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Support for Ukraine becomes the focus of Italy's politics

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

Italy's far-right leader, Giorgia Meloni, was sworn in earlier today as the country's first woman prime minister. As the historic day approached, her right-wing coalition seemed close to fracturing after a recording surfaced of former prime minister and coalition member Silvio Berlusconi praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meloni was so angered that she threatened to break up the coalition if Berlusconi and other coalition allies didn't commit to supporting Ukraine. They apparently got on board. And on Friday, Meloni was asked by the country's president to form a new government. Less than 24 hours later, the new prime minister took the oath of office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER GIORGIA MELONI: (Non-English language spoken).

THOMPSON: Meloni is clearly trying to focus on the future. But how will such a public split over Ukraine and Russia, a key issue for Italians and Europeans, affect the coalition that seemed so strong just a month ago? And what does it mean for continued European Union support for Ukraine? To untangle all of this, we're joined by NPR's correspondent in Rome, Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks for joining us, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been gaffe-prone for much of his long career. What exactly did he say? And why did it create such a stir for Meloni just as she was about to take power?

POGGIOLI: Well, Berlusconi's gushing remarks about his good friend Vladimir Putin were ostensibly recorded surreptitiously, and they completely contradict Italy's very pro-Ukraine policy position, which, under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, was the toughest among the European Union partners against Russian aggression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: I've reconnected with President Putin. He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. That's what Berlusconi said. I responded with a similarly sweet letter. And Berlusconi even blamed Ukraine for provoking the war. Now, Meloni was furious. She responded immediately, saying her government will be firmly pro-NATO and pro-European Union, and whoever doesn't agree has no place in her government.

THOMPSON: So Italy - it's third-largest economy in the EU. What does this all mean for the bloc as it continues to make support for Ukraine a priority? And also, is Italy seen as possibly weakening in its support?

POGGIOLI: Well, again, thanks to the outgoing Draghi government, Italy substantially lessened its dependency on Russian energy supplies. But inflation and utility bills are surging. And in the weeks to come, Meloni will have to deal with growing opposition left to right to supporting Ukraine and costly sanctions against Russia. You know, even the Catholic Church, which has considerable political clout here, is pushing for peace talks to end the war, and that translates into Ukraine surrendering territory to Russia. Meloni recently vowed to keep sending weapons to Ukraine, but she may soon feel the pressure to soften her stance. And that would really cause a big fracture in the United Western stance against Russia.

THOMPSON: Are there other issues that EU leaders are concerned about with Meloni in charge of Italy?

POGGIOLI: Yeah, there are many. You know, she - and Meloni in the past was a fierce critic of the EU. She even called for leaving the common currency, the euro. She's softened her position on that. But, you know, she's a friend of Europe's most right-wing leaders, Hungary's illiberal Viktor Orban, Poland's right-wing Law and Justice Party and France's hard-right Marine Le Pen. The EU officials in Brussels worry that the right-wing Eurosceptic bloc could be strengthened if Meloni's new government joins forces with them, and that would just cause a lot of disunity and more problems.

You know, there's also the unresolved issue of Maloney's party's roots in the ashes of fascism, and she's never repudiated fascism. Her choice of ministers has raised concerns about human rights. Several Italian commentators describe her Cabinet lineup as nativist, meaning it promotes the interest of native-born inhabitants against those of immigrants. The newly named Ministry of Family Natality and Equal Opportunity will be headed by a diehard opponent of LGBTQ rights and assisted fertility. So feminists and human rights activists are loudly condemning the new government.

And you know, you already hear a cultural as well as political shift in the language. Meloni talks about nation, not country. She uses the word patriots, not citizens. The Economic Development Ministry has added the words made in Italy. The Agriculture Ministry has added food sovereignty. It also sounds, you know, very protectionist, inward looking, fearful of the outside. And frankly, it harks back to Italy's bleak, undemocratic past.

THOMPSON: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Cheryl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.