Matteo Salvini leads the Northern League, Italy's most serious opposition force to government
His Facebook page has 530,000 Likes. In the European Parliament he has forged an hopeful alliance with Marine Le Pen. He and his fellow party members wore last September in Strasbourg the white T-shirt reading "No sanzioni alla Russia" that went viral. He has been twice to Moscow over the past three months; in October the Duma tributed him a standing ovation.
Meet Matteo Salvini, the rising star of Italian politics. Native of Milan, 41, married, one daughter, he became Lega Nord's party leader in December 2013.
Under his leadership the sometimes federalist, sometimes secessionist, Northern Italy based Lega Nord [Northern League] has recovered from an anemic 3% of the vote to a surprising 10% during the April 2014 European elections.
Recent polls suggest Salvini's Lega Nord might next hit 15%. This looks like a beginning.
Italian media now talk of I due Mattei ("the two Matthews") - one being Renzi, Italy's current PM; the other, Salvini, his main challenger and de facto leader of the opposition.
Behind Lega Nord renewed success is Salvini's ability to appeal to both Southern and Northern Italians, even those who had long judged politics not worth bothering with. Neither outcome would have been possible had Salvini failed to get his message across that Lega Nord is now Italy's only opposition to the status quo.
Observe the EU whose diktats few politicians dare to challenge, but which many people increasingly resent.
"We want to be a fighting Northern League. A League against the bankers' EU, against Brussels, against finance, against illegal immigration, against Islamic fundamentalism, and in defense of the traditional family".
This was Salvini outlining his program to the microphones of La Voce della Russia on December 2013. He had just been elected “segretario” of Lega Nord. His friendship with Russia thus dates back to the very beginning of his career as party leader. On the same occasion, he told Tatiana Santi of La Voce della Russia:
"Russia as a country is still little known in Italy but she is the future. Russia must be, for the Lega Nord as well as for North Italian economy an absolutely privileged interlocutor in the years ahead."
The similarity with Marine Le Pen's approach is striking. Salvini was readily candid about his. Already in March 2014 he was announcing a "common program with Le Pen in the European Parliament".
In October, he made his first trip to Moscow just days ahead of Milan's ASEM summit where he would shake hands with Putin. While in Moscow, Salvini spoke before the Duma, where he and his party delegates were met with a standing ovation.
On December 7th he was interviewed by Italy's eminent establishment journalist, Lucia Annunziata, when he frustrated her attempts at embarrassing him over his Russia-friendly approach, she had to resort to a personal attack - "your trip to Moscow amounted to a betrayal of Italy's national interest" - a desperate line. And quite a preposterous one, considering the effects US-imposed EU sanctions have had on Italian economy:
Lame Lucia insisted that Italy could have brought its case against sanctions to Brussels. Salvini replied: "We have tried for decades to get our voices heard in Brussels."
And when Annunziata trotted out the usual CIA suggestion that MH17 - whom she incredibly referred to as a “Dutch flight”! - was "hit by a Russian missile", Salvini reminded her of the silence fallen over the Malay flight, of the black boxes sent to London months ago, and whose contents have not been released. Annunziata changed topic.
On December 10th he returned to Moscow, his second visit, to celebrate there his first year as party leader, and tell Russian politicians and business people that there is another Italy, another Europe, that do not kneel to Washington EU puppets.
While in Moscow, Salvini spoke again to La Voce della Russia
"If the EU were there to foster European interests, it would have not even started to quarrel with Russia.
"The EU sanctions do not depend on what has happened on Ukraine. The sanctions are an economic, political, commercial and strategic choice dictated by somebody else. I believe only the pressure of national governments can make Brussels change its mind."
Asked about the popularity of the EU among Ukrainians, Salvini offered a straightforward explanation:
"This is the case because one trusts television too much, one trusts the propaganda, the information, just as we Italians did when we were told that the EU and the Euro would have been our life line.
"After 11 years the Euro has destroyed whole economies in Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal."
"For this reason I would advise the Ukrainians to be very careful before leaping in the dark; they should just look at the unemployment and poverty rate in the Euro-zone to realize that not all that glitters is gold."
But it is not just about sanctions. Salvini sees Russia as a key ally in the fight against Islamic Fundamentalism, as well as an ally in the fight to protect the traditional family.
Take Christian values, on the rise in Putin's Russia, but frowned upon in the West.
When the head teacher of a primary school in Bergamo banned traditional Christmas decorations such as the presepe - a nativity scene - on the ground that 30% of the local schoolchildren are not Christian, Salvini posted his indignation on Facebook. He asked his followers for 5,000 Likes. Within a few hours he got twice as many.
Encouraged by the quick and overwhelming response, Salvini rushed to the rescue and brought, himself, the local schoolchildren their much-beloved presepe. A later Facebook post showed him with the children before the nativity scene.
Ordinary Italians have been incensed every time politically correct zealots tried to do away with traditional religious symbols. Now the same Italians have found in Salvini their champion. Against political correctness; against uncontrolled immigration; against EU's orthodoxy, finance and confrontation policy with Russia.
All in the footsteps of Marine Le Pen.