The visit to Russia of the Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni to Russia and his talks in Sochi with President Vladimir Putin proved to be very fruitful in further development of economic cooperation in various fields despite sanctions, Italian experts of the Valdai Discussion Club Vincent Della Sala and Antonio De Robertis believe.
Vincent della Sala, Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Jean Monnet Centre at the University of Trento, said in interview with www.valdaiclub.com, that the main attention during Italian-Russian talks was paid to economic cooperation. "Russia and Russian firms remain important energy partners for Italy and it is likely that this cooperation will continue in the near to medium term. However, as an energy dependent state and economy, it is in Italy’s interest to diversify its energy provision and supply so that it will, with EU partners, pursue a number of policies aimed at reducing energy dependency in general", the expert said. "This will necessarily have consequences for relations with Russia but this is the result of a changing global energy picture rather than policy decisions aimed specifically at Russia".
Italian energy firms will likely continue to seek out opportunities in Russia and with Russian partners elsewhere.
Antonio de Robertis, Professor at the University of Bari, reminded in interview with www.valdaiclub.com that ENI, which supplies gas to Italy, actively interacts with Russian partners. An important agreement was signed in Sochi with Rosneft. "Italy is interested in a new channel for the supply of Russian oil and gas to Southern Europe, like the North Stream between Russia and Germany, which would be very effective in the future. The only problem is the position of some Western countries that follow an anti-Russian policy and are not interested in implementing this project ", the expert said.
According to Vincent della Sala, Italy has paid a high price for the sanctions placed on Russia, especially as the Italian economy has had a prolonged period of little or no growth. The Italian economy has performed so poorly that Italy is constantly looking to Brussels and its EU partners for greater flexibility in interpreting EU fiscal policy. "It would have been politically costly for Italy in Europe to put its economic relations with Russia as a priority while asking for help on fiscal policy or even on immigration. Italy has had a close relationship with Russia on many fronts and it hopes that these will continue. "It has quietly tried to make the case for loosening the sanctions and is one of the states that would support it wholeheartedly but its weak economic position weakens its voice in the EU. It would have to form a very strong coalition, probably having to convince France to put pressure on Germany".
Antonio de Robertis recalled that in Italy there are many small entrepreneurs who exported their agricultural products to Russia - fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc. They are unhappy with the policy of sanctions, which prevents access to the Russian market. "Throughout history, since the creation of NATO in 1949, Italian leaders have avoided pursuing a hostile policy towards the Soviet Union and Russia." Coming to Russia, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and before him President Sergio Mattarella, were driven by best feelings." It is not excluded that Gentiloni discussed with Putin in Sochi the options for an invitation to the upcoming G7 summit in Italy, the expert said.
As to international problems, according to Italian experts, the main focus of the negotiations between Paolo Gentiloni and Vladimir Putin was the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Libya.
According to Vincent della Sala, the complete breakdown of political order in Libya would cause a great number of security questions for Italy. "Italy was not an enthusiastic supporter of the intervention in Libya in 2011 and its position at the time was probably closer to Russia’s than to its European partners, especially the UK and France. The Italian government felt that regime change without a clear alternative was highly dangerous", the expert said. "The Italian position remains to support the GNA and it would probably want some indication from Russia that it was looking to create stability in Libya and not necessarily backing one faction or the other as part of a wider regional strategy.
Italy, like the rest of Europe, might be slowly coming to accept that perhaps stability in the region needs to be established before it can pursue its values-based foreign policy, the Italian expert said.
Antonio de Robertis in turn noted that the Italians pay close attention to the situation of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. "I recently spoke with the bishops who serve in the Middle East. They are outraged by the policy the West conducted in Syria and Iraq some time ago. It seems to me that Russia is the only country that is really concerned about the situation of Christians in the Middle East and which is undertaking effective measures to protect them," the expert said.
According to Vincent della Sala, the visit was well-received in Italy. "The general sense in Italy is that we need to find a way to work with Russia, not just on energy questions but on security, regional tensions and how to manage a changing international order. Italy cannot come out and be a strong advocate for Russia in the EU but it will not be one of the hawks. Italy will probably continue to make a quiet case for a dialogue with Russia but it is likely that any major developments will have to wait for the German elections to be over," the expert concluded.