Italian cabinet minister Mara Carfagna, a former Miss Italy contestant and television presenter, has long been one of the most prominent faces in Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.
But Carfagna, minister for territorial cohesion, has now abandoned the former media tycoon over his role in the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government — and her suspicion that a foreign hand was behind it. Defecting to the centrist Azione party, Carfagna said she needed “the certainty of being in a party where no one will dream of plotting with Russia or with China to the detriment of the current government.”
Her belief that global geopolitics lie behind Italy’s political crisis is not uncommon. Ever since Mario Draghi’s government imploded last month, Italians have speculated over whether Vladimir Putin helped script the prime minister’s ousting as payback for his tough stand over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The trio of politicians that pulled the plug on Draghi — the anti-establishment Five Star Movement’s Giuseppe Conte, the rightwing League’s Matteo Salvini and Berlusconi himself — are known for their historically friendly relations with Putin and his United Russia party.
Although analysts say all three leaders had convincing domestic political rationales for their decisions, that has not quelled speculation that Moscow colluded with disgruntled members of Draghi’s coalition to take the prime minister down.
In his final speech to parliament before his resignation, Draghi himself warned that Italy had to “step up efforts to combat interference from Russia and other autocracies in our politics, in our society”, though he gave no details — nor did he explicitly suggest a foreign plot against him.
Yet that idea is now at the centre of the campaign rhetoric for September’s snap elections. “Italians have a right to know if Putin is behind Draghi’s fall,” the centre-left Democratic Party, staunch Draghi loyalists, wrote in a tweet last week.
Carlo Calenda, leader of Azione, which forged an election pact with the PD this week in an attempt to thwart a projected rightwing electoral triumph, has called the September 25 poll “a choice between an Italy that is one of the great countries of Europe — or an Italy allied with [Hungarian President Viktor] Orban and Putin.”
Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, resigned on July 21, after the Five Star Movement, the League and Forza Italia withdrew support for his leadership amid a crisis triggered by Conte.
Conte was agitated by a recent party split, and eager to shore up his credentials as an anti-establishment rebel. Salvini and Berlusconi were eyeing polls that showed them both bleeding support to Giorgia Meloni’s increasingly popular far-right Brothers of Italy, but also poised for decisive election victory if they teamed up with Meloni.
But Italian analysts say that amid the domestic political calculations geopolitical factors loomed.
“It’s a fact that Draghi was taken down by the three parties that have the closest ties to the Kremlin,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs, said. “It’s also a fact that Draghi was not exactly loved by the Kremlin,” she added.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Draghi turned his back on Italy’s traditionally close ties with Moscow. He was at the forefront of the EU’s tough response to the Kremlin, pushing sanctions against Russia’s central bank and championing Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership; a stance that discomfited members of his national unity government.
“Important politicians like Salvini and Berlusconi clearly have sentiments of friendship and ties with Russia, especially with Putin’s Russia,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to Nato. “Their support for the Italian, European and Nato position on Ukraine has been, at best, halfhearted.”
In May, Salvini announced plans for his own “peace trip” to Moscow organised by the Russian embassy in Rome, which confirmed it had purchased the politician’s airline tickets. The trip was cancelled amid public anger and an outcry from other parts of the government. But last week La Stampa, a leading Italian daily, reported that the League discussions with Moscow did not stop there.
In a front-page expose, La Stampa cited leaked intelligence documents claiming that Rome-based Russian diplomat Oleg Kostyukov asked a top League representative in May whether the party would withdraw ministers from Draghi’s Cabinet.
“What is strange and weird is that in May, there was nobody — no observer — in Italy talking about the fall of the Draghi cabinet — not so quickly at least,” Jacopo Iacoboni, who wrote the expose, told the Financial Times.
Iacoboni, author of: Oligarchs: How Putins Friends are Buying Italy, added “I don’t think the Russians alone have the power to make Draghi fall, but they for sure have the capability to amplify, to sow discord and to use useful idiots.”
Salvini has dismissed La Stampa report as “fake news.” Moscow too has rejected the report. “This is not true. Russia has nothing to do with domestic policy processes in Italy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Financial Times. But various Italian rival parties, and independent analysts, have called for the matter to be investigated.
The prospect of an inquiry into alleged Russian interference is dim. Italy’s Parliamentary committee on national security is chaired by a lawmaker from the Brothers of Italy who has already ruled out a probe into the League, which is now its electoral ally.
“I think this deserves a proper inquiry,” said Tocci. “To what extent were these ministers encouraged by the Kremlin to vote against the government or have their ministers resign . . . There is a war being fought against Europe, and you have an enemy state that is trying to meddle in your democratic process. Whether they are successful or not, you should be worried.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga