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Will a right-wing win push Italy towards Russia? | Elections News

When Russian President Vladimir Putin won a fourth term in 2018, some right-wing leaders in Italy were quick to convey their congratulations.

“The will of the people in these Russian elections is unequivocal,” Giorgia Meloni, the head of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, said on social media at the time.

That remark has resurfaced in recent weeks, with Meloni poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister, after the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government triggered a national election scheduled for Sunday.

Brothers of Italy party is likely to emerge as the largest political camp and forge a right-wing coalition government with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

The prospect of a coalition with parties that have historically friendly ties to Russia is increasing fears that Rome could nudge closer to Moscow, at a time when Europe is doing all it can to end the invasion of Ukraine.

“This debate is a legitimate one,” Aldo Ferrari, the head of the Russia programme at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told Al Jazeera. “But the importance of [their ties with Moscow] is being blown out of proportion and used in the electoral campaign as a topic to brandish against the adversary.”

Meloni’s main opponent did not hesitate to sound the alarm.

Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, portrayed himself as a candidate fighting “for an Italy that will be in the heart of Europe”.

“On the international stage, those who would be happiest if Giorgia Meloni won would be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and, in Europe, Viktor Orban,” Letta said, referring to the former US president, Russian leader and Hungary’s nationalist, Moscow-friendly premier.

Meloni has sought to soothe concerns by condemning Russia’s “unacceptable large-scale act of war” and stressing Rome’s ties with the European Union and NATO.

“We will be guarantors, without ambiguity, of Italy’s positioning and of our uttermost support to the heroic battle of the Ukrainian people,” Meloni said at her party’s headquarters last month.

According to ISPI’s Ferrari, Meloni has “kept a clear stance on Ukraine” and concerns about Russia relations are inflated.

“I don’t see a shift on her positions as likely,” he said.

The symbol of Giorgia Meloni’s party includes a tricoloured flame borrowed from its neo-fascist ancestor [File: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

Disinformation campaign

Meanwhile, the election follows suggestions that foreign actors might have attempted to meddle in voting campaigns.

COPASIR, the parliamentary committee that oversees national intelligence agencies, raised the possibility of disinformation, cyberattacks and political and economic pressure emerging from Russia, saying Italy was at risk of becoming “the lock pick with which to break Europe’s Atlanticism.”

A report drafted by the committee warned of a “low-intensity war” being fought alongside the conflict in Ukraine.

“This is a hybrid warfare within the cyberspace that justifies adopting every measure to protect our digital system,” it said.

Fabio Giglietto, who heads the Mapping Italian News research programme at the University of Urbino, said while disinformation was not new, it bears fruit in electoral times.

“We are particularly concerned about strategies that are difficult to observe because they take place away from the political realm,” Giglietto told Al Jazeera.

Among them are Facebook groups that purport to be apolitical – such as religious groups – but that are used to reach malleable voters.

“If I attempt to reach people who are already politically engaged, it will be difficult for me to change their opinion. Whereas if I have a page dedicated to religion, people are more likely to be receptive and I can reach them when they are less prepared to defend themselves from external influence,” Giglietto said.

According to him, fake Facebook accounts are less of a problem than the spread of fake or misleading information.

While Brothers of Italy adopted a more conciliatory tone in its official campaign, the ideas circulated on social media by its supporters often match those of the “alt-right” nationalist movement such as a deep distrust of politicians, fears of a left-wing cultural hegemony, and the “war” on free speech.

“Regardless of how they present themselves, these calls point to their ideas being those of the extreme right rather than its moderate wing,” said Giglietto.

Murky past

While the Brothers of Italy has tried to blend into the cultural and political mainstream, critics point to the party’s origins, which trace back to the Italian Social Movement founded in the aftermath of World War II by supporters of executed leader Benito Mussolini, the founder of the National Fascist Party.

In a campaign video message, Meloni affirmed that Italy’s political right had “handed fascism over to history”.

Yet, the party is represented to this day by a neo-fascist symbol, a tricoloured flame, and counts some of Mussolini’s descendants as direct allies, including Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, a great-grandson of the leader, who was a Brothers of Italy candidate at the European Parliament in 2019.

Meloni’s allies have also come under the spotlight following allegations of illicit financing from the Kremlin.

Salvini has repeatedly denied wrongdoing after a recording was leaked in 2019 of one of his aides discussing a secret oil deal in Moscow.

Berlusconi, who is set to make a reappearance after a ban preventing him from holding public office was lifted, is known to be friends with Putin, the pair having stayed in each other’s holiday homes.

