The most recent scandal to shake Italian politics centers on two men: Italy's far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, and his longtime trusted aide Gianluca Savoini. Here they are enjoying the sights and sounds of Red Square in 2017. That's Salvini on the left.
This week, BuzzFeed News released details of a secret tape revealing how Savoini met with two other Italians and three Russians last year to talk about a proposed deal to covertly channel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to Salvini’s far-right Lega party.
Following publication of the story, which sparked protests against Salvini from opposition MPs in the Italian Parliament, public prosecutors in Milan announced Thursday that they were investigating whether any crimes were committed during the meeting in Moscow in October where the proposed deal was discussed. According to multiple reports in Italian media, Savoini is the focus of that investigation.
Now, with Savoini’s name all over the Italian media, Salvini and Lega's response has been to try to distance themselves from the man widely described as Salvini's "sherpa to Russia."
One problem: There's a long trail of photos, videos, and social media posts stretching back many years, which point to the closeness of their relationship.
In response to a question about Savoini's presence during an official trip to Moscow last July, which included a private meeting with the Russian interior minister, Salvini told reporters at a press conference Friday that he didn't know why Savoini was there.
"Ask him — I'm the interior minister and focused on important matters," Salvini said.
Also, a spokesperson for the Italian deputy prime minister told an Italian newspaper that “Gianluca Savoini has never been part of the minister’s official delegations to Moscow."
But here is a photograph posted on social media by Salvini during that official trip to Moscow last July. Circled in red, meeting with the Russian interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, are Salvini and Savoini.
“It was for me an enormous pleasure to accompany Minister Matteo Salvini during the course of his official visit to Moscow,” Savoini tweeted after that very same meeting.
Asked about the many photos he appears in next to Savoini, Salvini told a radio program Friday morning: “I go around with hundreds of people. What they do and ask on their and others' behalf is none of my business.”
Here is that same photo of Salvini and Savoini in Moscow in March 2017 with hundreds of other people in Red Square.
During that trip, the two men met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the post caption reads, and that month, Salvini signed a partnership agreement between his Lega party and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.
Savoini’s professional relationship with Salvini spans 20 years. Savoini has been a member of the Lega party since 1991 and served as Salvini’s spokesperson.
He helped organize all of the Lega leader’s many trips to Moscow.
Both men’s social media accounts are packed with photos of these trips.
They have visited Crimea together.
This is a video from an Italian news channel reporting on a Salvini visit to the Russian Parliament in 2014. One of the men next to him is Savoini.
And here they are again with the Russian ambassador to Italy last June shortly after Salvini took office.
Savoini is also president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, which has consistently pushed pro-Kremlin propaganda since its founding in 2014. The association’s website says its aim is to reflect Putin’s worldview based on identity, sovereignty, and tradition.
Its activities have included contacts with officials and trade missions to Russia, annexed Crimea, and Donetsk — the region in eastern Ukraine under the control of Russia-backed separatists — as well as public events and lobbying to promote Kremlin-friendly policy and oppose sanctions.
Salvini’s spokesperson told La Repubblica newspaper that Lombardy-Russia had nothing to do with Lega.
The Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association's registered address is Via Camillo Colombi 18 in Milan. Here’s that address pinpointed on a map — coincidentally, the same building as Lega's head office.
Lombardy-Russia’s honorary chair is Alexey Komov, the Russian representative of the World Congress of Families, a global “pro-family” movement that fights against LGBTQ and abortion rights.
He spoke at the party’s congress in 2013, the year Salvini was elected party leader. “We are your brothers in Russia. We support your values,” Komov told the Lega faithful. “This [is] our common Christian European values.”
Days after the Metropol meeting — that one where the Russian oil deal was proposed — Savoini attended a United Russia conference.
He tweeted: "I met the secretary of the party's foreign relations, senator Andrey Klimov, who underlined how, thanks to Salvini, Lega and Lombardy-Russia, Italy is a primary partner for Moscow."
And just last week, Savoini even popped up at an official reception in Rome for Putin.
Salvini, who was also at the reception thrown by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, was asked this week why Savoini was there. He didn't know, he said.
Reporters asked Conte why Savoini had been invited to the Putin meeting. Conte's somewhat cryptic response was that some guests had been "autonomously invited."