ROME — The foreign policy agenda of Italy's new populist government caused a stir on two fronts Monday, with Tunisia protesting a comment by the interior minister about migrants and the pro-Russia stance of the ruling coalition receiving scrutiny.
The Tunisian Foreign Ministry expressed "great surprise" at Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's statement on Sunday that the north African country "isn't exporting gentlemen, it seems more often they're exporting convicts."
The ministry summoned Italy's ambassador Monday to discuss Salvini's remark, saying it demonstrated "lack of understanding" of Italy's cooperation agreements with Tunisia to prevent illegal immigration.
As the leader of the right-wing League, one of the two populist parties represented in the Italian Cabinet sworn in Friday, Salvini was known for xenophobic rhetoric. But his words carry more weight now that he is interior minister and deputy premier in the League-5-Star government.
Salvini made the comment during a local campaign stop in Sicily where he was stumping for the League in upcoming local elections. He prefaced it by noting that Tunisia was a free and democratic country that isn't experiencing "wars, epidemics, famines or pestilence."
After the Italian ambassador was summoned in Tunis, Salvini said he would be happy to discuss the issue soon with his Tunisian counterpart.
Tunisia has largely stemmed Italy-bound human smuggling operations, but the number of Tunisian migrants who have reached Italy so far this year, 2,889, are more than the number from any other country.
The international incident underscored the potential diplomatic difficulties created by Salvini's rise to power; on Sunday, the League's close ties to Russia also sparked controversy.
At an economic forum in Trento on Sunday, billionaire philanthropist George Soros publicly called for Italians to press the Salvini and the League to reveal if it received financing from Russia.
"I don't know if Putin is actually financially supporting him and his party," Soros said in response to a question from the audience. "This is a question that I think the Italian public has a right to ask, and ask him to tell you whether he's actually in the pay of Putin."
The League denounced Soros' comments, saying it "never received a lira, euro or ruble from Russia." But Salvini called President Vladimir Putin "one of the best statesmen."
The League-5-Star government which faces confidence votes in Parliament on Tuesday, when its positon on Russia could come up.
While confirming Italy's NATO commitments, the new government's policy agenda calls for lifting European Union sanctions against Russia as well as the opening of dialogue and partnerships, given Moscow's economic, commercial and strategic importance.
Russian officials have denied claims that Moscow supported, let alone financed, the League or any other pro-Russia parties. The Russian government repeatedly has said it never meddled in the domestic affairs of EU nations.
Salvini has made several high-profile trips to Russia, including a March 2017 visit to sign a cooperation agreement with ruling party United Russia.
Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a Russia expert and research fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, said there is no proof of Russian financing of the League. But she said Salvini's actions and frequent public praise of Putin "gives rise to suspicions."
The League's call for lifting sanctions is rooted in the economic fallout Italians have suffered — by some estimates as much as 4 billion euros — due to the EU sanctions and counter-measures imposed by Russia. Together, they have hurt Italian exports as well as the country's tourism industry.
Ambrosetti noted that it's one thing for Salvini to campaign on lifting Russian sanctions, or to even commit to principles in a government policy agenda, and quite another to put that policy into effect in Brussels.
"Italy can certainly become the leader of those countries inside the EU, like Bulgaria or Greece, which want the sanctions regime to end, but we can't do it alone," Ambrosetti said.
She pointed out that European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker recently called for the EU to find avenues where it can work with Russia, saying "this Russia-bashing has to be brought to an end."