Italian companies suffer Russia market loss | FT Film
The FT looks at the challenges facing Giorgia Meloni's government as Italian households and businesses suffer over Rome's commitment to sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Richard Topping. Produced and edited by Ben Marino. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Archive by Getty and Reuters. Executive producer: Joe Sinclair. Commissioning editor: Veronica Kan-Dapaah.
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It's amazing how much attention has been placed on Germany's dependency on Russia. But actually, Italy follows a close second within the EU.
This is a world economy, so we are suffering. And it has affected substantially, then, in business with the sanctions and with the energy prices.
It raises all kinds of questions about whether Giorgia Meloni really will be able to maintain Italy's support for Ukraine and a tough stand against the Russian invasion.
Now, Italy has been caught on the wrong side of this long-term investment bet and is having to disentangle itself and is finding it quite hard to do.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Italy benefited enormously from Russia's economic recovery and the rise of a wealthy upper-middle class in particular who seemed to consume Italian goods in vast quantities.
The fact that we had a loss of business because of the sanctions has affected the public opinion. The other effect is the inflation. And then there is a big discussion about inflation. But it's clear that this inflation in Europe is not demand led. It's supply led.
And the reason why we have an increase in prices is very much related to an increase in energy prices, which is a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Because, obviously, we had to reassess completely our energy sources and move them from Russia to anywhere else, including the US, because now the US is one of the major providers of energy for Europe and for Italy.
Italy was the fourth Russian export destination up until 2021. And clearly, Italy's energy dependence with Russia has been a big theme throughout the past 20 years. 40 per cent of Italy's gas and most of its coal came from Russia up until the war broke out, and a certain percentage of the oil and the crude that Italy uses as well.
Italy also diversified the energy supply by going to northern Africa, making deals with interesting countries like Algeria or Libya, which I wouldn't say are particularly democratic at the moment. But this has had a huge impact on Italian finances and has had a huge impact on Italian families.
The sanctions regime from the west was incredibly quick, stealthy, and powerful. You are a business operating in Russia with Russian customers, you probably used one of the western banks. Quickly, those relationships were closed, and a lot of these business people had to look for elsewhere to have their banking services.
Even if the war is ongoing and Russia has been sanctioned by the EU, there are companies that continue doing business with Russia. There are Italian banks that have not shut down their operations in Russia.
UniCredit has been in Russia since 2005. At the outbreak of the war, it had about 2mn customers, 70 branches, and about 3,500 staff. So a pretty big presence in Russia. Among the international banks, it was among the top three with the biggest exposure in Russia.
Andrea Orcel, the CEO of UniCredit, has consistently said he doesn't want to leave money on the table. He doesn't want to essentially hand over their Russian business to Putin's allies and to the Kremlin. The prospect of selling the business has become much, much harder in the last six months because the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin have actually intervened to basically rubberstamp any sale of a western bank in Russia, and that makes it much harder because you're essentially having to sell to people who are very closely tied to the Kremlin.
That's not something that UniCredit want to do. And also, really, the Kremlin would be dictating the terms of those sales and would be demanding much lower prices than what the businesses are actually worth. At a European banking level, the ECB has openly called on UniCredit and other banks with big Russian presence to really exit as swiftly as they can.
There have been private conversations as well. So it's in a very tricky position, playing these big, geopolitical tensions, and it's very much been caught in the middle of all those.
The coalition is composed by three parties. You have Brothers of Italy - Fratelli d'Italia - which is led by Meloni, Giorgia Meloni, and she is also the prime minister and the first female prime minister in Italian history. She got 26 per cent of the vote, so she is leading the coalition by all means.
The junior partners in this government coalition are on one side Silvio Berlusconi, who is in his 80s, and he's the leader of Forza Italia, and on the other side of the coalition, you have Matteo Salvini, who is actually the leader of the League - la Lega. They have not enough votes, even put together, to represent a credible alternative to Meloni.
AMY KAZMIN: Salvini is coming forward to once again make the case that the Western strategy of sanctions against Russia and isolating Russia isn't working. Matteo Salvini has made no secret of his admiration for Putin. He's been filmed wearing Putin T-shirts in Red Square, and he wore Putin T-shirts in the EU Parliament.
And so he is really what some would describe as a Putin fanboy.
LEILA TALANI: More than being pro-Russians or pro-Putin, the grass roots of Salvini's movement or the Lega are actually pro their own business. And the sanctions is hurting the entire Italian industrial sector seriously because both Berlusconi and particularly Salvini are political animals. They know it, so they sense it.
They say that there is a possibility of getting part of the electorate on ending the war in Ukraine and in sanctions towards Putin and so on.
