ROME (Reuters) – Divisions between Italy’s political parties and ambivalence among its public over the war in Ukraine could become a weak link in the West’s efforts to present a united front against Russia, analysts say.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his government have taken a tough line on Moscow, and the former European Central Bank chief on Wednesday claimed some credit for the West’s decision to freeze the Russian central bank’s foreign reserves.
However Draghi, who never stood for election but was drafted in to head a “national unity” government 14 months ago, may struggle to keep the country behind him if the war drags on.
Opinion polls show that in Italy – unlike in Europe’s other G7 states Britain, France, and Germany – there is little public support for sending weapons to Ukraine.
Surveys also show Italians are split over the issue of sanctions, oppose raising defence spending and, according to an Ipsos poll on Wednesday, only 61% say Russian leader Vladimir Putin is mainly to blame for the conflict.
Such sentiments are not limited to ordinary people. They are also found among Italy’s largest ruling parties, some of which formed allegiances with Russia that they seem reluctant to sever.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the Italian parliament last month, around a third of the 950 lawmakers did not show up, a parliamentary official told Reuters.
“At this point Italy has a wonderfully unrepresentative government,” said Nathalie Tocci, the head of Italy’s Institute for International Affairs (IAI) think tank.
“The government has a very clear and firm position on the war, and I think also parliament, perhaps to a lesser extent, is broadly where it should be. The problem is politics in a deeper sense, the parties and public opinion.”
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the conservative Forza Italia party, boasts a long-standing personal friendship with Putin and in 2015 called him “undoubtedly the number one among world leaders.”
Rightist League leader Matteo Salvini used to don a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s face, and a partnership agreement the League signed with Putin’s United Russia party in 2017 remains in force.
Salvini and Berlusconi have condemned Russia’s invasion but neither have criticised Putin by name.
Draghi said on Tuesday that Rome was “fully aligned with the rest of the European Union” after the bloc announced a new package of punitive measures.
So far, despite some misgivings from politicians, parliament has backed Draghi over sanctions and in sending weapons to Ukraine.
But analysts wonder how long the premier can maintain a hard line as the economic cost of sanctions increases, especially as discipline among the parties in his coalition is likely to weaken as they campaign for elections due next spring.
Tocci said if the war drags on “by next year Italy will absolutely be the weak link” in the Western alliance.
There are already growing signs of tension.
Draghi’s push to hike military spending to 2% of GDP met opposition last month from the 5-Star Movement, the largest ruling party. The premier finally agreed to hit that NATO goal in 2028, four years after the original target.
A spokesman for Draghi said the government had always aimed to reach 2% in 2028.
After Italy kicked out 30 Russian diplomats on Tuesday in coordination with other Western countries, the League curtly noted that peace can by reached by “dialogue and diplomacy, not by expelling diplomats.”
Francesco Galietti, head of Rome-based political risk consultancy Policy Sonar, said he thought the League, whose support has been ebbing for years, may soon quit the government in a bid to revive its fortunes.
That would not threaten Draghi’s majority but he would no longer head a “national unity” government, and external criticism of his policies would be bound to increase.
POPE, POPULISM AND PACIFISM
Galietti said Italy’s stance on Russia was being steered by Draghi and head of state Sergio Mattarella, but parliament is full of lawmakers elected in 2018 at the height of a populist wave.
“We can’t just wish this parliament away,” he said. “If the frictions over the war remain sporadic, Draghi can carry on. Otherwise, Mattarella will have little choice but to pull the plug and call elections.”
Analysts cite historical, economic and religious reasons for Italians’ attitude towards Russia and the war.
Italy had Europe’s largest communist party for 45 years after World War Two, and diffidence towards NATO and the United States remains widespread.
More pragmatically, northern Italian companies, the bedrock of support for the League, did roaring business with Russia that is now threatened by the sanctions.
Italy’s Catholicism and the presence of the Vatican are also cited to explain a strong pacifist movement. Pope Francis said last month that increasing defence spending was “madness”, in remarks that Tocci said had had “a big impact” on Italian public opinion.
A late-March poll by the EMG agency showed 54% of Italians against raising defence spending to the NATO goal, and one by IZI showed 73% against.
“Raising military spending is not a vote winner in Italy,” said Luigi Scazzieri, an analyst at the London-based Centre for European Reform.
“There has been little success in communicating to the public that we are facing a more dangerous world, especially in regard to Russian aggression. There is still not the perception of real danger to Italy’s security.”
(Writing by Gavin Jones, editing by John Stonestreet)