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The Explosive Secret Recording That Shows How Russia Tried To Funnel Millions To The “European Trump”

Jul 11 2019

Alberto Nardelli* – BuzzFeed News

A close aide to Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini held covert talks to pump Russian oil money to his far-right party. BuzzFeed News has the tape

Six men sat down for a business meeting on the morning of October 18 last year, amid the hubbub and marble-columned opulence of Moscow’s iconic Metropol Hotel, to discuss plans for a “great alliance.”

A century earlier, the grand institution was the scene of events that helped change the face of Europe and the world: Czarist forces fought from inside the hotel as they tried and failed to hold the Bolsheviks back from the Kremlin in 1917, and it was here, in suite 217, that the first Soviet Constitution was drafted after the revolution succeeded.

The six men — three Russians, three Italians — gathered beneath the spectacular painted glass ceiling in the hotel lobby last October had their eyes on history too. Their nominal purpose was an oil deal; their real goal was to undermine liberal democracies and shape a new, nationalist Europe aligned with Moscow.

BuzzFeed News has obtained an explosive audio recording of the Metropol meeting in which a close aide of Europe’s most powerful far-right leader — Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini — and the other five men can be heard negotiating the terms of a deal to covertly channel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to Salvini’s Lega party.

The recording reveals the elaborate lengths the two sides were willing to go to conceal the fact that the true beneficiary of the deal would be Salvini’s party — a breach of Italian electoral law, which bans political parties from accepting large foreign donations — despite the comfort with which he and Europe’s other far-right leaders publicly parade their pro-Kremlin political sympathies.

“We want to change Europe,” said longtime Salvini aide Gianluca Savoini — who dined alongside Vladimir Putin at a government banquet to celebrate the Russian president’s visit to Rome last week. “A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty,” he continued over the clinking of coffee cups and buzz of conversation around the lobby.

As well as releasing excerpts of the Metropol tape — the existence of which is being revealed for the first time today — BuzzFeed News is also publishing a transcript of the entire recording.

Salvini — described enthusiastically by the Russians on the tape as the “European Trump” — did not attend the meeting himself, but he was in Moscow at the time. The previous day he gave a speech in which he denounced sanctions against Russia as “economic, social, and cultural folly” before reportedly meeting with the Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, and a powerful member of Putin’s United Russia party named Vladimir Pligin.

Although BuzzFeed News has been unable to identify the Russians at the Metropol meeting, the tape contains clear indications that high-level government figures in Moscow were aware of the negotiations — including those with whom Salvini had reportedly met the previous evening. The Russian negotiators can be heard referring to “yesterday’s meeting” without specifying the attendees, saying twice that they would have to feed details back to the “deputy prime minister,” and explaining they were hoping to get the “green light” from “Mr. Pligin” the following week.

The Lega leader has vehemently denied ever receiving any foreign money to fund his party.

But the Metropol tape provides the first hard evidence of Russia’s clandestine attempts to fund Europe’s nationalist movements, and the apparent complicity of some senior figures from the far right in those attempts.

While it’s unclear whether the agreement negotiated at the Metropol hotel was ever executed, or if Lega received any funding, the existence of the recording of a detailed negotiation raises serious questions about whether Italian laws were broken, the links between Moscow and Salvini’s Lega party, and the integrity of May’s European elections.

European politics has been shadowed for years by the suggestion that Russian commercial transactions with far-right leaders had a hidden political purpose.

French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen took €11 million in loans from Russian banks, including one close to the Kremlin, in 2014 — a year after she publicly backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea — but insisted the deal was commercial, not political.

Ahead of Britain’s EU referendum in 2016, Brexit’s biggest financial backer, Arron Banks, discussed gold and diamond investment deals offered via the Russian Embassy in London that promised vast profits. Banks, who is currently being investigated by the UK’s National Crime Agency over the “true source” of £8 million he donated to the Leave.EU campaign, has said he ultimately declined the offers and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The leader of Austria’s far-right FPÖ party, Heinz-Christian Strache, was forced to resign in May after being caught in a sting in which he was filmed discussing the exchange of public contracts for Russian campaign support. The leaked video was published by the German news outlets Süddeutsche Zeitung and Spiegel, though it remains unclear who set up the sting.

The Metropol meeting bears all the hallmarks of a real negotiation rather than a sting. And while questions remain unanswered about Russia’s previous financial maneuvers with nationalist figures, the recording offers X-ray clarity on the Kremlin’s relationship with the powerful Italian Lega party, and a clear model for how exactly Russia uses commerce to mask naked exchanges of money and power.

