How Russia Undermines Western Democracies – The Case of Italy’s Northern League


Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a military parade on Red Square marking the 66th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War via the website of the President of the Russian Federation 

When in March of 2014 Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, something unusual happened: leaders of Europe’s far-right parties began to rally behind Vladimir Putin, defending Moscow’s expansionist policies.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right party Front National (FN), quickly recognized the result of the disputed Crimea referendum, in which over 95% of the voters chose to join Russia. To this day Le Pen denies that Russia invaded Crimea, and opposes sanctions against Putin’s regime.

In a 2017 interview, she stated:

Crimea was Russian, it has always been Russian, it’s not that long ago. The people feel Russian, the people decided by great majority that they wanted to belong to Russia so we can’t be democratic when it suits us and then reject democracy when we don’t like it.

In November of 2014, Le Pen confirmed that she had received a €9-million ($11.1 million) loan from a Russian bank. One month prior to the 2017 French presidential elections she met with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

In April of 2014 Geert Wilders, the leader of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV), blamed the European Union (EU) for the Ukraine crisis and opposed closer ties between Ukraine and the EU.

Alternative for Germany (Alternative fuer Deutschland, AfD), an anti-immigration, anti-EU, nationalist party, also aligned itself with Moscow. Ties between the AfD and Putin’s Russia are notorious. “The AfD seeks close ties to Russia,” wrote in July 2016 the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Russia belonged to the DNA of the AfD from the very beginning. However, as the party grows increasingly radical and vociferous, the Russia theme becomes more and more important.”

AfD politicians visited the Russian embassy in Berlin, travelled to Moscow and Crimea, lambasted EU sanctions against Russia and met with members of the Russian orthodox church. The AfD is also the most popular party among the so-called Russian-Germans (Russlanddeutsche), a group of ethnic Germans who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Earlier this year it was reported that in April of 2016 Markus Pretzell, AfD lawmaker in the EU parliament, travelled to Crimea, where he held a speech in front of a Russian audience that included individuals on the EU sanctions list. Pretzell was later forced to admit that his trip was paid by the Russian organizer.

Since 2014 Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord), has launched a media campaign in defense of Moscow’s action. “[We] celebrate the referendum in Crimea,” he said shortly after the 2014 referendum, “[we] celebrate the freedom of the citizens to choose.” Under Salvini’s leadership, the Northern League has begun to portray itself as an ally of Putin, opposing sanctions against Russia and justifying the annexation of Crimea.

In October of 2014 Salvini made a six-day trip to Moscow and Crimea. While in the Russian capital, he tweeted: “Moscow: no illegal immigrants, no [illegal] window cleaners, no gypsies squatter areas. Girls in the metro at a.m., they’re not afraid”. Salvini often depicts Russia as a model for Western Europe to follow. He declared in an interview that he would choose Vladimir Putin over then-Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi. When, in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Salvini was asked if the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexej Naval’nyj troubled him, he said: “[Navanlyj’s] approval rating is just 3%.”

In March of 2017 Salvini signed with Putin’s party, United Russia, a co-operation agreement in Moscow. The aims of this pact, according to Salvini, are “the fight against illegal immigration, peace in Libya, the fight against Islamic terrorism and the end of Russia sanctions”. He also had a 35-minutes long meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov. Salvini stated that Lavrov thanked him for “the courage which the Northern League since the beginning showed with regard to the Crimea crisis.” Salvini, on his part, praised Russia’s intervention in Syria against Isis.

The Northern League – A Case Study

Putin’s strategy of wooing right-wing populist movements throughout the West is well-documented. The first media reports concerning Russian co-operation with Western Europe’s far-right date back to 2014.

The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote in April of that year that “European right-wing populists’ skepticism of the EU and the 28-member bloc’s close ties with the US [provides] the broadest foundation for cooperation with Russia.”

A few months later The Guardian warned about “Russia’s links with Europe’s right”. According to the English media outlet, after he was elected president for the third time in 2012, Putin began to promote his vision of a Eurasian Union, “an alternative political bloc meant to encompass now-independent Soviet republics, with Moscow rather than Brussels as the dominant pole,” the paper wrote. Incidentally, both Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini have expressed their support for Putin’s Eurasian project.