SAM JONES: You can see it's also a symbiotic relationship, where a lot of these right-wing parties, they know that Russia is out there and might be willing to help them.
FRANCESCO GALIETTI: Putin has become an icon of this world. These days, many voters of the League or Brothers of Italy, they actually like Putin. They like him personally.
LEILA TALANI: Fratelli d'Italia, the Brothers of Italy, are, whatever they say, a post-fascist movement. The fact that they say that they are not neofascist or post-fascist or they've never been fascists, they have to say it because there is still a clause in the Italian constitution which is antifascism. But they actually were fascists, particularly Ms Meloni because she was a member of MSI, which is Movimento Sociale Italiano, a fascist party.
SAM JONES: What has been particularly interesting in the last decade or so is how Russia has really latched on to the idea of right-wing populist politics in Europe as a very powerful lever of influence. Russia really wants to destabilise the centre ground of politics in Europe and to remove from power all of those stable political centrist governments that are better positioned to stand up to Russia.
AMY KAZMIN: Putin's United Russia party forged political links with all kinds of actors in different parts of the Italian political spectrum. So, on one hand, we have Salvini, the leader of the League, who was an unabashed Putin admirer. But we also, elsewhere on the political spectrum, have the Five Star party, which also is believed or suspected to have person-to-person ties with key people in Russia.
BEN HALL: Giorgia Meloni's government is going to be probably permanently embarrassed by some of the instincts of her coalition partners.
SILVIA SCIORILLI BORELLI: These two men have always liked each other. There has been a close bond between the two. But he has always had a fascination for the Soviets, for Russia, and for Vladimir Putin. They've gone on holiday together, reportedly, and they've always been quite friendly.
And this has also translated into closer business ties and economic ties between the two countries.
Berlusconi and Putin first met at the G7 in Genoa. There was an immediate bond between the two. And after that meeting in 2001, there were many phone calls. You have to imagine, in 2003, the war in Chechnya, when reporters asked Berlusconi to comment the atrocities committed by the Russians that were well-documented and well-known, Berlusconi said, please, let's not spread legends.
AMY KAZMIN: Silvio Berlusconi, he imagined himself and Italy as this bridge that was going to usher a once-isolated Vladimir Putin and Russia into the family of the West. He had all kinds of schemes.
FRANCESCO GALIETTI: When he was talking to Putin, was it on behalf of the Republic of Italy, or was it himself? Where did one Berlusconi begin? When did the other one end? It was never really clear.
AMY KAZMIN: Russian oligarchs saw Italy as a relatively welcoming place where they could invest. Many major oligarchs bought large industrial assets in Italy. They bought mansions and beachside holiday homes. And of course, all of this was facilitated by the great relationship between Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
JACOPO IACOBONI: We are important as a country for Russia because we are perceived and, at least in part, we are a weak link within the European Union, even in the process, for example, of the sanctioning the Russian oligarchs or the voting motions in the EU Parliament.
AMY KAZMIN: After World War II, Italy had the largest communist party in Western Europe. Many of the partisans that fought against Mussolini and fascism and on the side of the Allies were actually communists. They were members of the Communist Party of Italy.
FRANCESCO GALIETTI: A huge party, many millions of Italians pledging allegiance to Moscow and to the communist cause. And that was, of course, hugely important in the strategic equation.
BEN HALL: Georgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, the far-right party, a post-fascist party, has had pro-Russian sympathies in the past. But at this moment, she has taken a pretty firm stance, and I think has, in a way, cleverly created a narrative about how a party like hers should be supporting Ukraine. This is a country struggling for national survival.
And as a nationalist party, or leader of a nationalist party, she can see the value in that.
SILVIA SCIORILLI BORELLI: She has been a very strong supporter of the US, of the Republican Party, and now she knows that in order to stay in power, she cannot push anti-EU or anti-NATO rhetorics.
GIORGIA MELONI: We are on the side of international law. We are on the side of freedom. And indeed, we are on the side of a proud nation that is teaching the world what it means to fight for freedom.
BEN HALL: Italy's partners and certainly Kyiv should probably rest reasonably assured that Italy will not deviate massively from this path. The issue in Italy is public opinion. It's clearly the softest in this war, although there is a majority in favour of support for Ukraine.
It's the narrowest majority that there is in the EU. And Italians are also more likely than other European countries to pin blame on Kyiv, or even on NATO and the West, for this conflict.
LEILA TALANI: This is all relevant if you have elections. However, it becomes less relevant if you do not have elections. And again, even if we did have elections, until when the international coalition is so much favourable to intervention in Ukraine, even for an Italian government who is against it, it would be almost impossible to pull off.