Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the euroskeptic strongman of Italian politics, cannot seem to shut down a scandal over possible illegal financing from Russia.
Salvini has been trying to distance himself from a close ally, Gianluca Savoini, who was recorded apparently soliciting illegal party funding from three Russians, according to a report by Buzzfeed News.
The story has dominated Italian media coverage since it broke last week.
Savoini also attended a July 4 dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Rome and Salvini said he did not know how his associate came to be there.
“Ask him,” he said Friday, according to Italian news agency ANSA. “I prefer to focus on serious issues.”
However, on Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte undermined that account, saying in a statement that Savoini had been invited by Salvini’s office.
With Western leaders struggling to get to grips with the scope of Russian attempts to undermine their democracies, the Buzzfeed report suggests that the most powerful home-grown opponent of the EU may have been colluding with the Kremlin.
Salvini has broken rank with France and Germany by repeatedly calling on the EU to lift sanctions against Russia.
As well as the US presidential election of 2016, Russia has sought to attack the democratic process in at least 15 EU states, including Germany, France and Spain, according to a US Senate minority report last year that labeled Putin a “malign influence.”
Savoini, who is president of the Lombardy Russia association, met with three unidentified Russians in Moscow in October last year and discussed ways to finance Salvini’s party, the League, Buzzfeed reported on Wednesday last week, citing a recording of the conversation.
Milan prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into possible Russian funds paid to the League.
Salvini, who also serves as minister of the interior, has denied his party received any Russian financing.
He said in a statement last week that he has “never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka in financing from Russia.”
After more than 20 years working in obscurity for the League, Salvini has surged to prominence since joining a populist coalition in Rome as junior partner last year.
His mastery of social media and ordinary-Joe persona have struck a chord with Italians and since his victory in May’s European elections, he has been looking to tighten his grip on the government.
Conte on Sunday night said he still has confidence in Salvini, according to ANSA, but added that there had to be transparency.
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