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2 weekend events show how Eastern Europe is wrestling with its political future

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Over the weekend in Eastern Europe, two events showed how that region is wrestling with its political future. In Slovakia, the party of a pro-Russian, anti-American populist prevailed in national election that could see a European Union and NATO member cease its support for Ukraine. And then in Poland, this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD PROTESTING)

MARTÍNEZ: Hundreds of thousands marched in the capital, Warsaw, yesterday to support the opposition to the ruling Nationalist party headed by another populist. His party is fighting for its survival in an election that takes place later this month. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin to talk us through all this. Rob, let's start in Slovakia. Saturday's national election has produced a winner that neither the European Union nor the United States is very happy with. So who prevailed?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, A, the winning party is familiar to both Slovaks and the EU. They're called Smer, or in Slovak, the Direction Party, and it won with nearly 23% of the votes. Smer's Prime Minister candidate Robert Fico has served as prime minister twice before. The last time was in 2018 when he was ousted from power amidst a scandal where he faced criminal charges for allegedly starting an organized crime network. But a prosecutor general friendly to his party threw out the charges. And now, amazingly, he is back in power as long as he negotiates a coalition of parties to govern the country.

MARTÍNEZ: So how did he get them to vote for his party again?

SCHMITZ: Well, he is - Fico - is an astute politician. He's plugged into what Slovaks are concerned about, especially on social media. And the war in Ukraine is high on that list. Fico blames the war on U.S. weapons manufacturers, and he repeats Kremlin talking points. He says Russia only wants peace for Ukraine and was forced into the conflict due to threats from NATO. Fico's leftist party is fond of quoting Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. And Fico's talking points really strike a chord with Slovaks, many who have a fondness for their Communist history and for Russia in general.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so then what does all this mean for the EU and for Ukraine, who has considered Slovakia an ally?

SCHMITZ: That's right. And it'll mean an end to Slovak support for Ukraine. And the EU now has another member that is going down the - this populist road and yet another ruling party that is threatening to chip away at democratic institutions, undermining EU values.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So that brings us now to Poland, where the ruling party has been criticized of doing just that for the past eight years. Hundreds of thousands of people - we heard it earlier - marching through Warsaw yesterday to protest the ruling party in advance of a big election there. Rob, what's at stake in Poland?

SCHMITZ: Well, the people marching yesterday believe that Poland's democracy is at stake. The ruling Law and Justice Party has methodically dismantled Poland's judiciary as well as the free press to remove checks on its power. And those who marched in Warsaw yesterday believe if this party wins another term, fair elections could be the next thing that goes. Many marchers, like Simon Bobinski (ph), said this growing trend of populism in Eastern Europe is really worrying.

SIMON BOBINSKI: With more countries joining that course is definitely troubling, weakening the European spirit and definitely also a warning sign to a lot of people who think that the triumph of democracy is the natural course.

SCHMITZ: And A, he added here that with a weaker European economy due to the war in Ukraine, voters are susceptible to being driven to the extreme solutions that populists often promise. And for Poland, voters will decide on that future - on their future - on their election day on October 15, in two weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Rob, thanks for sorting this out for us.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOJI'S "PERPETUAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.