Monday 17 December 2018

Italian PM defies EU allies to call for end to sanctions on Russia

Leader of Italy’s League party, Matteo Salvini, right, and Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five-Star movement. Photo: AP
Leader of Italy’s League party, Matteo Salvini, right, and Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five-Star movement. Photo: AP

Jon Stone

Italy's incoming right-wing populist prime minister has used his maiden speech to call for the lifting of sanctions against Russia, opening up a rift with the country's EU allies on the issue.

Giuseppe Conte, who leads a coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League, said his government would "promote a review of the sanctions system" in meetings with other EU leaders.

In his first speech to the Italian senate, Mr Conte outlined his administration's priorities, including a crackdown on irregular migrants and an end to austerity economic policies.

Mr Conte's government won its first vote of confidence in the senate and is expected to also be approved by the lower house of parliament. Under Italy's political system, the confidence of houses is required to form a government.

A lawyer with practically no political experience, Mr Conte was the PM choice of League leader Matteo Salvini and Five Star leader Luigi di Maio. The two politicians will now serve as his deputy prime ministers.

"We will be the advocates of an opening towards Russia," Mr Conte told senators. "A Russia which has consolidated its international role in recent years in various geopolitical crises. "We will promote a revising of sanctions, starting with those that demean Russia's civil society."

Mr Conte's intervention on Russia comes as Vladimir Putin visits neighbouring Austria, where a right-wing coalition government also favours closer ties to Moscow.

"We need to build co-operation with the EU. We do not aim to divide the EU," Mr Putin told Austrian broadcaster ORF.

Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros this week accused Italy's junior coalition partner, the League, of potentially being Kremlin-funded, arguing that "Italian public opinion has the right to know".

Mr Salvini, who has repeatedly visited Moscow, angrily denied the suggestions, stating that he had "never received a lira, a euro or a rouble from Russia".

He said that he was an admirer of the Russia president, and believed Mr Putin was "one of the best statesmen". The EU decided to impose sanctions on Russia "in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and deliberate destabilisation of" Ukraine.

The sanctions include diplomatic measures, such as holding summits without Russia, asset freezes and visa bans on 149 individuals and 38 entities, and an economic blockade on Crimea and Sevastopol.

© Independent News Service

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