Unions, Wine, and Steel
On October 3, 2016, as they were deep in preparations for the trip, Stelzl sent Klebanovich an email attaching two letters from the Veneto division of the Union of Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (Unioncamere) to Sergei Katyrin, president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow.
The president of Unioncamere Veneto, Giuseppe Fedalto, asked Katyrin to sign an agreement on collaboration between the Russian and Veneto chambers of commerce, fostering a “direct channel” between Italian companies in Russia and Russian companies in Veneto.
His region, Fedalto said, was “working hard to have Eu sanctions against Russia abolished.”
The secretary of the union, Gian Angelo Bellati, wrote his own letter emphasizing that “more than 800 Veneto companies are keen to collaborate with the Russian corporate world.”
“There is for now only a Russian trade office in Milan, Stelzl explained to Klebanovich. “They (the Venetians) want one in Venice.” Part of the “political regional initiative,” he said, was that “Nazarov helps to open a Russian trade office in Venice with a Crimean desk as a result of the special regional friendship and cooperation.”
Bellati joined the October 2016 junket, though Fedalto was not there. While it remains unclear precisely what deals were made on the trip, Luciano Sandonà, a regional councilor from Veneto who also joined the trip, sent Klebanovich a proposal from the winery Nicolis of Valpolicella to develop wine together with Crimean producers. The Italian company might even become a shareholder in Massandra, Crimea’s top wine producer, the proposal said.
Attilio Carlesso, then president of Veneto’s Cantina di Soave winery, was also eager to collaborate with Crimean wineries.
“The Italians are ready,” Stelzl said in one email, to market “a joint produced Crimean wine,” and wanted “support to market their Italian wines in all Russia.”
Massandra Winery in Yalta, Crimea.
Natalia Garmasheva/Alamy Stock Photo
But the envisioned collaboration struggled to get off the ground due to the sanctions on occupied Crimea: In April 2017 wines from Massandra en route to a Verona wine fair were seized by Italian authorities because Massandra was under sanction.
Construction was apparently a more fruitful area of cooperation. At the time of the visit, an elaborate Italian-themed residential development called the “Italian Village” was in the works. And among the Italian delegation was the CEO of Scandiuzzi, a large Italian steel company.
“A helicopter trip to the ‘Italian village’ site for Fulvio Scandiuzzi,” read one draft of the program for the four-day visit.
Valdegamberi holds a certificate for real estate in the “Venice block” of the Italian Village development in Crimea.
Scandiuzzi has distanced itself from the project, but Russian media reports said Valdegamberi continued to push for Italian backing for the development. The articles say Valdegamberi met with KSK, the developer, and five unnamed Italian investors during the 2017 Yalta forum, and that the businessmen signed an agreement to invest in the project, which aimed to evoke the architecture of cities like Milan, Palermo, and Florence on the west coast of Crimea.
Valdegamberi didn’t go home empty-handed: He received an apartment in the Italian Village, according to Ukrainian media reports, which showed him posing with a certificate of real estate ownership.
Klebanovich worked hard to have the Crimea tour taken seriously. Soon after the Italians had flown home she emailed members of Mirzakhanian’s group explaining the importance that economic ties with Crimea could have for their “Italian colleagues.”
For Lega Nord, she said, it was important to “restore” the “jobs of those companies that have been serving the Russian market for the last decade.”
Meanwhile, in early 2017 Scandiuzzi drafted a document addressed to the general director of Russia’s Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, thanks to an introduction made by Mirzakhanian’s group.
The emails also contain what appears to be a draft agreement for Scandiuzzi to sell its equipment in Russia and Iran via an unnamed intermediary who would be paid a commission. Such an arrangement would risk bypassing EU sanctions on Iran.
Fulvio Scandiuzzi told IrpiMedia that none of the deals discussed in Crimea were implemented, including the draft contract to sell materials in Iran.
“It was a promotional trip, but unfortunately for my company we did not obtain any benefit, despite the efforts of the organizers,” he said. The visit to the Italian Village was probably “more useful for the [Crimeans] to advertise their activities, than for the Italian companies that participated,” he added.
None of the other Italian politicians or businesspeople who joined the Crimea delegation responded to requests for comment.
Salvini Sings Praises
As soon as the Italian delegation returned to Italy, reports began to appear in the Veneto press about Valdegamberi’s mission to Crimea and the “menaces” of Ukraine. By the time of the April 2017 Yalta Economic Forum, the International Agency for Current Policy seemed to be riding high, buoyed by the steady inroads it had made among Italian regional politicians.
By that year it was inviting Lega leader Matteo Salvini to Crimea, as well as the Italian Lega MEP Lorenzo Fontana. Giorgia Meloni, the current Italian prime minister, was also on the invite list, as was Luigi Di Maio, the country’s foreign minister at the time, who hailed from the Five Star Movement.
Salvini didn’t make it, and there is no evidence the other high-profile invitees traveled for the forum, but many others from the Lega Nord and other right-wing parties did.
Valdegamberi, and some of the same people who traveled with him to Crimea in October 2016, made it back, including Sandonà, the Veneto regional councilor. Also among the 2017 group were two Italian senators and Giuseppe Raffa, at the time the president of Calabria, a region in Italy’s south. There was also a 20-strong delegation of Italian businessmen working in sectors like real estate, construction, mining, and information technology.
During preparations for the forum, Valdegamberi sent Mirzakhanian an email with a proposal, intended for the governor of Crimea, “to introduce gambling in Crimea, according to the Italian model, in collaboration with one of the leading dealers of Italy.”
In his absence, Salvini
sent a video message to the Yalta attendees, calling Crimea “a fantastic area from a touristic and cultural point of view” and saluting the “huge resources … flowing in” to a region with “incredible investment opportunities for Italian companies.”
Salvini told the delegates he hoped the unrecognized status of Crimea would “change soon.” He said he was glad he had been lucky enough to have already visited “liberated Crimea.”
Rita Martone contributed reporting.
Data expertise was provided by OCCRP's Data Team.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.