In the aftermath of Draghi’s demise in July, foreign minister Luigi Di Maio alleged the Russian leadership was at work to “destabilise Italy and Europe.”

Italian newspapers reported that Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia were in touch with the Russian embassy weeks before they withdrew support for Draghi’s government, a move which ultimately led to its collapse, prompting speculations that the Kremlin may be meddling in Italian politics. Both denied any wrongdoing.

Last week, a US intelligence report claiming Russia gave $300m to political parties in more than 12 countries jolted Italy’s election campaign and prompted right-wing leaders to swiftly deny receiving clandestine cash.

Adolfo Urso, a senior Brothers of Italy politician who also heads COPASIR told state broadcaster RAI that “at the moment” there was no indication Italy was among the recipients.

According to ISPI’s Ferrari, Draghi’s fall was “undoubtedly welcomed” by Russia.

But while right-wing parties in the past found an ally in Russia on positions including national sovereignty, the current political climate is remarkably different.

“The invasion of Ukraine has now rendered a shift towards Moscow untenable,” he said.

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‘Dilemma for the Russians’ after surrendering key Ukraine city | Russia-Ukraine war News

The recapture of Lyman city in the east – in territory recently annexed by Moscow – raises questions about how Russia can hold surrounding areas with supply routes severed.

Questions about Russia’s faltering military operation in Ukraine continue to be raised as Kyiv announced it was in full control of the key eastern city of Lyman after Moscow’s troops pulled back.

It is Kyiv’s most significant battlefield gain in weeks, providing a potential staging post for increased attacks to the east while heaping further pressure on the Kremlin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on Sunday that his forces had taken over Lyman after encircling it the day before.

“As of 12:30pm (09:30 GMT) Lyman is cleared fully. Thank you to our militaries, our warriors,” he said in a video address.

Russia’s military did not comment on Lyman on Sunday after announcing the previous day it was withdrawing its forces there to move to “more favourable positions”.

‘Sort of a dilemma’

The loss of Lyman is a significant blow to Russian forces, who have used the city for months as a crucial logistics and rail hub in the Donetsk region to move military equipment, troops, and other necessary supplies.

“Without those routes, it will be more difficult so it presents a sort of a dilemma for the Russians going forward,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

Lyman, which Ukraine recaptured by encircling Russian troops, is in the Donetsk region near the border with the Luhansk region. These are two of the four regions or oblasts that Russia annexed on Friday after people there voted in referendums, which Ukraine and the West called illegitimate.

The Institute for the Study of War, a United States-based think-tank, said the fall of Lyman suggested Russia was “deprioritizing defending Luhansk” to hold occupied territory in southern Ukraine. 

“Ukrainian and Russian sources consistently indicate that Russian forces continued to reinforce Russian positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, despite the recent collapse of the Kharkiv-Izyum front and even as the Russian positions around Lyman collapsed,” it said

‘Courage, bravery, skills’

In a daily intelligence briefing on Sunday, the United Kingdom’s military described the recapture of Lyman as a “significant political setback” for Moscow. Taking the city paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push farther into Russian-occupied territory.

Ukraine’s capture of a city within territory of President Vladimir Putin’s declared annexation demonstrates that Ukrainians are able to push back Russian forces, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday.

“We have seen that they have been able to take a new town, Lyman, and that demonstrates that the Ukrainians are making progress, are able to push back the Russian forces because of the courage, because of their bravery, their skills, but of course also because of the advanced weapons that the United States and other allies are providing,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with American broadcaster NBC.

Ukrainian forces have retaken swaths of territory, notably in the northeast around Kharkiv, in a counteroffensive in recent weeks that has embarrassed the Kremlin and prompted rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war.

A pomp-filled Kremlin annexation ceremony on Friday has failed to stem a wave of criticism within Russia of how its “special military operation” is being handled.

Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, on Saturday called for a change of strategy “right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”.

Other hawkish Russian figures criticised Russian generals and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on social media for overseeing the setbacks, but stopped short of attacking Putin.

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Voting ends in Bosnia election set to bring little change

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Polls have closed Sunday in Bosnia’s general election in which voters chose their new leaders from among the long-established cast of sectarian candidates and their challengers who pledged to eradicate, if elected, corruption and clientelism in government.

Moments after vote count begun, Bosnia’s international overseer, Christian Schmidt, announced in a YouTube video that he was amending the country’s electoral law “to ensure functionality and timely implementation of election results.” Schmid assured citizens in the video that the changes “will in no way affect” the votes cast on Sunday for different levels of government that are part of one of the world’s most complicated institutional set-ups.

