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News brief: Italian election, young men flee Russia, asteroid deflection

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Big changes in Italy. Italians have voted in what will be their first far-right government since World War II.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. Yesterday's vote saw Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy emerge as the single largest party. Her coalition of right-wing parties will be able to form the next government. And Meloni is expected to become Italy's first female prime minister. The move comes as the European Union struggles to remain united as Russia's invasion of Ukraine fuels economic turmoil in the continent.

MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is following all of this from Rome. And she joins us now. Good morning, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Is this result a surprise in Italy? Or had things been leaning in Meloni's direction for a while?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, things had been leaning her way for quite a while. For weeks now, in public opinion polls, her party had been leading. Her party, the Brothers of Italy, they ran as part of a coalition that includes the hard-right, anti-immigrant party called League, which is run by former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, which is run by three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But make no mistake, Salvini and Berlusconi, these are fading political figures. Meloni is the big winner now and the new star of Italian politics.

MARTIN: So before we talk about the consequences of that and this far-right party coming into power, just tell us about the woman at the center of this. Who is she?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. Meloni is young. She's 45 years old. And she grew up in this working-class neighborhood in Rome that's actually known for left-wing politics. And yet, when Maloney was a teenager, she joined the local youth chapter of a movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini after World War II. And she stuck by this ideology for years. But she also had big ambitions. When she took over the Brothers of Italy in 2018, it was a minor party. Now it's No. 1. And she made this happen in part by rehabilitating her own image, transforming from this young firebrand with a scary past into this reasonable everywoman fighting to save Italy's identity.

MARTIN: So she made...

KAKISSIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...A transformation of herself, her political identity, but also her party's, clearly, in some way. Explain how she managed all this.

KAKISSIS: Yeah. So I spoke to this Italian political scientist, Domeniko Fracchiolla. He says Meloni is a gifted politician who can read the room and learn from her mistakes. And that's how she campaigned.

DOMENICO FRACCHIOLLA: She was selling herself as a moderate defender of the family values, as ardent supporter of Ukraine and also of NATO - and as she likes to say, as a woman, mother and Christian.

KAKISSIS: And we stopped by her old neighborhood, Garbatella, this leftist neighborhood. And I even met voters who just shrugged off Meloni's past. Here's advertising manager Tiziana Pipistrello.

TIZIANA PIPISTRELLO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She's saying, enough with this fascism business already. That's all in the past, you know? But many others, you know, they told me that, you know, they worry Meloni will roll back abortion rights or crack down on immigrants and the LGBT community.

MARTIN: So Italian politics, Joanna, as you know, are such that prime ministers don't necessarily last that long. Governments can crumble...

KAKISSIS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Really fast. How is she going to prevent that?

KAKISSIS: So - well, her first challenge will be bringing together this very divided country, which she alluded to in her victory speech last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORGIA MELONI: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She's saying, it's Important to understand that if we're called upon to govern this nation, we will do so for all Italians with the aim of uniting the people. And she's got a lot of uniting to do. Only 64% of Italians voted on Sunday, and that's the lowest turnout for a general election in nearly 50 years.

MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Rome. Thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Russians are on the streets protesting President Vladimir Putin's mobilization order. Demonstrations are happening in dozens of cities across the country.

FADEL: Putin's move has also prompted thousands of Russian men to flee the country. Cars were stretched for miles at borders with neighboring countries in recent days. Men also scrambled to catch flights to countries where Russians don't need visas for entry.

MARTIN: One of the countries they're fleeing to is Turkey. NPR's Fatma Tanis was at the airport in Istanbul to meet some of them. And she joins us now. Hey, Fatma.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What was that scene like? Who did you meet coming off those planes?

TANIS: You know, there was just a constant arrival of Russians, overwhelmingly men. And they are coming from all over, not just Russia. Some left through airports in Russia. Others drove to bordering countries, like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Georgia. Many said they had a really hard time getting out between the sheer numbers at the border and the questioning from authorities. I met one man from Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal, who said he drove at night to the Mongolian border, where he waited in line for 6 hours to cross. And then he actually ran into several friends there who were also fleeing before he eventually caught a flight to Istanbul.

MARTIN: Wow. So what are they telling you?

