Commuting To Moscow: Lega Nord's Pilgrimage To Russia

  • Previous reporting by news outlets L’Espresso and Buzzfeed News has revealed that Gianluca Savoini, a close aide to Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, took part in negotiations for clandestine funneling of Russian funding to Italy’s Lega Nord party.
  • The negotiations — the contents of which came to light thanks to an audio recording obtained by Buzzfeed News — focused on ways to set up a series of sham oil export transactions that would allocate a “cut” of profits in the tens of millions of euros for the European Parliament elections campaign of Lega Nord, which is a pro-Moscow, far-right Italian party.
  • The meeting took place on October 18, 2018 at the Metropol hotel in Moscow and involved five other men — two Italians and three Russians. BuzzFeed News has previously released the entire transcript of the recording.
  • In the wake of these disclosures, Italian prosecutors have announced that they had been investigating the proposed oil deal since February 2019. According to reports in Italian media, Savoini, who is Salvini’s former spokesperson, is under investigation for international corruption along with two other Italian men — an international lawyer called Gianluca Meranda and Francesco Vannucci, a consultant and banking expert — who made a public statement acknowledging that they indeed attended the meeting at the Metropol Hotel with Savoini, but that a deal was never completed.

A new joint investigation by Bellingcat and BuzzFeed News together with our Russian investigative partner, The Insider, has established that Savoini made an extraordinary number of trips to Moscow in the last five years,  often flying in on one day and out the following day. He made at least 14 visits in 2018 alone, and a further three in the first three months of this year. On some of the trips, Savoini was accompanied by another Lega Nord functionary who is currently a paid advisor to the Italian government. Both Italians’ migration records appear to have been purged from Russian government databases.

Aeroflot’s Frequent Flyers Club

Savoini flew to Moscow on three separate occasions in the seven weeks running up to the 18 October meeting at the Metropol hotel at which the proposed covert oil deal was discussed, and made a further three trips to Russia in the weeks immediately following the meeting.

The data comes from analysis of his flight booking records, cross-referenced with his social media activity. It is not known who paid for the flights, whom Savoini met when he was in Moscow, or whether Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini was aware about the visits.

Savoini has worked with Salvini, the leader of Lega Nord and Europe’s most powerful far-right leader, for 20 years and has been described as his “sherpa to Moscow”.

Partial flight bookings data for Gianluca Savoini: 2018 and 2019 flights to Moscow and within Russia

The flight records, obtained by Bellingcat and the Insider via a non-indexed online database of airline booking data used by Russian corporate security departments, make it possible to piece together Savoini’s travels in detail. The data shows that he was booked on flights between Italy and Russia at least five times in 2015, nine times in 2016, and seven times in 2017. The frequency of his trips increased to at least 14 in 2018, and continued through March of this year, when he made three additional trips.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported in July that Savoini met in Rome with Aleksandr Dugin, Russia’s very high-profile neo-fascist ideologue and political analyst, on September 25 last year. The newspaper claimed that Savoini traveled to the Italian capital from Moscow the previous day. His flight records suggest that he was booked on Aeroflot flight SU2404, from Moscow to Rome, on September 24.

Savoini was also photographed in Moscow with Dugin the day before the Metropol meeting, on October 17, and in the audio recording of the meeting he can be heard telling the other Italians that “Aleksandr” had described Savoini as the “total connection” between the Italian and Russian sides. This assertion is indirectly corroborated by a briefing memorandum on the European extreme right, leaked during a 2015 hack of the mailbox of a close Dugin associate. The memorandum (English translation here) was authored by Dugin, and included a description of Savoini as the key Italian ideologue of the “New Right”. In the document, Dugin listed Savoini’s name amidst those of the French politician Cauprade, the Austrian Gudenus and the German Ochsenreiter, as the respective country’s ideological representatives of “the new extreme right ..which has a sympathy to Orthodoxy, supports Russia and Putin and consistently stands on anti-American and anti-Atlantic positions

Savoini joined Lega Nord leader Salvini on several of his journeys to Russia, including three trips in quick succession between October 2014 and February 2015, as well as trips in November 2016 and in March 2017 to sign a partnership agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, among others. Savoini and Salvini also travelled together — in breach of Ukrainian law — to annexed Crimea in 2014 and 2016.

