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Leader of Italian far-right party Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) Giorgia Meloni addresses supporters during a rally in Milan, Italy, on Sept. 11.PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia – Brothers of Italy – party is well on her way to becoming Italy’s first woman prime minister, prompting Italians and European leaders to wonder if the one-time Vladimir Putin admirer will steer the EU’s third-biggest economy into the pro-Russia camp after this month’s election.

Ms. Meloni insists that she supports sending weapons to Ukraine and fully backs the West’s sanctions against Moscow. But her “Atlanticist” stand, evidently aimed at making her party more acceptable in Brussels and Europe’s other power centres, is relatively new.

She praised Mr. Putin’s 2018 election victory on her Facebook page. And her coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi of the Forza Italia party – the disgraced old “bunga bunga” maestro is still a political force – and Matteo Salvini of the League party, openly expressed admiration for Mr. Putin until recently.

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The general election on Sept. 25 will mark the end of the Mario Draghi era. The former European Central Bank boss was appointed in February, 2021, to oversee the recovery of Italy’s pandemic-shattered economy and negotiate a lavish package of loans and grants, worth almost €200-billion, from the European Union that could help make the perennially ailing country more competitive.

Mr. Draghi also helped Europe forge a largely united front against Russia.

But his national unity government collapsed in July, after Forza Italia, the League and another big party, the Five Star Movement, suddenly withdrew their support for Italy’s unelected leader. While there is some chance he will emerge as Italy’s next president (head of state) in a couple of years, most Italians assume he will disappear from the corridors of power in Rome. He never had a political party to back him and considers himself a non-politician.

Ms. Meloni’s rise has been nothing short of spectacular. In the last election, in 2018, the Brothers of Italy party scored just 4 per cent of the vote, relegating it to the fringes of Italy’s hodgepodge political spectrum (the country’s parliament has 19 parties, with constantly shifting alliances).

Today, the Brothers, Forza Italia and League coalition is polling at 45 per cent, making it virtually unassailable. In second place is the centre-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Enrico Letta, with 24 per cent. He is hampered by his inability to forge political alliances.

Ms. Meloni, 45, was born in a working-class Roman neighbourhood called Garbatella, built in the 1920s and full of socialist residents who opposed Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. But Ms. Meloni and the parties that spawned the Brothers were anything but lefties.

The Brothers grew out of the Italian Social Movement, which was founded by Mussolini‘s loyalists right after the Second World War. Its successor was the National Alliance (AN). Ms. Meloni became president of its youth wing in 2004, was elected to parliament two years later and became Italy’s youngest-ever minister in 2008, when she caught the eye of Mr. Berlusconi, then prime minister.

In 2012, she helped recast the AN as the Brothers and made it the wannabe vanguard of nationalistic, family-oriented Christian conservatism with a Euroskeptic streak.

Her efforts made little progress until well after the 2018 election, when her nationalistic stand and opposition to immigration and what she called the “LGBT lobbies,” plus her reputation as a hard-hitting, hard-working, social-media-savvy newcomer in a sea of tired old men, began to resonate with centre-right and hard-right voters. Support from Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Salvini did not hurt.

At the time, she was openly pro-Russia. Four years ago, she praised Mr. Putin’s sweeping election victory as representative of “the unequivocal will of the Russian people.” Her lieutenants admired Russia for what they called its “stabilizing role in Syria” (Russia entered the Syrian civil war in 2015 after the government requested help to fight rebel groups). She was sometimes compared to Donald Trump, another politician who, at times, praised Mr. Putin.

Since then, she has shifted her message into the pro-Europe, pro-America, anti-Russia sphere. She described Russia’s invasion as an “unacceptable large-scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine” and said she would support supplying Ukraine’s military with weapons, as Mr. Draghi had done.

“With the wind in her sails, she is messaging a larger public, both to woo potential voters and to calm eventual critics,” said Francesco Galietti, the chief executive of Policy Sonar, an Italian political risk consultancy, in an interview. “Meloni knows that, without a strong Atlanticist stance, it would be impossible for her party to run the country.”

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But there is little doubt that many Brothers supporters are neither Atlanticists nor Russia haters – polls suggest that more than half oppose the sanctions against Moscow. The party’s coalition partners, Forza Italia and the League, do not want to entirely alienate Russia. The country is an important trading partner, a crucial supplier of Italy’s oil and natural gas, and is dominated by a personality who appeals to their natural attraction to strongmen.

Mr. Berlusconi has supported close ties with Russia. He and Mr. Putin are good friends. They have been spotted together on holiday in Sardinia and in Sochi, on the Black Sea, where Mr. Putin has a mansion. Mr. Salvini, who made a name for himself with his rabid anti-immigrant stand when he was interior minister in 2018 and 2019, once strutted around Moscow’s Red Square in a Putin T-shirt and has said he believes the sanctions are hurting the countries imposing them as much as they hurt Russia.

Alan Friedman, the U.S. author of a new Italian book on the future of the economy, Il Prezzo del Futuro (The Price of the Future), said he believes the Brothers are more in the pro-Putin camp than they care to admit. “Meloni is a shrewd politician who is desperate to present herself as a centre-right moderate,” he said in an interview. “I don’t believe a leopard can change its spots so easily. There are simply too many pro-Putin people in her party.”

Certainly Ms. Meloni’s insistence that she considers Mr. Putin a threat to Europe is not convincing everyone. In an Instagram post Thursday, Andrea Marcucci, a Democratic Party senator, said he would be worried about Rome’s relationship with Europe if the Meloni-led coalition forms the next government. “We have a right closer to Moscow than Brussels,” he said.