ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday he had continued trust in the League party within his coalition government despite allegations it had sought illicit funds from Russia.
“There are no elements at this stage that could reduce the trust I have in all members of the government,” Conte told the upper house Senate, addressing a scandal that has shaken the League and its leader, Matteo Salvini.
Italian magistrates said earlier this month they had opened an investigation into possible international corruption following media reports that the League had sought millions of euros via a secret Russian oil deal.
Salvini, who serves as deputy prime minister and interior minister, has denied any wrongdoing and was not in the Senate as Conte spoke. The prime minister said he had not received any information about the case from his deputy.
Highlighting recent tensions within the government, almost all the senators from the League’s coalition ally, the 5-Star Movement, left their seats before Conte started speaking to protest against Salvini’s absence.
“Why aren’t we in the chamber? Because Salvini should be in there,” said Stefano Patuanelli, the 5-Star Senate leader. He added that its decision to desert their benches did not put the government’s future at risk.
Italian news magazine L’Espresso reported in February that Salvini’s former spokesman, Gianluca Savoini, had held talks in Moscow last October with Russian businessmen about a possible oil deal that would enable funds to be siphoned to the League.
Savoini denied the allegations at the time.
The U.S. website Buzzfeed this month posted an audio recording of the Moscow meeting where Savoini can be heard discussing a covert oil transaction.
Conte said Savoini had been part of an official delegation to Moscow organised by Salvini’s interior ministry in July and again in October 2018, undermining previous efforts by the League leader to distance himself from his former spokesman.
But the prime minister said Savoini, who is a fervent admirer of Russian President Vladmir Putin, held no official role in the Italian government. He added that the League did not dictate the coalition’s foreign policy.
Conte is a law professor with no political affiliation who was appointed head of the government last year to act as a mediator between the two ruling parties.
“My constant presence abroad and at international summits has made it possible to fine-tune an agreed line necessary for a coherent policy on the foreign front,” he said.
However, in a pointed comment, he urged his ministers to be very careful over who they associated with.
Showing his apparent indifference to the proceedings, Salvini put out a series of tweets during the debate on issues that had nothing to do with the scandal, dubbed by some newspapers “Russiagate”.
The opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) said it was calling for a parliamentary motion of no-confidence in Salvini, hoping to persuade some 5-Star dissidents to vote against him in the upper house, where the government has a wafer-thin majority.
Reporting by Angelo Amante and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Frances Kerry