The Other Frequent Traveler

Salvini and Savoini were joined on at least one of the trips to Crimea by a man called Claudio D’Amico. Flight booking records show that D’Amico was booked on flights to Russia at least twice since joining Salvini’s team last August, including 16-18 October, and twice more so far this year. No information links D’Amico to the Metropol meeting, although he did travel on the same flight with Savoini both to and from Moscow during that October trip.

There is no guarantee that Savoini and D’Amico boarded all the flights they were booked on, but their abundant social media activity places them in Russia, often together, on many of those dates. There is also the possibility that there may be brief gaps in the data-set, as over the analyzed period of time the two men used different passports. It is also not known who made the bookings and paid for the tickets.

Purged Data

Bellingcat and its investigative partners have established that both Gianluca Savoini’s and Claudio D’Amico’s dozens of travel entries over the course of the past five years do not appear in Russia’s Central Database for the Registration of Foreigners, popularly referred to as the “Migrant” database. This database is maintained by the Russian Ministry of Interior on the basis of mandatory landing (immigration) cards which must be filled in by any non-citizens arriving into the country. In accordance with Russian law, any visiting foreigner must be registered into the central database, along with their comprehensive travel data, such as inviting party, visa details, passport data and photograph, as well as port and time of entry and exit.

The absence of such data for Savoini and D’Amico implies that they either consistently received special treatment upon arrival — such as being met by government or secret-service officials and “back-channeled” without going through regular immigration formalities — or that the information relating to his trips was has been subsequently wiped from the database.

Orion Limited

In 2016, Savoini and D’Amico co-founded a consulting company in Russia, called Orion, as company registration data shows. D’Amico is also the company’s director, which is seemingly at odds with a filing of external interests with the local council where he works in Italy. In that document, D’Amico stated to have been the firm’s director since 2018.

Corporate registry for Orion Ltd, a Russian company incorporated in 2016 with D’Amico as managing director, and D’Amico and Savoini as shareholders

D’Amico joined Salvini’s team as a strategic advisor on international affairs in August of last year, a document dated January 30, 2019 shows. The €65,000 a year appointment was activated via a decree signed by the deputy minister. It is not known if the trips D’Amico made to Russia following that appointment were in official capacity, and if so what their purpose was.

Another Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, revealed last month that on the evening before the Metropol meeting, October 17, Salvini had dinner at a Moscow restaurant called Ruski with Savoini and D’Amico, as well as three other members of his staff and the chiefs of Confindustria Russia, an industry group that hosted an event the Lega Nord leader spoke at earlier that day. Salvini, who did not attend the Metropol meeting, flew back to Italy on the October 18.

Both Savoini and D’Amico also sat in on Salvini’s official meetings with the Russian interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, last July — before D’Amico had officially joined Salvini’s staff.

Salvini, Savoini and D'Amico at a meeting with Russia's Interior Minister, photo courtesy of Salvini's Twitte feed

Salvini, Savoini and D’Amico at a meeting with Russia’s Interior Minister, photo courtesy of Salvini’s Twitter feed

Salvini, who is also Italy’s interior minister, long denied that Savoini was a member of his official delegation to Moscow that July. But these denials were directly contradicted by Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte during a parliamentary debate about the Metropol meeting last month. The prime minister told MPs that Savoini was on Salvini’s official delegation to the Russian capital. Salvini’s transparency filing for last July doesn’t disclose any trips, costs or external participants on his delegation.

Salvini has so far refused to address parliament and respond to MPs’ and reporters’ questions about what he knows of the Metropol negotiation. He has consistently and vehemently denied ever taking any funding from Russian sources.

Both Savoini and D’Amico declined to comment for this joint investigation.