TANIS: Everyone I spoke with said they were anti-war. And most said they were saying goodbye to their lives in Russia forever. They were also very much afraid of retribution from the Russian government for fleeing and didn't want to reveal their names. You know, they left with no future plans, limited money. And now they say they're going to try to get their families here as well. Some told me they decided to leave as soon as they heard the announcement of mobilization. Others said they waited a few days to see what was happening. And one man in his mid-30s said he made a decision to leave when his friends started getting rounded up in the middle of the night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: He said that they weren't just taking the reservists, but also men with no military history and even those with more than three children, something that Russian authorities had assured wouldn't happen. He and others told me that men who speak up against the war and mobilization are being arrested, beaten in custody and then sent to be drafted in the war. And that may be why we have overwhelmingly seen women take part in these recent public protests.

MARTIN: So Fatma, though, if Putin isn't getting the men he needs from this particular mobilization effort because people are fleeing, is he likely to call up even more?

TANIS: Well, these men certainly think so. Nearly every one of them said they believed a full mobilization is coming soon. Russia right now is conducting these so-called referendums, considered to be illegal under international law, in occupied Ukrainian territories on whether to formally join Russia. One 32-year-old man told me he thinks it's the first step for Putin to annex those areas as part of Russia. And then, he says...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And obviously, Ukrainian will start to attack because it's actually - it's their territory. And after that, I think he'll decide that, OK, they attack our territory. And we should make the full mobilization.

TANIS: In other words, he's worried there's going to be even a wider call up soon. Another man didn't want to talk to me, but he said he just wanted to leave the airport and said everything is worse than you know in Russia. And Russian men are going anywhere they can go now. But there were also a couple of people who were still hopeful that the war could end soon and said they were just going to wait it out.

MARTIN: NPR's Fatma Tanis reporting from Istanbul. Fatma, thank you so much for all this. We appreciate it.

TANIS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Later today, NASA is going to try something it has never done before.

FADEL: It's going to attempt to move an asteroid. It's part of a mission to test technologies humanity may someday need to keep a space rock from striking our planet.

MARTIN: Striking our planet? Joining me now to discuss what's going on, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. Just to be clear, they are not trying to move this asteroid because it's headed towards Earth, right?

BRUMFIEL: Right. I mean, we have enough problems.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: So yeah, the - an asteroid's the last thing we need. But this is passing close to Earth. It's not on a collision course. Still, this mission is going to demonstrate how you might deflect a planet-killing asteroid. Tom Statler is a NASA scientist on the mission. And here's what he said at a briefing last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS STATLER: We're doing this test when we don't need to on an asteroid that isn't a danger just in case we ever do need to and we discover an asteroid that is a danger.

MARTIN: OK, practice. This is practice. That makes me feel better.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So explain how this practice run's going to work.

BRUMFIEL: Sure. So this thing's called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test - or DART for short. And it's all right there in the name. The target is actually two asteroids, a big one called Didymos and a second smaller one that's orbiting the big one. That one's called Dimorphos. So the spacecraft is going to try and slam into that little asteroid at more than 14,000 miles per hour. And the hope is that that's going to nudge or redirect, as the cool kids call it, the asteroid just a tiny, tiny amount. The nudge should change the time it takes the little asteroid to go around the big one, the time of a single orbit. Astronomers on Earth are going to attempt to measure that change. And that will let them know whether this thing had the desired effect.

MARTIN: OK. You say nudge. So this is not like in the movies, where they try to blow the asteroid up?

BRUMFIEL: Right. Yeah. I mean, in fact, the whole nuking an asteroid thing is actually pretty risky, it turns out...

MARTIN: Is it (laughter)?

BRUMFIEL: ...Because you might end up with a lot of asteroid parts headed in the same direction. So you might end up with two big chunks instead of one.

MARTIN: Right.

BRUMFIEL: So NASA thinks these little shoves are actually the way to go. Now, obviously, if this were a planet-killer, this spacecraft would be too small. NASA might have to build a bigger version. Or they might have to build a bunch of little ones to give several pushes over a period of time. But the thing to remember is space is really big. So it may not take all that much to move an asteroid out of Earth's path.

MARTIN: So what are you going to be watching for specifically in this exercise today?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the spacecraft's actually going to be livestreaming as it approaches its target. So we should see the asteroid getting bigger and bigger. It's steering itself using software that was developed for missile defense. And hopefully, we're going to see it grow right up to the last minute before impact. And Statler says this test is going to be a really important proof of concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STATLER: At the end of the day, the real question is, how effectively did we move the asteroid? And can this technique of kinetic impact be used in the future if we ever needed to?

BRUMFIEL: But scientists say it could be days or even weeks before they know for sure how it went. That is assuming they don't miss.

MARTIN: Geoff, just nailing me with the drama at the end. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.