Russian President Vladimir Putin has always had a special place in Italy. Few will forget how former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bedded a call girl on a frilly bed the Russian leader gave him, or how Putin’s late night visits to Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” villa near Milan made the society pages.
Not to mention Italy’s now painful dependence on Russian gas thanks to a deal cut in the 1990s, or how before sanctions, Russia was one of the largest importers of Made-in-Italy luxe goods.
The island of Sardinia and posh Lake Como are dotted with Russian-owned villas and prior to sanctions, Russian yachts had dedicated docks on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast.
Italy was one of the last holdouts before signing on to European sanctions, earning scorn from former President of the European Council Donald Tusk who criticized Italy by name.
“Putin’s madness and cruelty, Ukrainian victims, bombs falling on Kyiv,” he wrote days after the invasion began. “Only your sanctions are pretended. Those EU governments, which blocked tough decisions (i.e. Germany, Hungary, Italy) have disgraced themselves.”
Italy eventually signed on but Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi admitted that Italy, having the closest ties to Russia among the EU, said it would be difficult for the country.
“In case of interruptions of gas supplies from Russia, Italy has more to lose compared to other European countries that rely on different sources,” Draghi told the Italian Parliament as he sought approval for signing onto sanctions. “This does not diminish our determination to support sanctions that we deem justified and necessary.”
Over the weekend, Russian foreign minister Alexey Paramonov accused Italy of falling victim to “anti-Russian hysteria” and mentioned how Russia had flown in medical equipment and respirators when Italy was hit hard early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. “Italy had forgotten centuries-long relations and bilateral agreements in a second,” he said.
Draghi called it “particularly odious and unacceptable” to compare the invasion of Ukraine to the pandemic crisis.
But now, a month into a senseless war where thousands of civilians have been killed, towns have been leveled and millions of people displaced—including 55,000 who have already arrived in Italy—it would seem everyone is on the same page against Putin.
A handful of Italian parliamentarians have announced they will boycott an online address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky scheduled for Tuesday morning. Among the many reasons? They didn’t invite Putin to give his side of the was story.
Spokespersons for both the Five-Star movement and the Lega party—of whom the bulk of the boycotters hail—confirmed to The Daily Beast that some members will not attend, but that such a move is not a party mandate.
Leader of the far-right Lega party Matteo Salvini—who was embarrassed at the Polish-Ukraine border when a local mayor pulled out a t-shirt similar to one Putin once wore standing in the Red Square, with a caption that said he would swap two Italian presidents for one Putin—said he will attend the address. But many in his party will not.
Lega Senator Simone Pillon was highly critical of the event. “I have strong doubts about President Zelensky’s videoconference because I believe that we should place ourselves in an appropriate position to promote peace,” he told reporters on Monday. “Selling weapons to one of the parties in conflict does not favor dialogue.”
Senator Laura Granato, a former member of the Five Star movement, said she is not attending because Putin was also not invited. “It would have been right to listen to the voice of the Russian counterpart as well,” she said Monday. A member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party Veronica Ginnanoe, called having Zelensky address parliament “a show” meant not to facilitate peace but to further polarize Europe, adding that the risk of having him speak is that it would turn the war into a “spectacularization.”
The members of the Alternativa group issued a joint statement underscoring why none of their members will attend. “This is a speech that does not change the state of things by one iota,” the statement said. “It is one and only a marketing operation that will not serve to stop hostilities and will have no use for the offended party.”
The “offended party” of course being a sovereign nation under a grueling attack by an aggressive dictatorial force.
The majority of Italy’s parliament will attend the address, and many have come out strongly against those who are boycotting Zelensky.
“I believe that the level of subordination to propaganda by some parliamentarians goes beyond all reasonableness,” Interior undersecretary Ivan Scalfarotto said Monday, calling to mind how Italy was essentially rescued from Fascism by its allies. “But how can we recall our Constitution to invoke a one-way pacifism that contrasts with our history? The Constitution repudiates war as an instrument of offense, not of legitimate defense: it is born from the partisan liberation war, let’s not forget it.”