Italy's PM-to-be Giorgia Meloni issued a stark warning to Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday over his alleged friendship with Vladimir Putin.
The far-right leader said the former Italian prime minister risked losing influence in any new government, amid controversy sparked by a leaked recording in which Berlusconi says he has “rekindled” ties with the Russian President.
Berlusconi's team deny these allegations.
“Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government,” Meloni said in a statement late Wednesday, putting forward a strong pro-Nato, pro-European position.
The leaked audio was allegedly taken from a meeting in which Berlusconi -- recently elected Senator -- was talking to his party’s new parliamentarians.
“Russian ministers have said on several occasions that we are at war with them because we are providing arms and funding to Ukraine,” he reportedly said.
“I can’t personally give my opinion because if it is told to the press it will turn out to be a disaster, but I am very, very, very worried. I rekindled relations with President Putin, a little bit. I knew him as a peaceful and sensible person.”
The controversial ex-premier -- nicknamed ‘il Cavaliere’ (“the Knight”) -- currently leads the Forza Italia party, which is part of the Giorgia Meloni-led right-wing coalition that emerged victorious in the country’s snap general election on 25 September.
The audio file further suggests Putin - whose invasion of Ukraine and human rights record has made him a pariah among European leaders - gifted Berlusconi 20 bottles of vodka for his 86th birthday on 29 September along with a “very sweet letter”, to which the latter returned the favour by sending Lambrusco wine.
Berlusconi added that Putin deemed him “the first of his five true friends”.
Berlusconi’s team have denied the allegations. Nevertheless, the two leaders have engaged in a widely-publicised, decades-long friendship, with various exchanges of gifts.
On Putin’s 65th birthday in 2017, the Italian ex-PM sent the Russian President a duvet cover which depicts the two leaders shaking hands.
More recently, Berlusconi gave a televised interview -- days before the September election -- where he claimed Putin had been “pushed” into invading Ukraine, and wanted to replace President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with “decent people”.
The new recording, published by news agency La Presse on Monday, has rocked the right-wing bloc, which is currently in the process of forming a government.
The coalition has already been scrutinised for its bubbling tensions and rivalries, especially between Berlusconi himself and the leader, Meloni - whom he was recently caught calling “patronising, overbearing, arrogant and offensive”.
Moreover, other members of the rightist bloc, namely Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, have been criticised for their stances on Russia, including their former endorsement of Moscow.
Giorgia Meloni, who is set to become Italy’s new and first female prime minister, has taken a pro-NATO and strongly anti-Putin stance. Following the leaked recording, she has affirmed that Italy’s stance on Russia would not change.