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Despite risks, Slovenian PM went to Kyiv to show Ukraine it's not alone

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine's allies have been showing their support, opening borders to the country's refugees, sending weapons, humanitarian aid, and applying debilitating sanctions on Russia. And last week, as Russian strikes fell on parts of Kyiv, the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia traveled by train to the Ukrainian capital to meet with President Zelenskyy. The trip, which was not announced in advance, took place despite the obvious security risks to show support for Ukraine.

Today we are joined by one of those leaders, Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia. Prime Minister, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

PRIME MINISTER JANEZ JANSA: Oh, thank you for showing interest.

MARTIN: Please tell me, why was it important to you to make this trip, despite the obvious security risks, to meet with President Zelenskyy?

JANSA: Well, this idea came from our, actually, personal experience also, because 30 years ago, Slovenia was invaded by Yugoslav Communist Army. We were partially in the same position, so we know exactly how our Ukrainian friends feel, and we know what the difference between if something is calling you by phone or via video conferences, or if somebody is coming to support you.

And when we came to Kyiv, President Zelenskyy said, I hope, he said, this is the beginning of the return of the representatives. And I hope to announce that Slovenia is sending our ambassador, or charge d'affaires, back to Kyiv within one week. And we are trying to persuade our European friends in Brussels to send EU ambassadors back.

MARTIN: After the meeting, you gave a press conference where you said that Ukraine is part of the EU family, and you were part of a group of leaders who called for the EU to admit Ukraine immediately, which they declined to do. Things are moving so quickly on the ground. How would that change things in your view?

JANSA: You do know that Ukraine had put into its constitution the aspiration to join the European Union and NATO. They are prepared to abandon this aspiration for NATO. But at the same time, they want, as they say, institutional guarantees. And they see those guarantees inside of the European Union. And I think that they are right. And we need to take fast track for them. And this week, during the next meeting of the European Council, we will continue with the discussion.

MARTIN: Well, we just spoke with the EU ambassador to the United States last week, and he said that there really is no mechanism to fast track membership. You don't buy that?

JANSA: No, I don't buy that because when we needed mechanisms, we created them.

MARTIN: The Prime Minister of Poland, who traveled with you to Ukraine, said on Friday that Poland would formally ask NATO to send a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. This would, of course, step up the alliance's direct involvement and potentially risk escalating the conflict. At least that is the stated reason that the president of the United States and others - certainly a lot of lawmakers in the United States - have said that they do not wish to escalate the conflict. Where do you stand on that proposal?

JANSA: If you want to send a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine, we have first to have some kind of peace agreement there, or at least agree to cease-fire. If this happens, then I don't see any other institution which is strong and organized enough to send peacekeeping forces there aside of NATO.

MARTIN: President Zelenskyy has once again called upon Russia to enter into talks. There have been talks ongoing. Do you believe that Russia is negotiating in good faith, in a good-faith effort to negotiate a peace?

JANSA: No, I don't. So far, they're not negotiating in goodwill because we see what's happening on the ground. I think that Russia so far is using those negotiations or whatever we can call them - those meetings - as something which is drawing media attention from Mariupol, from the places where civilians are killed, from the refugees.

MARTIN: Before we conclude our conversation, I feel I have to mention that you and your government have been criticized for undermining media organizations that have been critical of you. The Council of Europe, which is a 70-plus-year-old international organization, was founded just after World War II to uphold human rights and the rule of law in Europe, released a report saying that there was a toxic and hostile environment for Slovenian journalists, an environment which has encouraged people to threaten and harass journalists.

And I bring this up because I think that we would all agree that one of the things that we have seen in this conflict is how Putin's control of the media in Russia has allowed this conflict to go on. Now, I realize that nobody likes being criticized, but I'm wondering if what you have seen has caused you to reconsider any of the ways that you and your government are conducting your own public discourse and your relationship with your country's media organizations.

JANSA: OK. Thank you for saying this, but if you come to Slovenia, you will see that the same people which were accusing us of what you have described are now mostly supporting Mr. Putin.

MARTIN: Well, respectfully, Prime Minister, this isn't my analysis. This is the Council of Europe, which, as we said, is a very well-respected organization in Europe. It's existed for more than 70 years.

JANSA: And actually, it's not the Council of Europe. It is NGO, which is working closely with Council of Europe. And during our history, I was also a journalist in the communist system - persecuted, sent to prison. I know what the media freedom is. And mostly only those journalists who criticized former system or who are, how to say, more supportive to what our political options were had us also beaten and also threatened. So if you want to challenge the situation is Slovenia, you have to come here, live here for one week. Everything is open. And you will see who is criticized.

MARTIN: That was Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa. Prime Minister, thank you for your time, and thank you for speaking with us today.

JANSA: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.