Rasputin and Little Red Riding Hood
Claims that the Five Star Movement is some kind of leftwing formation have been well and truly exposed, writes Toby Abse
The last few weeks of 2016 and the start of 2017 have seen an increasingly overt turn to the right by Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement).
As has always been the case in such an authoritarian and hierarchical organisation, Beppe Grillo has set the tone for his followers with his pronouncements on his blog. In the wake of the Berlin Christmas market massacre and the subsequent shooting of Anis Amri, the Tunisian jihadist responsible, in the Milanese suburb of Sesto San Giovanni, Grillo called for the forcible repatriation of all “irregular immigrants from tomorrow morning”, and the periodic suspension of the Schengen regulations on open borders and free movement within the European Union in the event of any future jihadist attacks anywhere within the EU. This clearly racist equation of immigration and terrorism was a very deliberate attempt on Grillo’s part to take the lead in not only endorsing, but actually inflaming, popular xenophobia1 before Matteo Salvini and the Lega Nord, which normally make the running in xenophobic responses to such issues, had a chance to do so.
The subsequent announcement of a clampdown on “irregular” immigrants with no claim to asylum by Marco Minniti, the new minister of the interior, was very obviously a bid by the Partito Democratico (PD)-led coalition of the recently appointed prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, to avoid being outflanked by the racist, populist parties in the months leading up to a general election.2 Although Minitti initially emphasised a revival of the centri di identificazione e espulsioni (centres for identification and expulsion - CIE), most of which are now closed, within a few days the ministry was emphasising there would be only around 100 detainees in each CIE, that they would only include “dangerous irregular migrants”, rather than all. This is clearly far too moderate a plan for M5S.
January has also seen an escalation in Grillo’s attacks on the traditional mass media (specifically newspapers and television). Grillo’s blog has called for “people’s tribunals” to adjudicate on the alleged lies of the media. Whilst there are obviously periodic instances of both distortion and censorship in the Italian mainstream media, Grillo’s increasing tendency to brand any criticism of M5S as a lie does not bode well for freedom of speech under an M5S government; needless to say, parallels with Mussolini, Stalin and, more immediately, the current Turkish government of Erdogan have been drawn by print journalists.
Grillo’s outburst is clearly in large measure a reaction against investigative journalism about Virginia Raggi’s M5S administration in Rome - a matter to which I will return later in this article. However, it could also be seen as a response to attacks on the alleged prevalence of “fake news” on the web by leading establishment figures within the EU, including Giovanni Pitruzzella, the head of Italy’s Antitrust (roughly Monopolies Commission), writing in the Financial Times.3 Although the potential dangers of judicial control of the web at either national of EU level are quite genuine, Grillo’s response to it is not a rational one, let alone a principled libertarian position of the kind he might once have held before his alliance with the Casaleggio family, with their large digital empire.
Moreover, the notion that Grillo could be relied upon as a judge of “fake news” is ludicrous, given his endorsement of all sorts of bizarre opinions on medical and scientific questions. For years, Grillo denied the very existence of Aids (which, had he held political power, could have done enormous damage, as the notorious example of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa should remind us). Moreover, he has opposed vaccination against diphtheria, polio and hepatitis, and, in the past at least, supported the quackery of the notorious Di Bella method, by which fraudsters extracted huge sums from the families of the terminally ill. One of the regular stocks-in-trade of his stand-up performances used to be relentless attacks on Italy’s most famous cancer specialist, whom he accused of being in the pay of tobacco and automobile companies. There does seem to be firm evidence that some poisonously fictitious anti-immigrant stories circulating on M5S websites originated from the Austrian and Italian far right, via the Russian website Sputnik - in particular the claim that the US state department was financing the human trafficking of migrants to Italy.
Code of conduct
The third major pronouncement of Grillo’s at the start of the new year concerned a new code of conduct for M5S members and elected officials. The key point was that an M5S elected official receiving an avviso di garanzia (police statement of investigation) would not necessarily have to resign from his or her office. The “guarantor” (Beppe Grillo’s official title, since M5S claims to have no leaders), in conjunction with the Probiviri (a sort of appeals committee directly appointed by Grillo), would have complete discretion in the matter, depending on the precise circumstances of the case.
