Italian Parties Putin-Friendly, But Policy Shift Unlikely

No Italian prime minister is going to start an EU-level rebellion to help Vladimir Putin.

Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and Russian president Vladimir Putin attend a conference in Sochi, May 17, 2017
Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and Russian president Vladimir Putin attend a conference in Sochi, May 17, 2017 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italy’s election can’t keep Vladimir Putin up at night. No matter which party comes out on top, the Russian leader can expect a friendly government in Rome.

  • The center-left Democrats may be the least Russophile of the four major parties, but they still have a soft spot for Russia. Their leader, Matteo Renzi, threatened to block the renewal of EU sanctions in 2015. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign-policy coordinator, has been criticized by Eastern Europeans and NGOs for not taking a hard enough line against Russia.
  • Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and leader of Forza Italia, is on famously good terms with Putin.
  • His allies in the Northern League — who, in turn, ally with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France — are openly sympathetic of Putin, whom they see as a defender of traditional, Christian values.
  • The populist Five Star Movement no longer wants to take Italy out of NATO but still calls for a reduced role in the alliance as well as an immediate end to sanctions.

History and economics

Leonid Bershidsky writes for Bloomberg View that the reason Russia is so popular in Italy has to do with history and economics.

  • History: In the 1960s, Italy supplied more than half of the industrial equipment that the Soviet Union imported, ENI was a key strategic partner for the Soviet oil industry and Fiat built what is still Russia’s biggest car factory — in a city named after Palmiro Togliatti, the longtime Italian Communist Party leader.
  • Economics: Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo was a key player in the recent sale of a 19.5-percent stake in Russia’s state-owned oil producer Rosneft, whose boss, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of Putin. Italian exports to Russia have dropped 40 percent since the sanctions were introduced.

Trust the swamp

Bershidsky puts his faith in the messiness of Italian coalition politics to argue that a change in policy is nevertheless unlikely.

Two or three parties will probably be needed to form a government. Whoever ends up as prime minister of such an unwieldy pact (not Berlusconi — he’s barred from taking office under a conviction for tax fraud) isn’t going spend his or her political capital on starting an EU-level rebellion to help Putin.