Bosnia’s power-sharing system was agreed upon in a U.S.-sponsored peace deal that ended the brutal 1992-95 war between its three main ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – by dividing the country into two highly independent entities. The entities — one run by Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats – have broad autonomy but are linked by shared national institutions. All countrywide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.

The agreement also gave broad powers to the international high representative, the post currently held by Schmidt, including the ability to impose laws and to dismiss officials and civil servants who undermine the country’s fragile post-war ethnic balance.

The Sunday election included races for the three members of the shared Bosnian presidency; parliament deputies at the state, entity and regional levels; and the president of the country’s Serb-run part.

The traditional ruling class was challenged in the election by parties which, despite ideological differences and sometimes clashing agendas, shared the campaign promise to eradicate patronage networks and sanction acts of corruption in government.

Analysts predicted the long-entrenched nationalists who have enriched cronies and ignored the needs of the people were likely to remain dominant after the election despite deeply disappointing their constituents, largely because the sectarian post-war system of governance leaves pragmatic, reform-minded Bosnians with little incentive to vote.

However, contenders vying to replace the nationalists on the country’s tripartite presidency and in the post of the president of its Serb-run part insisted the preliminary results indicated they were wining the vote.

Election turnout on Sunday was 50% or over 2 percentage points down from the 2018 general election.

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Burkina Faso coup: Ousted military leader Damiba ‘resigns’ | Military News

Burkina Faso’s overthrown military chief agreed to step down two days after army officers announced his deposition in the country’s second coup in a year.

Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba “offered his resignation in order to avoid confrontations with serious human and material consequences”, according to a statement on Sunday by mediators.

Influential religious and community leaders held mediation talks between Damiba and the new self-proclaimed leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore, to resolve the crisis.

“President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba proposed his own resignation in order to avoid clashes,” said Hamidou Yameogo, a spokesman for the mediation efforts.

Damiba set “seven conditions” for stepping down. They included a guarantee of security for his allies in the military, “a guarantee of his security and rights”, and assurance that those taking power will respect the pledge he gave to West Africa’s regional bloc for a return to civilian rule within two years.

Traore officially was named head of state after he accepted the conditions given by Damiba, calling on “the population to exercise calm, restraint and prayer”.

A statement issued on Sunday by the pro-Traore military said he would remain in charge “until the swearing-in of the president of Burkina Faso designated by the nation’s active forces” at an unspecified date.

The second change of leadership in a year started on Friday when military officers announced the deposition of Damiba, the dissolution of the transitional government and the suspension of the constitution.

Waving Russian flags

Damiba, who led a coup in January, said on Saturday that he had no intention of giving up power and urged the officers to “come to their senses”.

Tensions have been high in the country since Friday, with clashes occurring between protesters and security forces.

Late Saturday, angry protesters attacked the French embassy in Ouagadougou as they believed Damiba was planning a counteroffensive from a “French base” – allegations he and France denied. Burkina Faso is a former colony of France.

The French foreign ministry condemned “the violence against our embassy in the strongest terms” by “hostile demonstrators manipulated by a disinformation campaign against us”.

In a statement broadcast on state television, new military spokesman Captain Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho called on people to “desist from any act of violence and vandalism” especially those against the French embassy or the French military base.

To some in Burkina Faso’s military, Damiba also was seen as too cozy with former colonizer France, which maintains a military presence in Africa’s Sahel region to help countries fight various armed groups.

Some who support the new coup leader Traore have called on Burkina Faso’s government to seek Russian support instead. Outside the state broadcaster on Sunday, supporters of Traore were seen cheering and waving Russian flags.

‘Deeply rooted crisis’

Traore promised to overhaul the military so it is better prepared to fight “extremists”. He accused Damiba of following the same failed strategies as former President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, whom Damiba overthrew in a January coup.

“Far from liberating the occupied territories, the once-peaceful areas have come under terrorist control,” the new military leadership said, adding Damiba failed as more than 40 percent of the country remained outside government control.

The landlocked state of Burkina Faso has been struggling to contain rebel groups, including some associated with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

Since 2015, the country has become the epicentre of the violence across the Sahel region, where thousands of people have been killed and about two million displaced.

With much of the Sahel battling growing unrest, the violence has prompted a series of coups in Mali, Guinea and Chad since 2020.

Conflict analysts say Damiba was probably too optimistic about what he could achieve in the short term, but a change at the top did not mean the country’s security situation would improve.

“The problems are too profound and the crisis is deeply rooted,” said Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Armed groups “will most likely continue to exploit” the country’s political disarray, he said.

 

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