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Italy's prime minister supports Ukraine — causing tension within her coalition

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much do other nations need to worry about Italy's right-wing government? The new prime minister is pursuing policies that make other democracies uncomfortable. Yet, she insists she still supports a war that is all about democracy, the defense of Ukraine. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been watching the new government.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hours after President Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also visited the Ukrainian capital. Standing with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, she said the fate of western democracies depends on Ukraine's victory over Russia's attempt to trample international law.

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PRIME MINISTER GIORGIA MELONI: (Through interpreter) The battle being fought by Ukrainians is a battle for all of us. And we must do our part.

POGGIOLI: Meloni's visit had been put in jeopardy by remarks made by her coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi. The media tycoon and former prime minister, a buddy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that had he been prime minister, he never would have spoken to Zelenskyy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Through interpreter) Because we are witnessing the devastation of his country and slaughter of civilians. Had he stopped attacking the two separatist republics of Donbas, the war never would have happened. So I judge very, very negatively this gentleman's behavior.

POGGIOLI: Asked about those remarks at the press conference with Meloni, Zelenskyy oozed sarcasm. Berlusconi's home has never been bombed, Zelenskyy replied. No one murdered his relatives, and all thanks, he added, to the brotherly love of Russia. Meloni looked mortified. She hurriedly insisted facts are more important than words. And Berlusconi's party had always voted in parliament in favor of Ukraine. Meloni's other coalition partner is Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, who has voiced admiration for Putin. And when she was in opposition, Meloni had aimed her invective at NATO and the EU, making some observers question her sincerity.

STEFANO FELTRI: I think that Giorgia Meloni bluffed in term of supporting the Western alliance in Ukraine.

POGGIOLI: Stefano Feltri, editor of the daily Domani, says that despite her pledges, her government has been slow in approving an increase in military support of Ukraine.

FELTRI: But she could not deliver anything because she's leading a coalition which is form of three main parties. Two of them are pro-Russian. And the third one used to be anti-European, anti-U.S., anti-France and anti-Germany, which is her own party, Brothers of Italy.

POGGIOLI: And on the domestic front, there's growing concern. Luca Sofri, editor of the online paper Il Post, worries that the Meloni government could roll back Italy's achievements in human rights.

LUCA SOFRI: This government is dangerous for what we have achieved for women, for migrants, against racism and for people in jails. It's a right-wing government.

POGGIOLI: The government's first bill was a crackdown on rave parties that could be used even against union rallies. And in a sign of the coalition's anti-migrant stance, it has imposed tough restrictions on humanitarian ships, a law the United Nations says will imperil lives. As to Ukraine, Meloni is sticking to the Western Front. But she's also facing growing Ukraine fatigue. A survey by the European Council for Foreign Relations showed that one out of every four Italians see Russia as an ally or strategic partner, a trend that could make Italy the weak link in the Western Front backing Ukraine.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.