Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, has avoided an interrogation in parliament over claims that his far-right League party sought money from Russia.
In Salvini’s absence, the allegations were addressed by the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who said no evidence had emerged to diminish the trust he had “in all members of the government”.
Reports this month claimed that one of Salvini’s aides endeavoured to strike an oil deal in a Moscow hotel that would have diverted Russian funds to the League to bolster its campaigning before the European elections in May.
There is no evidence that a deal was finalised, but the allegations, which emerged in February, led prosecutors in Milan to open an investigation and raised questions about the relationship between the League and the Kremlin.
“We do not know the data or the possible consequences of the Milan probe,” Conte said.
Salvini did not attend parliament but in a Facebook Live video on Wednesday he reiterated that his party “didn’t ask for or take money from anyone”.
“The rest is fantasy,” he added. “Let everyone else talk, I’m here to work and deal with real problems … security, immigration, the mafia … not spying.”
Many senators from the League’s coalition partner, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), were also absent from parliament in protest over Conte agreeing to unblock work on a high-speed rail project linking Italy and France.
The matter still needs to go to a vote in parliament, but Conte’s approval was a win for the League, which wants the long-stalled TAV project to go ahead, and a setback for M5S, which is vehemently opposed.
In a statement, a group of M5S senators also attributed their no-show to the fact that Salvini should have been there to respond to the Russia claims.
The “Russiagate” allegations may have dominated Italian media but they have been met with indifference by supporters of the League. Support for the party has risen to 37.8% in the polls in recent weeks.
Prof Mattia Diletti, of Sapienza University in Rome, said: “Salvini knows that Italian people don’t care too much about the Russiagate. He also knows if he answers to parliament it would be negative for him. But he really doesn’t care about institutional etiquette, he only cares about communication and consensus.”
Salvini has been nurturing ties with Russia since he became leader of the League in 2013 and has always made a show of his admiration for Vladimir Putin.
M5S is also Russia-friendly and in the past has faced accusations of being influenced by the Kremlin. Luigi Di Maio, the M5S leader, welcomed Putin alongside Salvini during the Russian leader’s state visit to Rome on 4 July. Conte promised Putin that Italy would work towards helping mend Russia’s fractured relations with the EU.
Russiagate aside, there are other issues threatening the governing coalition’s survival. The two partners have been at odds for months, with Salvini and Di Maio often trading insults and ultimately stalling progress on government policy. Speculation of an imminent government collapse was rife last week when Salvini declared he had lost all confidence in M5S after the party backed Ursula von der Leyen to become president of the European commission.
The League opposed the German candidate, snubbing an instruction from Conte for both parties to vote for her. Salvini accused M5S of betraying its promise to ordinary voters of bringing about radical change in Europe.
Salvini and Di Maio had patched things up by Monday but there is pressure on Salvini from within his party’s ranks to seize on his popularity and pull the plug on an administration that some League ministers say has become untenable.
Salvini has put the onus on the weakened M5S, threatening to quit unless it drops its opposition towards key League policies such as granting greater fiscal autonomy to the Lombardy and Veneto regions, the party’s strongholds.
Jubilant over Conte’s support for the TAV project, Salvini said in his Facebook video that “the government is back on track” after it also agreed to unlock €50bn worth of investment in other infrastructure projects including roads, hospitals and schools.
Most analysts expect the government to make it at least as far as drafting its 2020 budget in the autumn, with a potential cabinet reshuffle taking place to ease tensions in the meantime. Salvini has called for the M5S transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, and the defence minister, Elisabetta Trenta, to go.
Franco Pavoncello, a politics professor and the president of John Cabot University in Rome, said: “I’m not so sure there is interest on Salvini’s part to make this government fall [right now] … We might see a reshuffle rather than a collapse.”