Italy's Salvini denies receiving Russian oil money
Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini denied Wednesday receiving any money for his party from Russian investors, following allegations that one of his close aides had held secret meetings in Moscow to that end.
"I have sued in the past, I will do it again today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," Salvini said in a statement following the release by news website BuzzFeed of what it said was a transcript of covert talks in Russia.
"Never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a litre of vodka in financing from Russia," said Salvini, head of the powerful far-right League party.
BuzzFeed identified the aide as Gianluca Savoini and said the October 18 meeting -- just over six months before the European elections -- was the latest evidence of collusion between Moscow and far-right European populist movements.
According to the transcript, the talks at a hotel in Moscow centred on a possible deal involving a Russian oil company selling around three million metric tons of fuel to Italian oil giant Eni over a year, with a value of around $1.5 billion.
The six men present -- Savoini and two other Italians, plus three unidentified Russians -- discussed funnelling money from the deal into the League's coffers, BuzzFeed said.
"Their nominal purpose was an oil deal; their real goal was to undermine liberal democracies and shape a new, nationalist Europe aligned with Moscow," it said.
The news site said it was "unclear whether the agreement negotiated at the Metropol hotel was ever executed, or if (Salvini's) Lega received any funding".
Savoini told AGI news agency "the League never took a cent from Russia.
"Only one thing counts: the truth. The rest is just talk," he said.
Opposition parties in Italy called immediately for an investigation.
Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.
Vladimir Putin praised Salvini for having a "welcoming attitude" to Russia, ahead of a visit to Italy last week.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Putin said his United Russia party was working closely with Salvini's anti-immigration, nationalist League party.
"The League and its leader Salvini actively support the restoration of full cooperation between Italy and Russia. They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU," Putin said.
The US and EU imposed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.