Rome (AFP) - Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for having a "welcoming attitude" to Russia, in an interview ahead of a visit to Italy which will include talks with the pope and former premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Rome's historic centre is on security lockdown for the Russian president's visit on Thursday with 50 streets blocked to traffic and Italian media reporting that mobile phone signals could be scrambled.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Putin said his United Russia party was working closely with Salvini's anti-immigration, nationalist League party.
"The League and its leader Salvini actively support the restoration of full cooperation between Italy and Russia. They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU," Putin said.
The US and EU imposed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Praising Salvini, whose League party topped May's European elections in Italy, Putin said they had previously met in Milan in 2014.
"We discussed the prospect of developing Italian-Russian ties and relations between Russia and the European Union," Putin said.
"Salvini has a welcoming attitude towards our country, and is well informed on the situation in Russia."
Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.
Putin also highlighted his "affection" for Italy's notorious billionaire ex-four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, known for his sex scandals, "bunga bunga" parties, allegations of corruption and conviction for tax fraud.
"Silvio is a politician of global stature, a true leader who strongly advocates the interests of his country in the international arena," Putin said.
"We are bound by a friendship stretching back many years," he added.