By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – U.S. claims that Russia has given at least $300 million to political parties in more than two dozen countries sent a jolt through Italy’s election campaign on Wednesday, with right-wing leaders denying they had received clandestine cash.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday released a summary of a recent U.S. intelligence review of Russian efforts to influence foreign politics, including support for unnamed far-right nationalist parties.
Although it did not detail the countries concerned, the report revived long-standing and repeatedly denied suspicions that some Italian parties have received funding from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Italy holds national elections on Sept. 25, with a rightist alliance of parties, including the Brothers of Italy, League and Forza Italia, expected to win a comfortable victory.
“Before the 25th of September, Italian voters have the right to know if any of the parties on the ballot papers have been financed by Putin,” Enrico Letta, head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), wrote on Twitter.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made him a pariah to many in the West.
‘I NEVER TOOK MONEY’
League leader Matteo Salvini, who once praised Putin as “the best statesmen currently on earth”, has repeatedly denied receiving money from Russia after a recording was leaked in 2019 of one of his aides discussing a secret oil deal in Moscow.
“I never asked for and never took money, roubles, euros, dinars or dollars from Russia,” Salvini told RTL 102.5 radio on Wednesday. “There have been ongoing investigations for years. Nothing has ever been found because there is nothing.”
Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, who is in poll position to become the next prime minister, also denied receiving cash from abroad and threatened to sue an Italian newspaper that had questioned if she had taken Russian money.
“They should bring us the evidence. But since the evidence is not there, I fear that a lawsuit will be inevitable,” she told Radio 24 on Wednesday.
A senior Brothers of Italy politician Adolfo Urso who heads the parliamentary committee that oversees national intelligence agencies, told state broadcaster RAI that “at the moment” there was no indication that Italy was one of the countries involved.
Suggestions that Russia might be meddling in the election campaign have repeatedly been aired since the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government in July.
A trio of parties, including the League and Forza Italia, all with historically friendly ties to Moscow, brought down Draghi’s government, but dismissed accusations from opponents that they had connived with Russia to hold the snap election.
Draghi himself told parliament in July that Italy had to “step up efforts to combat interference from Russia and other autocracies in our politics”. He gave no further details.
(Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)