Despite Bossi’s Communist origins, he formed a coalition with the TV mogul Berlusconi. Together, they won the general elections of 1994 aiming to bring greater economic freedom to Italy, which is still one of the most statist economies in Western Europe. The interests of northern regions, industries, and productive taxpayers aligned against the tax-consumers of the central government. Thus, the alliance with Berlusconi seemed natural, similar to the libertarian-conservative alliance inside the U.S. Republican Party. But a harsh clash of personalities between Bossi and Berlusconi led to the split of their center-Right coalition after just six months.
Then the party embarked on a short period promoting genuine nationalism: The Northern League, since 1996 aimed explicitly at the independence of the northern regions of Italy, calling them by the geographical neologism of “Padania” (after the name of north Italian plain).
It was in this period that the Northern League established ties with Serbian nationalists and the Russian far-Right. At the time these relationships seemed to be of secondary importance, but they are pivotal to understand recent developments. During the 1999 NATO intervention against Kosovo, the Northern League was strongly pro-Milosevic and its links with Russia tightened. After the 1999 European elections, the Northern League suffered an electoral and financial backlash and in 2001, Berlusconi approached Bossi again to form the new center-Right coalition. The Northern League remained a loyal ally from 2001 to 2011, when the last Berlusconi government fell. In that period, the League downplayed its nationalism (although, it was still named the “Northern League for the independence of Padania” until 2015), and its sympathies for Russian nationalism were put on the shelf. Everything changed again in 2011, when the center-Right government fell once more.
The League was pressed by an electoral crisis and a corruption trial. Bossi was replaced by the new young secretary Matteo Salvini. The new leader, sensing the nationalist renaissance all over Europe, completely changed the shape and the ideology of the party. The mission of the League was no longer securing the independence of the northern regions from the rest of Italy, but that of the whole of Italy from the new European Union super-State. In just three years, he transformed the former autonomist/pro-independence Northern League into a full-blown nationalist force inspired by Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Ties with the Russian far-Right again strengthened. Salvini’s speeches have the same emphasis: Immigration, terrorism, social crises, and the economic crisis are all evils originating from, or worsened by, the EU as part of the global financiers’ hidden agenda to replace European peoples. Salvini has presented this as the “genocide” of European native peoples, perpetrated as part of a grand conspiracy.
The Five Star Movement’s story is shorter. It was born in part from the large communications company Casaleggio Associates, which led the online protest against Italy’s economic and political establishment. Its founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio (who died in 2016) had his own “prophetic” vision of the future of politics that involved direct control by the people through the internet, establishing a world government, and completing an environmentalist and economic revolution.