Italy’s Rising Coalition Dealt Blow After Berlusconi Lauds Putin

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(Bloomberg) -- Giorgia Meloni, the right-wing leader poised to form a new Italian government, said she’d give up on the fledgling coalition if her allies can’t commit to supporting Ukraine along with Italy’s European Union and NATO partners.

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“I intend to lead a government with a clear and unambiguous foreign policy line. Italy is fully, and proudly, part of Europe and of NATO,” Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Anyone who does not agree with this cornerstone will not be able to be part of the government, even at the cost of not forming a government.”

Meloni’s remarks come after audio surfaced of coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the center-right Forza Italia party, saying he rekindled his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and laying the blame of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February after having built up a military presence on the country’s border. To justify the invasion, Putin accused Ukraine’s government of “genocide” against ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers in the Donbas, an unfounded allegation wholly rejected by Ukraine as well as the US and the European Union.

Coalition Tensions

Meloni’s coalition -- which includes her Brothers of Italy, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s League -- scored a decisive electoral victory Sept. 25 and she is poised to start forming a government as soon as Friday. Meloni’s readiness to ditch the chance of becoming Italy’s first female prime minister underscores the depth of the political quagmire her partner unleashed.

In the audio, which was published by the LaPresse newswire on Wednesday, Berlusconi, 86, can be heard saying that Putin did not want to go to war but was pushed to do so because of Ukraine’s continued attacks against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. In an earlier leak, Berlusconi had expressed concern about Italy’s aid to Ukraine and said Putin sent him vodka and a letter for his birthday.

Salvini, Meloni’s other coalition partner, is also a longtime Putin admirer, while the coalition’s pick for speaker of the lower house is a pro-Russia arch-conservative who publicly questioned the usefulness of sanctions on his first day on the job.

During the campaign ahead of last month’s election, Meloni went to great pains to distance the coalition from some of its pro-Russian sentiments. While the formation of a government is still the most likely scenario, it calls into question when one can be formed and how cohesive it will be.

Russian Ties

Meloni’s coalition’s ties to the Russian regime could still complicate the appointment of the new cabinet, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. While she consistently promised to continue support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the stances of her allies show just how difficult it could be for her to get cabinet approval for further weapon deliveries and continued economic support for Kyiv.

President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday kicks off meetings with parties which prelude to the nomination of a new prime minister. Meloni could be appointed as early as Friday afternoon, but if there is not enough clarity on foreign policy, Mattarella could ask for a second round of talks, Corriere della Sera reported.

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, he has ample powers in government transitions, including appointing the prime minister and accepting or rejecting potential ministers.

A key stumbling bloc could become Antonio Tajani, a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party who had been widely touted in the press as the next foreign minister. His nomination to such a key role could now be in doubt after his boss’s words on Putin.

Berlusconi for his part has been trying to do some damage control, saying in a statement that “no one should dare to doubt” his commitment to the EU and NATO. Yet, in an interview with Corriere della Sera Thursday, he said that the recordings were an attempt to “intimidate” him.

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