Opening the discussion in faltering English, Savoini, who has been described in the Italian media as Salvini’s “sherpa to Russia” and who uses a picture of himself shaking hands with Putin as his WhatsApp avatar, was explicit about the grand political ambition behind the proposed deal.

“Salvini is the first man that want[s] to change all of Europe,” he declared. Victory at the European elections taking place the following May would be just the start.

Listing nationalist “allies” across the continent like France’s Le Pen and Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, the 55-year-old Italian, who can be heard later on the tape describing himself as the “connection” between the Italian and Russian political sides, concluded: “We really want to begin to have a great alliance with these parties that are pro-Russia.”

The Russian response was positive. They can be heard describing Salvini, who is also Italy’s interior minister, as the “head” of Europe’s resurgent ultra-right nationalist movements, stretching from Italy in the south to Sweden and Finland in the north.

The negotiation — which lasted for an hour and 15 minutes, interspersed with cigarette breaks and fueled by espressos — would involve a major Russian oil company selling at least 3 million metric tons of fuel over the course of a year to Italian oil company Eni for a value of around $1.5 billion. The buying and selling would be done through intermediaries, with the sellers applying a discounted rate to these transactions.

The discount would be worth around $65 million, based on fuel prices at the time, according to calculations provided to BuzzFeed News by industry analysts, and it is this money that would be secretly funneled to the Italian party via the intermediaries.

The participants were clear that the purpose of the deal and the discount mechanism at its heart was to support Lega, in particular its European election campaign.

“It’s very simple,” one of the two other Italian men said some 25 minutes into the meeting. “The planning made by our political guys was that given a 4% discount, 250,000 [metric tons] plus 250,000 per month per one year, they can sustain a campaign.”

At the time of the meeting, a loophole in Italian law meant that it was legal for parties to accept money from foreign donors. But the maximum amount that could be taken by a party was €100,000 — a fraction of the tens of millions Lega stood to receive under this covert arrangement.

In January this year, new legislation closed the loophole, making it illegal for Italian parties to receive any funding or support from foreign governments or entities.

Savoini can be heard telling the other Italian participants that he had a “good feeling” about a deal materializing.

He and the other Italians repeatedly emphasized to the Russians that “quickness is of the utmost importance because elections are just around the corner” as they pushed for the first shipment to be in November.

Savoini can also be heard underlining to the other Italians the importance of keeping their relationship a tightly held secret. Describing the three of them as “a triumvirate,” he said they needed to be a “watertight compartment” and “more than prudent.”

The Italians were explicit that they were “not counting to make money” from the deal for themselves. The purpose was “not professional, it’s just a political issue,” one of the men told the Russians. “We count on sustaining a political campaign which is of benefit, I would say of mutual benefit, for the two countries.”

And in response to the Russians asking about extra “commission” for themselves — later euphemistically described as “an amount to be returned” to the Russians — Savoini made clear he was fine with them taking that cut. “They take even 400 or whatever the fuck they need to take,” he told his Italian colleagues later. “It doesn’t matter. It’s a guarantee. It means they will always do that and for us it’s OK.”

The recording blows apart statements issued by Salvini and Savoini after the meeting and some details of the negotiation at the Metropol were first reported in February by two Italian journalists, Stefano Vergine and Giovanni Tizian, in L’Espresso magazine.

At the time, Salvini’s spokesperson declined to answer questions about the Metropol meeting, dismissing them as “fantasies,” while Savoini told the Kremlin-backed news outlet Sputnik that he had not taken part in any negotiation. In a message to BuzzFeed News at the time, he described the story as “the plot of a fiction.”

On the recording, however, Savoini can be heard telling his colleagues that he was the “total connection” between the Italian and Russian sides, and that the other Italians were his partners. He said he’d been told this by “Aleksandr” — a possible reference to Aleksandr Dugin, a high-profile Russian far-right ideologue and political analyst, with whom Savoini had been photographed the previous day.

Approached by BuzzFeed News on Monday with a detailed set of questions about the Metropol meeting, Savoini wrote back: “Sorry but I don’t have time to waste on these things,” adding that his lawyer would comment “if necessary.” No further response was received from Savoini or his lawyer.

The Italian journalists, who previewed excerpts from their book The Black Book of Lega in L’Espresso, also reported that Salvini met Russian Deputy Prime Minister Kozak on the evening of October 17 at Pligin’s office. The meeting did not appear on Salvini’s official schedule, which listed no engagements for that evening.

Asked in February about the reported meeting with Kozak, Salvini did not deny it took place. “I can’t remember what I did the day before yesterday,” he said in an Italian television interview. “It’s hard to remember what I did on October 17.”

