Matteo Salvini has defended himself after the Russian embassy in Italy revealed it had funded the far-right League leader’s planned trip to Moscow last month.
Salvini had intended to travel to the Russian capital on 29 May on what he called a “peace mission”, but the trip was put on ice after criticism from his allies in the Italian government, which had not been made aware of his plans.
The Russian embassy said in a statement of Saturday that Moscow had been ready to welcome Salvini “at the appropriate level” and that it had purchased him and his delegation tickets for an Aeroflot flight to Moscow via Istanbul. Direct flights from Rome are suspended as a result of EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
“Due to the sanctions in force against this airline, it is difficult to buy tickets for the company’s flight from EU territory,” the embassy said. “The embassy assisted Matteo Salvini and the people accompanying him in purchasing the airline tickets they needed in rubles via a Russian travel agency.”
Salvini paid the money back when the trip was cancelled, the embassy added. “We see nothing illegal in any of these actions,” it said, explaining that the statement was issued to clarify media reports about the scrapped trip.
Salvini, who until the invasion of Ukraine had been an open admirer of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said his only goal had been to “restore peace” and that the statement from the embassy confirmed “once more the total transparency and correctness of [my] work”.
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In a press conference with the foreign media in Rome last week, Salvini said the inquisition over the trip and who he was planning to meet was trivial and that it was part of his job to meet ambassadors from various parts of the world.
“I met the Ukrainian ambassador to show solidarity, and the Russian one to ask for a ceasefire. To stop the war we need to ask those [in the country] where the war started.” He said he would continue to work for the national interest “from Rome, without needing to catch a flight”.
But the revelation that the Moscow trip was paid for by the Russian embassy triggered a fresh onslaught of criticism, including calls for him to resign from his position as leader of the League, a partner in prime minister Mario Draghi’s broad coalition.
Simona Malpezzi, from the centre-left Democratic party, called for “clarity on the serious ambiguities”, while Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist party Azione described Salvini as “a danger to national security”. Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and leader of Italia Viva, said: “It seems it was a return ticket. If it had been one-way, that would have been better.”
Elio Vito, a politician with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which runs alongside the League in elections, and member of Copasir, a parliamentary committee for the security of Italy, said: “This is really serious. Salvini needs to resign, he is increasingly a source of embarrassment and worry for his party, his allies, for the rightwing coalition, and for Italy.”