiment about Putin’s leadership from early 2000 to 2014, which is when he started pushing a pro-Russia political program through his Movement.
In 2015, Grillo was interviewed by RT, the Five Star's blog launched a campaign to halt the sanctions against Russia, and websites linked to the Movement — like TzeTze — started sharing news from Sputnik and other sources close to the Kremlin. Suspiciously, all the old and most controversial posts have been deleted from the social media profiles of Grillo and the Movement's blogs and social media profiles, the Tze Tze website is no longer operational, and the TzeTze Facebook page was deleted.
In September 2015, L'AntiDiplomatico — which translates into the “anti-diplomatic” — was also added to the Press Register at the Rome Court under the name of Alessandro Bianchi, who in the past years started to collaborate with the Five Stars in different roles. Lantidiplomatico.it is considered the platform that the Movement uses to push its foreign policy program.
Followed by over 90,000 accounts on Facebook and 25,700 on Twitter, lantidiplomatico.it continuously shares pro-Russia content while maintaining a very critical position towards the United States.
In 2016, Five Star Movement delegates traveled to Russia at least twice, in March and June, when Manlio Di Stefano, the Congressional spokesperson of the Five Star Movement and member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs at the Italian Chamber of Deputies, was invited to join a meeting of United Russia.
Facebook Pages, Associations, and Websites
The ties between Russia and some of the Italian parties go also beyond the mere political sphere. The trade-oriented “Lombardia Russia Association”, for example, was created in 2014 to counter hardline reactions against Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
In a video interview, the founder of the association, Gianluca Savoini, explained that Associazione Lombardia Russia was created to fight the “media disinformation war" against Russia. Savoini claimed that the Lombardy companies with business ties to Russia would suffer from the sanctions approved in 2014.
The Lombardia Russia Association reaches almost 18,000 people on Facebook, but only 865 on Twitter. On its social media pages, every day the association shares several news articles from Sputnik Italy, along with pro-Putin propaganda videos and pictures.
Before founding the association, Mr. Savoini was a journalist for La Padania, the official newspaper of Lega, and the link between Lombardia Russia and Salvini's party remained strong. Savoini became responsible to manage the relations of Lega with Russia, and he's been promoting, even through the association's Facebook page, the political campaign of Lega candidates.
Among the Facebook pages liked by Associazione Lombardia Russia are not only Sputnik and RT, but also two other outlets of controversial news: Oltre La Linea and Giano Bifronte.
Both Oltre la Linea and Giano Bifronte — with 13,000 and 5,166 Facebook followers, respectively — share pro-Russia content, often holding the west accountable for a "demonization campaign" against Putin. The articles published by Oltre la Linea are constantly shared also on the Facebook page Il Mondo Nuovo, followed by 11,455 accounts.
Last week, the weekly magazine L'Espresso published an investigative report on the "dangerous" relations of Salvini's party, which focused on the key players allegedly behind his success. Along with Zheleznyak and Savoini, L'Espresso identified Aleksey Komov and Oleg Osipov as key characters. L'Espresso described them respectively as the Russian representative of the World Congress of Families, already involved in the relations between the Kremlin and the Front National, and now appointed as the honorary president of Savoini's association, and the director of the Italian office of Russotrudnichestvo, the Russian Center for Science and Culture, based in Rome.
The relations illustrate a key point that covert influence operations are not necessary when overall influence and mutual cooperation are overt.
Russian Media Analysis
@DFRLab monitored the most popular Russian news outlets aligned with or owned by the Kremlin. Among the Italian candidates for Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi received significant positive coverage. Intuitively, this could be due to the fact that Berlusconi is perhaps the most renowned by the Russian readers, thanks to his political history and his long-lasting friendship with Vladimir Putin.
The media outlets analyzed by @DFRLab include Vesti, Pravda, Aif, Ria, Regnum, RT, Pnp, and Tass. In most cases, bias toward Berlusconi manifested only in volume of coverage rather significant misleading or untrue information.
The case of Sputnik was a bit different. Through its Italian and English platform, the Sputnik coverage on the Italian elections to date focused on specific issues: Russian interference and economic sanctions. In particular, the articles of Sputnik identified the Italian right-wing coalition as most likely to convice the European Union to lift the sanctions against Russia. With regard to alleged disinformation campaigns and interference in the Italian vote, Sputnik claimed Russia's innocence and blamed the United States as the actor that has historically applied a political pressure on Italy — among other countries — and attempted to influence the outcome other nations’ elections.
American Alert on Italy
Due to the ongoing struggle to address interference and disinformation by nation-state actors in the United States, some Americans are sounding the alarm with partners and allies. Last December, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wrote an editorial for Foreign Affairs, which cited evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 Italian referendum and is now supporting the two aforementioned populist parties campaigning in current elections. The same sentiment was reinforced one month later, when the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority staff, led by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, released a report on “Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe”, which dedicated three pages to the Italian case.
Although many actors, both at home and abroad, remain on alert for the risk of foreign interference in Italy’s vote, so far no overwhelming evidence of illicit operations from Russia or other powers have surfaced. Minister of Interior Marco Manniti stated the Italian intelligence community has been monitoring for foreign interference and similarly found no evidence so far.
On the ground, many local efforts are currently attempting to fight “fake news”. The Italian postal police has launched a program that tries to spot fake stories, and political parties, journalists, and the public have been trying to protect themselves from disinformation.
The fact remains that influence from Russia is long standing due to close historical, political, and economic ties. Covert influence operations are not as useful when an actor has overt influence already.
The @DFRLab will continue to monitor the elections in Italy with our partners at fanpage.it, as part of our #ElectionWatch series.
*Note: This article was updated to reflect RT’s comment on a video it published in December 2016 with regard to the constitutional referendum conducted in Italy.
Michael Sheldon, an Editorial Intern at @DFRLab, contributed to this report.
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