He added: “If the meeting did take place, it would be absolutely legitimate, and indeed proper.”

BuzzFeed News made multiple attempts to get Salvini’s response to the Metropol recording and the suggestion that he was involved in setting out the terms of the deal. He did not respond.

On Monday, Kozak denied that he met with Salvini at Pligin’s office on October 17. Brushing aside detailed questions from BuzzFeed News, his spokesperson Ilya Dzhus said in a WhatsApp message, “We have already commented on the so-called ‘investigation’ of the Italian edition of Espresso, it is built on unsubstantiated speculation…”

He continued: “Kozak was never personally acquainted with Mr. Salvini, they did not hold any official or ‘secret’ meetings. … Russia and Italy have a large block of bilateral economic cooperation, including in the energy and industrial sphere. Kozak, as the relevant deputy prime minister, is focused only on this agenda.”

In response to a letter sent on Monday morning, followed by multiple phone calls, Pligin’s office told BuzzFeed News that he was traveling and they had been unable to reach him.

Vladimir Putin has been able to count on Matteo Salvini’s unswerving and vocal support for years.

The Lega leader has repeatedly called for European Union sanctions against Russia to be dropped; he has described the annexation of Crimea as legitimate, even visiting the illegally occupied region in 2016.

He has also criticized NATO and the coordinated EU response to the Salisbury nerve agent attack by Russian military intelligence operatives in March 2018.

But it’s over the last 18 months that Salvini’s value as an ally to Putin has increased exponentially. His reinvention of Lega from a small regional force in the north of Italy to a nationwide, far-right, anti-immigrant party saw it win over 17% of the vote in the Italian general election in March 2018. Three months later, he became deputy prime minister and interior minister when Lega entered into a coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement.

Since then the party has grown to become the country’s dominant political force, doubling its vote to 34.5% in May’s EU parliamentary elections to become the most popular party in the world’s eighth largest economy. The result secured Salvini’s status in the vanguard of Europe’s nationalist far-right movements.

Putin and Salvini’s mutual admiration was on public display again last week during an official visit by the Russian president to Rome, where he praised the Lega leader’s “welcoming attitude towards our country.” After a government dinner for Putin, Salvini described him as “one of those characters who will leave his mark on history.” Also among the guests was Savoini, who tweeted a video of Putin, with Salvini in the shot over his shoulder.

Salvini has been a remarkably frequent flyer to Moscow over the years. There were three trips in quick succession between October 2014 and February 2015, another in January 2017, followed by another two months later, and he has already traveled to the Russian capital twice on official trips since taking office just a year ago. On each occasion he has been accompanied by his unofficial Kremlin fixer, Savoini.

Savoini’s working relationship with Salvini spans two decades. He has been a member of the Lega party since 1991, and served as Salvini’s spokesperson. He helped organize all the Lega leader’s trips to Moscow and was central to enabling a partnership agreement between the Italian party and Putin’s United Russia in March 2017.

He is also the president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, which has consistently pushed pro-Kremlin propaganda since its foundation 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.

Savoini’s precise status and role on official visits to Moscow remains unclear. BuzzFeed News reported in July last year that he had attended official meetings with Russian ministers and officials alongside Salvini, despite not being on the list of ministerial delegates. Savoini, who has no official government role, said he was there as a “member of the minister’s staff” and had known Salvini “since forever.”

The official reason for Salvini’s last trip to Moscow in October was to give a speech on the 17th at a conference organized by an Italian industry group. Savoini was at the event at the Lotte Hotel, where the Lega leader delivered his anti-sanctions message. Beyond this point, no official meetings appear on Salvini’s schedule, but it was that evening, according to L’Espresso, that the meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Kozak took place at Pligin’s office.

Nothing is known about Salvini’s movements the next morning, but just after noon Moscow time, he posted a photo of himself on Twitter and Instagram enjoying a beer and a hamburger at the city’s Sheremetyevo airport — the only public record of what he did that day before flying back to Italy.

The Metropol tape obtained by BuzzFeed News, however, reveals in vivid detail how one of his most trusted aides spent that morning, as Salvini was preparing to leave Moscow.

Over the course of the meeting, Savoini, the other two Italians, and the three Russians discussed in fine detail the technicalities of the deal to channel millions to Lega, from the types of fuel required and the potential ports of delivery to “commission payments,” currency, and how to keep communications secure and transactions below the radar of the authorities.

The negotiations between the two sides were largely conducted in English, with each side repeatedly reverting back to Italian or Russian to confer among themselves because not everyone at the table spoke English.

