Italy: Lawmakers want Salvini to explain alleged Russia deal

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Matteo Salvini

FILE – In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2016 file photo, the League leader Matteo Salvini speaks to the media near Red Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Opposition lawmakers want to question Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini about allegations a Russian oil deal was devised to fund his pro-Moscow League party. Democratic Party lawmakers demanded Thursday, July 11, 2019 that a parliamentary inquiry be held. They want to question Salvini, the BuzzFeed journalist who made the allegations, Italy’s ambassador to Moscow, Russia’s ambassador to Rome and a former Salvini associate who allegedly brokered the proposed deal. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

ROME (AP) — Opposition lawmakers in Italy demanded Thursday to have Interior Minister Matteo Salvini appear in Parliament about allegations that a covert Russian oil sale scheme was devised to fund his pro-Moscow League party.

Democratic Party lawmakers pressed for a parliamentary inquiry following another media report with allegations that a former Salvini associate proposed an under-the-table arrangement to pump money into the right-wing party.

The alleged proposal for the multi-million-euro plan was made last year after the League became a partner in Italy’s populist coalition government and ahead of May’s European Parliament elections.

As he did when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year, Salvini shrugged off the latest version.

“Never took a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka of financing from Russia,” Salvini said after the BuzzFeed report was published Wednesday.

Salvini has openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and vigorously advocates an end to European Union economic sanctions on Russia.

The opposition lawmakers specifically want to question Salvini, the BuzzFeed journalist who reported the allegations, Italy’s ambassador to Moscow, and Russia’s ambassador to Rome.

They also want to hear from Gianluca Savoini, a League associate close to the Russians who allegedly championed the proposed deal.

The BuzzFeed article about a Moscow meeting aimed at arranging such a deal in 2018 largely mirrored allegations that appeared months ago in Italian magazine L’Espresso.

BuzzFeed built on L’Espresso’s story, saying it had obtained an audio of the conversation about the purported deal among Italians and Russians at a Moscow hotel.

Both articles said the alleged deal would have involved a Russian energy company selling fuel to an Italian energy company. The fuel would be allegedly offered at a discount, with part of the difference purportedly going to the League’s coffers.

Both L’Espresso and BuzzFeed stressed the reporters had no confirmation the deal was sealed or evidence that fuel was delivered or funds channeled to the League.

Asked what role alleged middleman Savoini has in the League, Salvini replied brusquely, “I don’t know. Ask him. It’s ridiculous, all that I read in the papers.”

Milan daily Corriere della Sera quoted Savoini, in a text message exchange with the newspaper, as saying of the BuzzFeed account: “All conjecture! Nothing concrete because neither money nor funds ever came to the League from Russia. Never!”

The League is the junior partner in a populist coalition with the 5-Star Movement that had led the Italian government since June 2018.

Premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters he hadn’t listened to the audio linked to the BuzzFeed report but had faith in Salvini and welcomes any investigation.

The Italian news agency ANSA said that Milan-based prosecutors had started looking into possible international corruption after L’Espresso’s article in February.

Salvini contends sanctions against Russia unfairly hurt Italian exporters.

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