Italy Will Form a New Coalition Government in March: Will Russia Benefit?

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Bruno Sergi

A lot in the Russian-Italian relations depends on Italy’s next coalition government. The question is whether the Kremlin really benefits, given the EU’s solidarity regarding the Russia sanctions and the accusations of the Kremlin of meddling in the Italian elections.

On March 23, the Italian parliament will reconvene to announce two house speakers and determine the composition of a new Italian government, following the March 4 parliamentary elections.

What was the most surprising is the victory of anti-establishment and nationalistic parties in the political race — Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. Both of these parties obtained about 50 percent of the popular vote, with the former having taken 32 percent and the latter having garnered almost 18 percent. Most importantly, none of two parties reached a ruling majority, which requires passing the 40-percent threshold. And this will be a difficult task, because of the political counterbalance from the incumbent Democratic Party (PD) led by the now former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who got almost 19 percent of the vote.

The center-right bloc formed of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!), Lega Nord (North League) and Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) reached 37 percent. Yet, it failed to achieve enough seats to get the majority in the parliament (it needs 50 more seats). This means that the Salvini-led center-right government is an impossible scenario. However, if the center-right unites with Five Star Movement, they might create a coalition government. After all, the leader of the Lega Nord party is open for cooperation with Five Star Movement, but reluctant to work with Renzi’s Democrats. The question is whether Five Star Movement will choose the Democratic Party or the Lega Nord-led center-right bloc.

At best, a new government could be sworn in early April. Historically, it has taken about 40 to 50 days after election for the government to assume power. For example, in 2013, it took more than 60 days.

Russia was “closely and attentively” following the March 4 Italian national elections in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, told Russian Ambassador in Italy Sergei Razov. He expressed his satisfactions with the results of the Italian parliamentary campaign. “Italy is one of our key European partners. Regarding the results of the vote, it adequately reflects the prevailing moods here in Italy, in my view,” he explained.

Now a lot in the Moscow-Rome relations depends on the next Italian government. The big question is whether the Kremlin really benefits, given the EU’s solidarity regarding the Russia sanctions and the accusations of the Kremlin of meddling in the Italian elections.

A pragmatic approach

First of all, one should keep in mind that even before the Italian elections, there was no perceived anti-Russian sentiment in Italy. More voices were favorable to a reopening of the dialogue with Moscow, both from the government and the industrialists.

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi made a trip to Russia in June 2016 to meet with Russian Presidnt Vladimir Putin and participate in the St. Petersburg Internation Economic Forum regardless of the risk of being rebuked by his Europen peers. In fact, Renzi met with the Russian president on the sidelines of the 2015 G20 summit and was open for a dialogue. Moreover, he criticized the EU’s Russia approch and the anti-Kremlin sanctions. In December 2015, he even blocked the extention of Russia sanctions within the EU.

All this means that Italy has been always pragmatic toward Russia, but had to stick together with Europe and that’t why it supported sanactions, if relcutanly. “Italy wants Europe to take Russia’s military help in Syria into account when discussing sanctions,” wrote Politico in December 2015, explaining Renzi’s motovation.

Double-edged sword

Today it is undoubted that both Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord would be in favor of regenerating the economic relationships with Moscow, in a stable and stronger manner, even though the obstructing role of the EU is still intact today. It is also clear that  Berlusconi’s Forza Italia are on the side of those who hope for a return to ordinary commercial and economic relations with Putin’s Russia.

At any rate, the situation over creating a new coalition government in Italy is favorable for Moscow. If the center-right unites with Five Star Movement, they might try to lift or ease the anti-Russian sanctions. If the Five Star Movement populists create a coalition either with the center-right, the democrats or the left-wing Free and Equal Party (known as LEU that got 3.4 percent of the vote), Russia will also benefit, because the leaders of these parties wanted to reinvigorate economic ties with Moscow in defiance of the EU.

Russia’s Ambassador to Italy Sergei Razov made it clear that Russia will work with the elected parliament at any rate. Yet the paradox is that the victory of the Italian populists and center-right brings to Russia not only benefits, but also a great deal of trouble: Now the West accuses the Kremlin of meddling into the Italian elections.

Italy joins long list of elections influenced by Russia, wrote former America’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power in her Twitter, refereeing to a probe, which revealed, how Russian networks worked to boost the far right and xenophobic discourse in Italy. “Sputnik will do what Sputnik does [Sputnik is the Russian state-controlled international media outlet — Rethinking Russia]. The question is: what are our democracies going to do about it? Will voters repudiate candidates who seek to benefit from Russian interference?” she added.

The Russian ambassador to Italy denies these accusations, but it doesn’t help due to a grave credibility crisis between Moscow and the West. As long as their harsh confrontation remains a reality, any elections will be turned against Russia. Today it becomes a matter of fact.

Bruno S.  Sergi is a professor at University of Messina (Italy), an associate and an instructor at Harvard University’s Davis Center For Russian and Eurasian Studies, and scientific director at International Center For Emerging Markets Research at The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University).

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