In 2016 James Clapper, then the US Director of National Intelligence, was instructed by the US Congress to investigate Russian funding of European parties. The Telegraph reported that the US government was increasingly concerned “over Moscow’s determination to exploit European disunity in order to undermine Nato, block US missile defence programmes and revoke the punitive economic sanctions regime imposed after the annexation of Crimea.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Europeans who support right-wing parties tend to view Putin favourably.

But why has Moscow chosen the European far-right as its ally?

One common feature of right-wing parties in Europe is their demagogic, disruptive nature – traits which Putin, who is intent on weakening the West and re-establishing Russia’s role as a world power, finds useful. Right-wing parties, on the other hand, praise Russia’s anti-Islamic, nationalist, homophobic, anti-EU stance.

As far back as 2008, some European right-wing groups sought to create an alliance that included Serbia and Russia in order to fight against immigration, “Islamization” and European centralism,  and for the defence of Europe’s “Christian traditions”.

The Northern League is a fascinating example of a modern European party that has always striven to disrupt the existing political system and promote nationalism as its core ideology. The Northern League’s founding principle was the idea of destroying the Republic of Italy by replacing Italian national identity with “Northern” national identity.

The Northern League was originally founded in 1982 as the “League for the Autonomy of Lombardy”. Lombardy is Italy’s richest and most populous administrative region, and its capital Milan is the country’s largest metropolitan area as well as most important business and financial centre.

The first issue of the official newspaper of the League stated:

Your age, profession or political inclinations are not important: the only thing that matters is that all of you – all of us – are Lombards … And as Lombards we all have a fundamental common interest that must supersede the motives of our affiliation with different political parties, with those Italian parties which exploit us and divert our attention from the defence of our own interests … This fundamental common interest of ours is the liberation of Lombardy from the greedy and suffocating hegemony of the central government of Rome … This is a matter of ethnic, cultural and economic survival for Lombardy … 

The League adopted the concept of a culturally and ethnically homogeneous national community, but applied it to a specific region within Italy, thus challenging the mainstream narrative of Italy as a nation-state. In the League’s new ideology, Italy was not a nation-state, but the oppressor of the Lombard people.

Furthermore, the League propagated – as do most nationalist parties – the fiction of national unity, of a common interest of all members of a certain nation; from this perspective, the League denied the idea that diversity of opinions and interests within the same community is the precondition for a functioning democratic society.

According to scholar Damian Tambini

much of the League’s campaign can be understood as an attempt to persuade individuals to reassess their identity and therefore interests, in particular by undermining the previously stable framework of their common Italian national identity (Damian Tambini: Nationalism in Italian Politics: Stories of the Northern League in Italy, 1980-2000, 2001, p. 98). 

In 1989 the League for the Autonomy of Lombardy merged with other northern Italian parties to form the Northern League.

The League initially was ostracized by Italy’s mass media and didn’t have the financial means to spread its message. According to Tambini, the League chose to offset its lack of resources by engaging in incendiary, provocative, often offensive rhetoric. “Their method,” Tambini writes, “was to engage in spectacular politics: providing editors with colourful news in exchange for a constant, however negative, media presence for the League” (Tambini 2001, p. 98).

The League understood that bad publicity is generates media coverage, that being vulgar, offensive and shocking does not alienate voters. Many people who were dissatisfied with the government approved of their bellicose, bombastic rhetoric. They felt vindicated, especially when the Northern League co-opted their prejudices.

The League began to spread slogans against Rome and the South of Italy, such as: “Rome is a thief, the League shall not forgive” (Roma ladrona la Lega non perdona), “Stop colonial [=Italian] education”, “Lombardy: the golden goose”, “No to Southern domination”. This message caused an earthquake in Italian politics, because until then the idea of national unity had never been openly questioned by any party.

In 1992, the leader of the League, Umberto Bossi, wrote:

we decided to exploit the anti-southerner sentiments diffuse in Lombardy, as in other regions of the North, to attract the attention of the public and of the mass media. We threw in a few coarse keywords and put at the centre of the propaganda the question of the dialect – both to create a bit of hype and to distract the Roman parties who dismissed us as folklore during the first years (Bossi 1992, quoted in: Tambini 2001, p. 99). 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Northern League captured an increasingly large share of the vote in the North, the Italian media reacted with shock and disbelief. In 1989 the newspaper La Repubblica wrote about the Lombard city of Bergamo:

Racism against Southerners seems to have become common sense among a large majority of the people in Bergamo … 62% of the respondents wouldn’t accept a husband or wife from the South, 54% wouldn’t choose a doctor from the South, and 67% wouldn’t like to have a teacher from the South … 66% [say that] the Southerners take jobs and housing from the people of Bergamo. 