BuzzFeed News has been unable to identify the five other men. One Italian was referred to as “Luca.” He led much of the technical discussion, described himself as a lawyer, and appeared to be based in London working for an unnamed English investment bank.

The other was called “Francesco,” only spoke Italian, and was at one stage jokingly referred to as “nonno” — granddad. He appeared to be responsible for figuring out the mechanics of getting the funding to Lega via the intermediaries, as well as the potential commissions.

On the Russian side, one of the three didn’t speak English, and mostly engaged through an interpreter. One of the individuals was addressed by Savoini and the others as “Ilya.” The names “Yuri” and “Andrey” can also be heard.

The Russians were clearly answerable to more senior figures outside the room, saying several times that they would have to discuss different aspects of the arrangement with “Mr. Deputy Prime Minister,” while “Mr. Pligin,” “the comrade,” and “verkhniy” — Russian for “upper,” which appears here to refer to a higher-ranking official — can also be heard.

From the recording, it is clear that this was not the first time some of the six men had come together to discuss the proposed deal. At several points they referred to previous detailed conversations and meetings, including in Rome.

There was also lighter small talk among the men, such as conversations about holidays in Sicily and Sardinia. At one point, the Italians joked about wanting to send some people to the Russian “gulags” for “mental rehabilitation.” At another there was some banter about giving up smoking, with one of the Russians complaining about the graphic health warning images on cigarette packs in Italy, and an Italian joking that men in his country always ask for the one with the warning about not getting pregnant.

“Let’s close the deal and we stop together,” the Italian said.

“Deal,” the Russian replied.

But on the substance of the plan, both the Russians and the Italians, including Savoini, appeared serious and deeply immersed in the detail.

After his opening remarks about changing Europe, Savoini handed over to what he referred to as his “technical partners.”

“Now our technique papers are already made as they are ready to be given to Mr. Deputy Prime Minister,” one of the Russians replied. “But we have to discuss latest decisions maybe,” he added.

Most of the ensuing discussion centered on structuring the arrangement to find the right combination of oil companies, intermediaries, port of delivery, product type, payment terms, and timescale.

The proposed transactions would be structured around four firms: Italy’s Eni and a major Russian oil company — Rosneft and Lukoil are suggested — and two intermediaries.

“We have Eni who will be on the Italian side, yes?” one of the Russians said. “We have Russian oil company on our side, and we have two companies in the middle.”

An Eni spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email: “Eni strongly reiterates that [it] in no way took part [in] transactions aimed at financing political parties. Moreover, the described supply operation never took place.”

The men explicitly discussed how to choose a second intermediary so that the deal did not come to the attention of European authorities by tripping “know your client” procedures and anti–money laundering laws.

The Italian referred to as Luca advised that it should be “a well-known company.” When one of the Russians asked whether it was better for the company to be in Russia or Europe, he replied: “Europe, definitely.”

They also discussed using the Russian arm of the Italian bank Intesa. An advantage of this option, one of the Italians explained to the Russians, was that Lega had “a man in there called Mascetti.”

The individual can then be heard telling the other two Italians: “We need to after this meeting talk to the guy who begins with ‘Ma’ and ends with ‘etti’ so that they meet after the fundamentals are closed. Why am I interested? Because Eni already has accounts with Intesa, and they [the Russian oil companies] do too probably.”

One of the board directors of Intesa Russia is named Andrea Mascetti. He is a former senior member of the Lega party.

There is no suggestion in the recording that Mascetti or anyone else at Intesa was aware of the discussions that were taking place; nor is it known whether any officer of Intesa was contacted by any of the three Italians after the meeting at the Metropol.

In response to a request for comment from Mascetti, his lawyer told BuzzFeed News in an email that he strongly denied any knowledge whatsoever of the events as described and was “totally extraneous” to these.

The technical discussions covered the best ports of delivery, with Rotterdam, Novorossiysk in the Black Sea, and the Baltic route as the options put forward, though the Russians pointed out that there was limited capacity via the Baltic.

They also discussed the type of fuel to be sold under the deal, with the Russian acting as an interpreter inviting the Italians to provide options, which included aviation fuel and diesel, in a list. “We will give [the list] to the deputy prime minister,” he said.

BuzzFeed News approached oil analysts to obtain an approximate valuation for the deal using one of the fuel options discussed, ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). Between November 1 and November 30 last year, the wholesale value of ULSD delivered into Rotterdam, for example, ranged between $693.25 to $556.25 per metric ton, based on the industry-standard Platts benchmark used by oil companies.

That means 250,000 metric tons — the proposed first shipment — of ULSD would have been worth $173 million on November 1 and $139 million on November 30, so Lega’s 4% cut that month would have been worth at least $5.5 million. Over the course of 12 months, assuming similar prices, the party stood to receive about $65 million.

