In a speech in June before a conference of Putin’s United Russia party, Di Stefano claimed that the M5S was neither pro-Russian nor pro-American. But he went on to call for the end of EU sanctions against Russia; railed against an “aggressive” Nato; called for the strengthening of intelligence ties between the EU and Russia and said it was evident that the “Ukraine crisis” was a result of meddling by the EU and US in Russian affairs.
Di Stefano also singled out and thanked two Russian officials, Sergei Zheleznyak, the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, who as a top Russian government official is subject to US sanctions, and Andrei Klimov, a Russian senator and head of the Duma’s international affairs committee, whom he suggested he met with in Rome.
The pro-Russian rhetoric has stumped and worried some foreign diplomats in Rome who are trying to come to grips with what the party – which claims to be post-ideological – really stands for.
“We can’t understand why they are on the side of Putin and not Pussy Riot,” said one western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think there was a decision that Russia works for them because they think it is politically advantageous. They are opportunistic. Tactically they feel this is a vote-getter.”
As the M5S’s rhetoric has become pro-Russian, it is simultaneously becoming more critical of the EU, including a vow to hold a referendum on the euro. Such a vote would be likely to have a destabilising effect on European unity, even if in practice it would be difficult to execute a departure from the single currency. Grillo has also called for a “review” of the EU’s open borders under the Schengen agreement, in response to the shooting in Milan of Anis Amri, the suspected terrorist behind last month’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market.
In the meantime, Russia has forged ties with far-right parties across Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s Front National. In an interview earlier this year, Alexander Dugin, a political scientist who has been called Putin’s Rasputin, made it clear that the M5S was on his radar, telling the Defend Democracy Press website – incorrectly – that the party has called for a referendum on Italy’s exit from the EU. If the Italians, Germans and French were given the chance to withdraw, he claimed “it would happen the next day”.
Another diplomatic source said the evolution in the M5S stance towards Russia reflected its general anti-establishment philosophy: in a world where the EU and the US represent the powerful monied interests, the Russians represent a rejection of that alliance and of Italy’s alleged subservience to those powers.
The diplomatic source said he believed that the biggest danger of an M5S win was not that it would align Italy and Russia, or that M5S would seek a referendum on the euro – it may do both – but that it would profoundly damage Italy because of the party’s lack of experience and governance ability, a problem that has become all too evident in its poor management of the city of Rome since it won mayoral elections in June.
Stefano Stefanini, who served as Italy’s ambassador to Nato from 2007 to 2010, said he found it difficult to imagine that the M5S could win national elections. But he said the party had clearly emerged as sympathetic to Russia, far more so than to western policy.
“If there was a Five Star win, plus the Northern League [the rightwing party headed by Matteo Salvini], in addition to a pro-Russian president in France, the whole EU line on Russia would crumble,” Stefanini said. “The union would be badly divided.”
Stefanini said he did not believe that Russia would necessarily be a big election issue when Italy headed to the polls, possibly as early as spring 2017. But he said it was important to note that Italians did not feel threatened by Russia or Putinism in the way westerners felt threatened by the Soviet Union. Italians were, however, asking themselves questions about the pro-US and EU stance that Italy has adopted for decades.
“The traditional western democratic values are in general under discussion, because they don’t seem to work for normal people, they aren’t delivering what people were expecting,” he said.
Foreign diplomats in Rome said it was easy to overestimate the M5S’s chances of winning the next Italian election and that expected changes to Italy’s electoral rules would make an M5S victory difficult. That calculation is based on the fact that the M5S has always opposed forging governing alliances with other parties, which has made it impossible so far for the party to achieve a majority coalition in parliament.
But a handful of diplomats have also suggested that the ruling Democratic party, which is still led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, may not be fully alert to the potential threat of Russian interference in Italian elections, and is not as concerned about the issue as it should be.
Igor Pellicciari, a consultant to the Russian foreign ministry who spends most of his time in Moscow and works as a university professor in Italy and Russia, said it was clear to him that the M5S had changed its stance on Russia over the last two years.
“I followed them [in the beginning] and they were very anti-Russian. And then at a certain point they turned to be, basically, pro-Russian or neutral,” he said.
“But I don’t think Russia has ever done anything to reinforce the Five Star Movement or to establish a special relationship with them or support them instead of Renzi for instance, or even [Romano] Prodi or Silvio Berlusconi,” he added.
Instead, Pellicciari said that it was the M5S who had warmed to Russia, probably in part because of the economic impact EU-imposed Russian sanctions have had on parts of the Italian economy, particularly in northern Italy.
“The story of the Five Star and Moscow should be perceived from the Five Star rather than the Kremlin,” he said.