This very sudden shift in the M5S line on avvisi di garanzia was, of course, widely mocked by political opponents, given M5S’s previous propensity to demand the immediate resignation of any elected official from the PD or the parties of the centre-right who had received one - usually accompanied by strident allegations of criminality on Grillo’s blog, widely shared on the internet. The new code of conduct has been very widely labelled the ‘Salva-Raggi’ by analogy with Silvio Berlusconi’s notorious ‘Salva-Previti’, the law that the ex-premier devised to keep his former defence minister out of prison. Given that Virginia Raggi, the M5S mayor of Rome, started her legal career in Previti’s firm, the somewhat politically incorrect label of ‘Salva-Previtigirl’4 given to the code by a Repubblica cartoonist seems justified satire.
It is increasingly likely that Raggi will receive an avviso di garanzia within the next few weeks. The first six months of the M5S administration of Rome under her leadership have been an unmitigated disaster. The city’s rubbish crisis remains unresolved, even if the clearly unsuitable assessore (municipal cabinet member) Paola Muraro - the subject of a criminal investigation directly related to the treatment of rubbish even before Raggi appointed her in June - finally resigned in early December, when her long-expected avviso di garanzi arrived. Nothing has been done to improve the city’s inefficient public transport system - indeed this continues to decay, whilst reliance on the motor car has grown, despite frequent traffic jams, with the inevitable consequence of ever-increasing levels of air pollution. Significantly, some of the pedestrianisation begun by the last PD mayor, Ignazio Marino, has actually been reversed.
Nor is it just M5S’s much trumpeted claim to be dedicated environmentalists, embedded in their founding programme, that has proved a dead letter. All Raggi’s demagogic promises about balancing the heavily indebted city’s books have proved equally empty, with the chief municipal accountant, Stefano Fermante, resigning in total despair in September, because of the impossibility of obtaining any accurate and transparent accounts from the new administration. Fermante’s resignation was probably inevitable in the wake of the earlier resignation of Marcello Minenna, the assessore in charge of the budget, whose sincere attempt to carry out his role in a competent and honest fashion became impossible in the wake of obstruction from the clique surrounding Raggi - the so-called Raggio Magico.
By late December, the official auditors refused to approve the budget on technical grounds. Inevitably, M5S tried to allege political bias, but it is worth pointing out that the auditors praised its overall ‘prudence’ - in other words, it involved further cuts to municipal services. As the communist daily Il Manifesto pointed out, the M5S draft budget did not reject the austerity policies of the central government - in British terms, it was certainly not a ‘needs budget’ or a ‘no-cuts budget’. The miserable and badly-lit municipal Christmas tree - which gave rise to unfavourable international press comment - symbolised Raggi’s contempt for the Roman masses at a time when the extraordinarily inflated salaries paid to her close associates not only contradicted M5S’s demagogic tirades against ‘the cost of politics’, but in some instances even drew an unfavourable verdict from ANAC, the national anti-corruption authority.
M5S’s total failure to administer Italy’s capital city should serve as a warning of the possible consequences of the demagogic gang of populists without much political experience gaining national office. Italy was lucky to escape the direct intervention of the troika in 2011, appalling as the neoliberal technocratic government of Mario Monti was - a country in the hands of M5S might not be so lucky.
However, the Roman fiasco is not simply a matter of incompetence and inexperience, of honest naivety on the part of political newcomers, as their apologists keep suggesting in Il FattoQuotidiano. Whatever criticisms one might make of other M5S mayors, like Filippo Nogarin in Livorno or Chiara Appendino in Turin, they do not have the shady background of Virginia Raggi, whose incomplete and carefully edited CV gave rise to controversy even during the Roman municipal election campaign. Those who claim that Raggi was too trusting in her choice of associates, and that the arrest on December 16 of Raffaele Marra, her right-hand man, initially promoted to deputy chief executive of the council and more recently appointed head of personnel, came as a bolt out of the blue, are deluded partisans at best, and thoroughly dishonest propagandists at worst.
The argument put forward by Travaglio and his colleagues on Il Fatto that the precise corruption offences for which the magistrates felt Marra needed to be held on remand had occurred prior to Raggi’s triumph in 2014, and would be therefore have been unknown to her, is unconvincing. Marra’s association with the leading Roman construction magnate, Sergio Scarpellini - initially arrested and imprisoned along with Marra, but now only under house arrest - continued over a substantial period of time. The massive discount given to Marra by Scarpellini on one property can no longer be the subject of legal action because of the statute of limitations, so the magistrates could only investigate the more recent matter of substantial cheques paid to Marra by Scarpellini to assist his purchase of another property.
