Italian government officials are warning of possible foreign interference in the March 4 general election, sounding the alarm following the U.S. indictment of Russian trolls and evidence of Russian-sourced fake news on popular Italian platforms.
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Premier Paolo Gentiloni on Tuesday released Italy's annual security report, which aside from highlighting the threat of Islamic extremism, warned about online "influence campaigns" that aim to "condition both the sentiment and political orientation of public opinion, especially at election time."
The report didn't mention Russia by name. But for months, U.S. and Italian analysts have warned that European elections are prime targets for Russian meddling, with the Italian contest particularly ripe because two key opposition parties — the nationalist League and the anti-establishment, populist 5-Star Movement — have cultivated ties with Moscow.
League leader Matteo Salvini has made several high-profile trips to Russia, including a March 2017 visit to sign a cooperation agreement with ruling party United Russia. The 5-Stars, meanwhile, have fostered similar relationships and called for the lifting of European Union sanctions against Russia.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said he inquired about the risk of Russian meddling during talks in Rome Monday with officials from Italy's foreign and interior ministries.
"They believe there will be a free election that will reflect the will of the Italian people on March 4," Sullivan told a forum at the Rome-based Center for American Studies. "But they are very cautious and keeping a close eye on any potential for an outside party, such as those we saw in the election in the United States in 2016, interfering."
"So they're vigilant but optimistic," he added in response to a question from The Associated Press.
Pre-election opinion polls currently give the lead to a center-right coalition comprising the Forza Italia party of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi, Salvini's anti-immigrant League and a smaller right-wing nationalist party, Brothers of Italy. Berlusconi has a long friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin from his own years in power.
While the center-left Democratic Party that has led Italy since 2013 conformed to the EU sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatist fighters in Ukraine, plenty of Italians would like to see the sanctions lifted.
A recent report by Italian business daily Il Sole 24 estimated that Italy had lost 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) and 80,000 jobs as a result of the sanctions.
Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, noted that anti-EU sentiment is helping to make the League and 5-Star Movement appealing to voters.
But Ambrosetti questioned how effective a propaganda campaign to influence the upcoming election would be. She noted that the Twitter feed for Russian news agency Sputnik's Italian division has a mere 6,300 followers. A recent investigation of alleged Russian meddling by Italy's La Stampa newspaper turned up five suspect Twitter accounts.
The threat, Ambrosetti said, "seems a bit exaggerated."
While the 5-Star and League work to foster political ties with Moscow, Putin and his lieutenants have focused on remaining friendly with the current Italian government.
Asked to comment last week on Italian reports alleging nefarious Russian interest in the March 4 election, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the accusations haven't been backed by facts.
"If there are specific facts, we are ready to discuss them. But give us figures, facts, dates, roles, names, secret meeting places, or any suspicions. Right now there are none," she said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov similarly has criticized what he described as attempts by Western nations to blame Russia for their domestic problems.
"The predominant myth now is the alleged 'omnipotent Russian threat,' the traces of which they are trying to find everywhere from Brexit to the Catalan referendum," Lavrov said at last week's Munich security conference.
Russia's top diplomat also rejected theories that his country would profit from a weakened and destabilized Europe. Lavrov said Russia wants a strong Europe.
"It is our largest trade and economic partner, despite all the negative events of the past three years," he said in a recent interview with Euronews. "We certainly want it to develop smoothly, predictably, and steadily."
AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.