Russia is set to gain from the Italian election result. Here’s how

The anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing Lega party were arguably the main winners at Italy's election on Sunday, with both parties seeing their share of the vote grow dramatically.

Russia has courted anti-establishment parties around Europe in recent years and, having formed an allegiance to both Lega and M5S, is also expected to gain from the result. Both parties, which could have a strong say in the next Italian government, have criticized sanctions on Russia and could remove them if in power.

Lorenzo Fontana, deputy leader of Lega, told CNBC on Monday that Moscow would be pleased with the party's success. "We want to have good relations with Russia; we want to see Russia as a normal and natural partner with Europe," he said.

Asked whether Russia had congratulated Lega on its success in the election, Fontana said: "I'm sure they will be pleased with our result."

"We will see with time if we can have the relations that we wish to have with Russia, but fundamentally we wish this more for the European Union and the Italian economy," he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary said in his daily conference call with journalists on Tuesday that the election result was a domestic affair.

"Victory of the center-right coalition on elections is Italy's domestic affair, the sovereign right of Italian citizens to cast their votes for the political powers which they see fit for the future of their country," Dmitry Peskov said, according to remarks given to CNBC by the Kremlin's press office.

"We want Italy to remain our partner, and we hope our relations with Europe will be prosperous and will be based on the principles of mutual benefit and shared respect."

Russian influence

In March 2017, Putin signed a "co-operation deal" with the Lega party, then known as Lega Nord, in order to deepen its ties with the anti-immigration, populist party.

Likewise, Russia appeared to get closer to the anti-establishment movement M5S, with media reports noting previous leader Beppe Grillo's change in tone, from criticism to approval, towards Russia.

Bloomberg | Contributor | Getty Images
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, in Athens, Greece, on Friday, May 27, 2016.

Moscow's apparent courting of anti-establishment and populist parties in Europe has not gone unnoticed. In December, an article by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, claimed that Russia was actively assisting Lega and M5S in a bid to influence elections in Europe.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, Biden claimed that the U.S. had evidence of Russian involvement and support for M5S and Lega in a constitutional referendum in Italy, which led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Biden also claimed that the parties would receive more support, in the form of Russia amplifying their political messages on social media, leading up to the March 4 election.

M5S leader Luigi Di Maio rebuffed the claims, with Italian media reporting him as saying they were "unacceptable" and "fake news without proof."

Lega leader Matteo Salvini also discounted Biden's claims. "Renzi lost the referendum and will lose the election because Italians have good sense — not because Putin wants that," he said in December, ANSA news agency reported.

Salvini added, however, that "a good relationship with Russia is strategic for Italy and for Italian businesses" and called sanctions against Moscow a "madness" that Lega would remove.

In December, the Kremlin denied any financial support for either party, with a deputy for the ruling United Russia saying Moscow was on the same wavelength as Lega and M5S in terms of viewpoint, but had not given either any money.


On Monday, Lega's Fontana criticized ongoing sanctions that were imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, as well as its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country in 2014, saying they hurt trade between Russia and Italy.

"Due to geopolitical issues that have nothing to do with Italy, there have been sanctions imposed (on Russia) that have actually hurt the Italian economy and certainly brought poverty to our people. We want to abolish the sanctions on Russia and we want to collaborate with them in order to abolish radical Islam. Therefore, we are keen to have closer ties with Russia," he said.

While M5S gained the largest share of the vote of any single party in Italy, with 32.6 percent, the center-right coalition to which Lega belongs, along with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, gained 37 percent.

Neither party nor coalition gained enough of the vote that would enable them to govern alone and negotiations will have to take place in order to form a government.

As Lega was the most popular party of the center-right coalition, it is expected to have the most prominent role in negotiations and any potential center-right government.

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