What Raggi and her Raggio Magico (Marra, Daniele Frongia, Salvatore Romeo and Paola Muraro) represent is worse than merely the M5S falling into commonplace Italian political corruption and clientelism. The Raggio Magico’s collective actions represent a well-organised, systematic attempt to restore the power of the very sinister group associated with Gianno Alemanno, the hard-line, neo-fascist mayor of Rome, whose electoral triumph in 2008 was celebrated by dozens of ecstatic thugs openly giving the fascist salute in the very centre of the capital, and who subsequently doled out scores of municipal posts to neo-fascists with a violent and often terrorist past. Whilst Marra - also a close associate of Renata Polverini, the disgraced neo-fascist president of the Lazio region - was clearly the dominant figure in the Raggio Magico, Raggi is no innocent. Former PD mayor Ignazio Marino had done his best to undermine the hold of Alemanno’s clients over the mayoral machine. For example, Marino installed honest and efficient characters at the head of the municipal police and the municipal rubbish company, both of whom were driven out of their posts within a few weeks of Raggi’s inauguration.
Raggi’s links with Marra were established during her days as an opposition councillor during the Marino administration. Daniele Frongia, the M5S deputy mayor until Mid-December 2016, when Grillo demanded his removal in the wake of Marra’s arrest, seems to have been the link man between Marra and Raggi. It has been alleged that a book written by Frongia, prior to Raggi’s election as mayor, attacking alleged malfeasance by the PD administration, was entirely reliant on Marra’s systematic leaking of confidential municipal documents. Marra was moved away from roles connected with housing and planning by Marino (who was doubtless aware of Marra’s dubious links with leading builders), and clearly saw M5S as offering him a way back to power within the city hall.
And power he certainly had. Not for nothing was Marra nicknamed ‘Rasputin’ by conscientious members of the municipal staff, and even those M5S assessori trying to do their jobs in an honest fashion. Marra’s nominal superior, Carla Raineri, the former council chief executive, found it impossible to discuss any matter of importance with Raggi face to face without Marra being present. Raineri was eventually dismissed by Raggi via Facebook in the middle of the night - a dismissal which led to her friend and colleague, Minenna, the assessore in charge of the budget, resigning on September 1.
The resignation of the chief municipal accountant has already been mentioned, and it is worth noting that the chief municipal legal officer also resigned when his advice casting doubt on the legitimacy of well-paid appointments by Raggi was ignored. Marra and Raggi have both denied that the appointment of Raffaele Marra’s brother, Renato, as the head of the Roman tourist office at the time when Raffaele was head of personnel involved any conflict of interest.
Raggi claims to have rigorously scrutinised hundreds of CVs (on dates when she was on an official visit to Poland) and had not involved ‘Rasputin’ in the process in any way. This seems about as credible as the claim that her lunchtime meetings with Salvatore Romeo - until late December the head of her secretariat - took place on the roof of the city hall because she enjoyed looking at the magnificent view when eating her sandwiches.5 Although only one of these meetings was photographed - to the extreme embarrassment of the duo - Romeo, probably resentful of Grillo’s purge and his own considerable drop in salary, now claims there were “at least 15” and that “from the second day” of the M5S administration he and Raggi were aware that the city hall offices were being bugged (which Raggi denies). Regardless of whether they were - a story that seems to have originated with Marra - they certainly behaved like conspirators, making a total mockery of M5S rhetoric about complete transparency.
Probably the best description of Raggi comes from Annalisa Taverna, the sister of M5S senator Paola Taverna, who is a consistent opponent of Raggi and Marra. Annalisa’s post on social media addressing the mayor read: ‘You seem to be Little Red Riding Hood, lost among the evil wolves. However, when you chose your collaborators against everything and everybody, you played the part of the Wolf brilliantly.”6
1. Italy has been at the very top of European opinion poll surveys in terms of positive responses to statements like ‘There are too many immigrants in our country’, with the majority of those questioned agreeing. The surveys place Italy ahead not only of the UK, but even of France, where the Front National is stronger than at any time in the past. Despite governmental pleas to Italian local authorities to take reasonable numbers, the distribution of migrants within Italy has been made much more uneven by obstruction from rightwing mayors and, occasionally, by local pogroms - generally either sparked or supported by the Lega Nord and far-right groups like CasaPound and Forza Nuova.
2. A general election is due in February 2018 at the latest, and is more likely to be held later this year, once a new electoral law is agreed.
4. Virginia Raggi is now 38 and, even given the Italian tendency to describe women under 30 as ragazze (girls), could not be regarded as a ‘girl’.
5. Frongia’s claim that Raggi and Romeo had to meet there because Romeo is a heavy smoker is slightly more plausible.
6. La Repubblica January 3 2017.