At one point, the Russians discussed among themselves how they needed to wait for Pligin, the lawyer who reportedly had hosted the meeting between Salvini and the Russian deputy prime minister the previous night, to give them the go-ahead to proceed.

“We need to tell them that we are expecting Vladimir Nikolaevich’s return. We are waiting for him. Hopefully we’ll get the green light next week,” one of the Russians told his colleague who was interpreting into English.

“We are waiting for Mr. Pligin to return when to discuss,” the interpreter then told the Italians.

The Italian lawyer said he had checked whether Pligin could fly to Italy and he believed it would be OK as he was “not on red alert in Interpol,” despite the fact that the Russian was named on an EU sanctions list.

One of the Russian men can then be heard saying — in Russian — that he had talked to Pligin and he didn’t want to go to Italy. “We have to explain that to our Italian colleagues,” one of the others said, but the information was not passed on.

The Russians were keen to generate extra “commission” payments for themselves, raising the possibility of future contracts beyond the one-year political arrangement.

Reiterating that the motivation for this deal was purely political, the Italian lawyer said only the 4% discount was required to fund the election campaign — so the Russians could take anything above that. “I would say they have made their plans on 4% net. So if you now say it’s 10% discount, I would say 6% is yours,” he said.

The Italians were far more concerned throughout the discussion with making sure the money was flowing to Lega in time for May’s elections. The man referred to as Francesco said to his Italian colleagues at one point: “I want to say how important it is to us to do this by December even if it is then delayed two, three months. June, July — we don’t care.”

That message was underlined repeatedly in English to the Russians by the Italian lawyer. “If we are very quick — but we need to be very, very quick — then I think [the] first delivery might be in November,” he said.

“I agree with you because we have to act very quickly,” a Russian responded.

The Italian lawyer later reassured Savoini that the Russians had got the message. “Everything is OK. I told and Andrey agreed quickness is of utmost importance.”

But there was still concern that the first shipment could be delayed into late January. “If we are quick — now maybe first delivery in November. If we are not quick then — maybe it’s December. And then December, we know in Italy it’s Christmas and everybody is very lazy.”

Savoini replied: “In Russia too. In Russia, Christmas in January. Holiday Italian then Russian, we have one month of holidays — 15 December, 15 January, Italy and Russia together is holidays.”

He also voiced concern about not being able to do the deal in US dollars because of Russian currency restrictions, but was told by the Russians: “We can work in any currency.” It would only be a problem if the deal were between two Russian companies, they said, prompting the Italian lawyer to say that the deal could be done in euros and converted into dollars anyway.

Savoini seemed unconvinced, suggesting a smaller initial shipment if that was less risky, and repeating his concerns about dollar transactions.

“He is saying to put some attention on the financial transaction not to incur any problems,” the Italian lawyer told the Russians. “Can I say yes, we will work on it?” the lawyer asked.

The Russian responded: “If we make it in one bank, for example Intesa, it will not be a problem.”

In another exchange, Savoini returned to the reason for the deal: the nationalist political project. “We are changing really the situation in Europe,” he said. “And it’s impossible to stop. The history is marching, so it’s impossible. It’s really a new deal, a new situation, a new future for us. We are in the center of this process.

“But we have a lot of enemies. We are in a dangerous situation because our government is attacked from Brussels, from the globalist men — not Trump but the establishment of Obama is very, very strong and inside in Italy too. We are in dangerous [territory]. It is not   so simple, but we want to fight because we are in truth.”

As the meeting drew to a close, both sides appeared to be optimistic about closing the deal. “Concerning the future contract, I think we have all the information,” one of the Russian men said in English. “I understand the urgency,” he added.

A few minutes later, the Italian lawyer listed all the follow-up items as he noted them down and promised to share a screenshot with the Russians.

“OK, gentlemen, I think it’s going in the right direction,” he said.

“And it’s my luck to make them act quickly and immediately,” his Russian counterpart replied.

“You will,” said the Italian.

By the time the bill arrived, the six men were in a buoyant mood. They can be heard joking over who should pay for the coffees. “This is not Rome,” one of the Russians said.

Savoini’s response was telling. Turning to one of his favorite slogans — based on a 16th-century doctrine that held the Russian Empire to be the successor to ancient Rome and Constantinople as the ultimate center of true Christianity — he replied: “Moscow is the third Rome.”

Tanya Kozyreva and Miriam Elder contributed reporting to this story.

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*Alberto Nardelli – BuzzFeed News Europe Editor

 

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