Italian far-right politicians and Veneto businessmen have agreed to sponsor trips to occupied Crimea organized by a Russian influence group, effectively recognizing Moscow’s occupation of the Ukrainian region as legal.
A delegation of Italian politicians and businessmen led by regional MP Stefano Valdegamberi, nicknamed “Vladegamberi” for his active pro-Russian views, was greeted generously in Crimea, visited local wineries, and stayed at the five-star spa resort “Mriya.”
Local media reported on the Italians’ trip to the occupied territory at the time, but a leak of emails gave OCCRP and its partners Eesti Ekspress and IrpiMedia new information about how Italian politicians and businessmen hoped to make money by doing business with Moscow’s allies in Crimea.
First, the trip seems to have been paid for by the large Russian construction company Granel, which was started by Andrey Nazarov, a well-known Crimean supporter with ties to the Kremlin, and an organized propaganda group led by Sargis Mirzakhanyan, a deputy in the Russian Duma. The trip was just one part of a large-scale influence operation led by Moscow that was aimed at a number of European countries. The goal was to make the annexation of Crimea legal and get sanctions against Russia lifted.
Mirzakhanian’s group, which called itself the “International Current Policy Agency,” organized payments to many European politicians for friendly speeches and pro-Russian proposals, including some high-ranking Italians.
As a result of the group’s work, the regional councils of Veneto, Lombardy, and Liguria in Italy have all passed resolutions calling for an end to sanctions against Russia for invading Crimea.
Mirzakhanyan and other top people at the International Current Policy Agency did not respond to requests for comments. Stelzl told reporters that he has fully supported Russia “for decades… and now even more than ever,” but did not answer specific questions. Klebanovich and Nazarov did not respond to requests for comment.
The northeastern region of Veneto, which is one of Italy’s wealthiest, was the key to Russia’s plan to gain power in Europe. Stefano Valdegamberi, an MP from Veneto, sent an email to Russian media on May 16—five months before the Italian dignitaries went to Crimea—inviting them to attend a meeting of the Veneto Council and talk to local advisers.
Happening? Valdegamberi brought up a new resolution against European Union sanctions against Russia, and the council was about to vote in favor of it. Valdegamberi wanted Crimea to be recognized and EU sanctions against Russia to be lifted. In a press release, he talked about the supposed economic effects of the sanctions that were put in place after Crimea was taken over in 2014.
“In just a year and a half, Veneto… has lost more than 600 million euros in exports to the Russian Federation,” he wrote, adding that the “total damage [since 2014] now exceeds one billion.”
He didn’t say that Mirzakhanyan’s group helped him write the pro-Russian resolution he put forward. In an investigation released, the OCCRP described how the group lobbied lawmakers across Europe to pass similar resolutions and apparently arranged for payments to politicians. (While the emails detail the payment plans, they do not contain banking information that could confirm that the payments were made.)
The pro-Russian resolution was adopted by the Veneto Council, which Russian media touted as the first region in the EU to legitimize the annexation.
On October 3, 2016, when they were seriously preparing for the trip, Stelzl sent Klebanovich an email with two letters attached from the Venice branch of the Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture (Unioncamere) to Sergey Katyrin, President of the Russian Federation.
Unioncamere-Veneto President Giuseppe Fedalto asked Katyrin to sign a cooperation agreement between the Russian and Veneto chambers of commerce, facilitating a “direct channel” between Italian companies in Russia and Russian companies in Veneto.
His region, according to Fedalto, “works hard to lift EU sanctions against Russia.”
Trade union secretary Gian Angelo Bellati wrote his letter, in which he stressed that “more than 800 Veneto companies are interested in cooperation with the Russian corporate world.”
“So far, there is only a Russian trading office in Milan,” Stelzl explained to Klebanovich. “They” (the Venetians) want one in Venice. According to him, part of the “political regional initiative” was that “Nazarov is helping to open a Russian trade office in Venice with a Crimean department as a result of a special regional friendship and cooperation.”
Bellati joined the junket in October 2016, although Fedalto was not there. While it remains unclear exactly what deals were made on the trip, Luciano Sandona, a regional adviser from Veneto who also joined the trip, sent Klebanovich an offer from the Nicolis of Valpolicella winery to develop the wine together with Crimean producers. In the proposal, it was said that the Italian company could even buy shares in Massandra, which is Crimea’s biggest wine producer.
At that time, the head of the Cantina di Soave winery in Veneto, Attilio Carlesso, also wanted to work with Crimean wineries.
“The Italians are ready,” Stelzl said in one of the emails, “to sell the joint production of Crimean wine” and “support the promotion of their Italian wines throughout Russia.”
But sanctions on occupied Crimea stopped the alleged collaboration. In April 2017, wines from Massandra that were on their way to a wine fair in Verona were taken by Italian authorities because Massandra was under sanctions.
Construction was a more fruitful area of cooperation. At the time of the visit, work was underway on an elaborate Italian-style residential complex called “Italian Village.” The CEO of Scandiuzzi, an important Italian steel company, was also part of the Italian group.
“Helicopter flight to the “Italian village” for Fulvio Scandiuzzi,” one of the drafts of the four-day visit program read.
Scandiuzzi has distanced itself from the project, but Russian media say that Valdegamberi keeps insisting that the development needs help from Italy. The articles say Waldegamberi met with developer KSK and five unnamed Italian investors during the 2017 Yalta Forum and that the businessmen signed an agreement to invest in the project, which aims to recreate the architecture of cities like Milan, Palermo, and Florence on the western coast of Crimea.
Waldegamberi did not go home empty-handed. According to Ukrainian media, he got an apartment in the Italian village, where he poses with a certificate of ownership.
Klebanovich worked hard to ensure that the Crimea tour was taken seriously. Shortly after the Italians flew home, she sent a letter to members of Mirzakhanyan’s group, explaining the importance of economic ties with Crimea to their “Italian colleagues.”
According to her, it was important for Lega Nord to “restore” “the jobs of those companies that served the Russian market over the past decade.”
Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2017, Scandiuzzi prepared a document addressed to the CEO of the Russian Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, thanks to the introduction of the Mirzakhanyan group.
The emails also include a draft agreement for Scandiuzzi to sell its products in Russia and Iran through an unnamed reseller who will be paid a commission. Such an agreement could lead to the circumvention of EU sanctions against Iran.
Fulvio Scandiuzzi told IrpiMedia that none of the deals discussed in Crimea came to fruition, including a draft contract for the sale of materials in Iran.
“It was a promotional trip, but, unfortunately, for my company, we did not get any benefit, despite the efforts of the organizers,” he said. He also said that the Crimeans probably got more out of going to the Italian Village than the Italian companies that were there.
None of the other Italian politicians or businessmen in the Crimean delegation responded to requests for comments.