While prejudice against Southerners already existed in the North, the Northern League helped rationalize, intellectualize and justify it. The League also popularized many discriminatory terms such as ‘terrone’ (a term that can be rendered in English as ‘country bumpkin’). As La Repubblica noted in 1992:

Until recently “terroni go home” was a sentence written only with spray paint on the walls of buildings or on highway billboards. Anonymous hands which at night launched their attacks against the Southerners, voices without a face, which might belong to anybody – perhaps to one person, or perhaps to thousands. Until recently … Since last Saturday this slogan is written black and white in large manifestos put up in many cities, urging Southern Italians to go home, to leave the North … What is new about this is that [the manifesto] has been signed by the “Young Northerners”, the youth organization of Bossi’s Northern League.  

Bossi understood that angering people doesn’t cost you votes, as long as you see politics as a fight between tribes. The more you offend and disparage your enemy tribes, the more will the members of your own tribe support you. He understood that people didn’t want to listen to long speeches and complex arguments, but were receptive to simple nationalist-separatist catchphrases (see Tambini 2001, p. 99).

While at the beginning the message of the League was anti-southern, during the 1990s and 2000s xenophobia, Islamophobia and euroscepticism became ever more prominent. This can be best demonstrated by quoting some of the most provocative phrases of Northern League politicians:

“Immigrants have rights – but only in their own country” (Umberto Bossi 2009).

“It was Sunday and I saw in the area around the railway station dozens of niggers [negri] sitting on the rails of the parapets of the bridge, other non-EU immigrants sitting on benches, their bags and backpacks hanging down from the trees. The next day I went to the prefect because I won’t allow Treviso to be turned into occupied territory” (Giancarlo Gentilini, ex mayor of Treviso, 1997).

“Obama has won because America now is racially mixed and so this multiracial America, which I can’t f*** stand, has won” (Mario Borghezio 2012).

“Gay civilization has tuned [Northern Italy] into a gathering place for faggots” (Roberto Calderoli 2010).

One of the most controversial xenophobic campaigns of the League is the feud against politician Cecil Kyenge, who in 2013 became Italy’s first ever black Minister. She has been the target of racial slurs. For instance, Roberto Calderoli, Vice President of the Italian Senate, said in 2013: “When I see [Kyenge] I can’t help thinking of an orangutan.”

Another famous incident involved Gianluca Buonanno, who painted his face black in the parliament to protest against “discrimination” against white people.

In 2015 the new leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, sued Kyenge for defamation because she had called the League a “racist” party. Two years later a judge dismissed Salvini’s lawsuit and opined that Kyenge’s statements, “far from being a generalization and an expression of feelings of hatred, were related to a specific episode.”

As we can see, the Northern League has been a pioneer of what we may call the nationalist-populist movements of the West, to which belong not only Europe’s right-wing parties, but also the Trum/Bannon faction of the Republican Party in the United States. These movements share similar characteristics:

  • they polarize by breaking norms and customs, by provoking and insulting their opponents;
  • they oppose the political establishment, the political system, and are therefore disruptive;
  • they advocate nationalism and tribalism as opposed to parliamentary democracy, checks and balances and separation of powers;
  • they reject multiculturalism and Islam, use xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric;
  • they engage in ‘scapegoatism’, by attributing the problems faced by society to ‘enemy’ groups such as immigrants or political opponents.

Why does Putin seek ties with nationalist-populist parties of the West like the Northern League? The reason, as we may infer from what we have said thus far, is that Putin likes the disruptive, anti-establishment, divisive nature of such movements, whose intent is to weaken international institutions, delegitimize the existing  political system, crush their political rivals, and promote a monolithic ideology in which there is no tolerance for diversity or dissent.

The triumph of nationalist-populist movements would mean chaos, ethnic and social strife, separatism (not only in Europe, but perhaps even in the United States, where ‘blue States’ become increasingly dissatisfied with the central government). Putin, who once said that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” would love to see the West disintegrate, while Russia regains its status as a super power.

You may like:

The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election by Malcolm Nance

President Trump, Inc.: How Big Business and Neoliberalism Empower Populism and the Far-right by T. J. Coles

The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News by Arkady Ostrovsky

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