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What Are They Thinking? A Study of Youth in Three Post-Soviet States

The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan: Youth, Politics, Identity, and Change
Nadia M. Diuk (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)

Since today’s politically active youth is tomorrow’s political establishment, Nadia Diuk’s study of The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan is a must-read not only for students of the former Soviet Union but for all those interested in the dynamics of modern-day anti-authoritarian struggles. One of Diuk’s aims is to discern the political and economic future of the three post-Soviet republics by compiling a comprehensive sociological portrait of the generation that is now entering civic maturity—as Diuk refers to it, “the first free generation after decades of Communism.”

The study is based on two sets of comprehensive polling data, collected in 2003 and 2010 from Russians, Ukrainians, and Azerbaijanis under the age of thirty-four. Taken together, they allow a comparison of the state and progress of youth public opinion.

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The choice of countries is significant: Russia is the richest state and the most influential geopolitical player of the former Soviet region; Ukraine is the proverbial “bridge between East and West,” bordering NATO and the European Union on one side and Russia on the other; and Azerbaijan is a strategically located, energy-rich nation, a crossroads not only between Europe and Asia, but also between Christianity and Islam. What happens in these countries matters not only to their own citizens but also to the wider world.

 

Revisiting the recent history of post-Communist states, Diuk notes the important (perhaps indispensable) role that youth organizations have played in the demise of authoritarian governments: Otpor in Serbia (2000), Kmara in Georgia (2003), and Pora in Ukraine (2004). A similar pattern has been observed more recently in the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where young people, in Diuk’s words, “have taken center stage . . . as the catalyst for change, the moving force that mobilizes the people, and as the leaders of popular protest movements.” The role of youth has been accentuated by the use of social media (such as Twitter and Facebook) in organizing and broadcasting the protests.

To be sure, The Next Generation agrees with—and corroborates—Karl Mannheim’s assertion that “nothing is more false than the usual assumption . . . that the younger generation is ‘progressive’ and the older generation is eo ipso conservative.” Diuk notes that “the education and shaping of views of the youth . . . is a critical element in determining whether they become active citizens, oppressed subjects, or perpetuators of the old system.” She continues: “Youth’s energy and enthusiasm are value neutral, and can be a blank slate for any ideology; they can either be co-opted to support the old regime or mobilized to lead a protest movement to challenge the old order.”

The ability of established regimes to “co-opt” a significant sector of youth is exemplified in Diuk’s study of Nashi (“Ours”), a youth movement created by the Kremlin immediately after Ukraine’s 2004–2005 “Orange Revolution” with the explicit aim of preventing its repeat in Russia. The organization solicited members by offering the prospects of professional and social advancement within the regime, as well as by a wide-ranging program of activities, including the infamous annual summer camp on Lake Seliger, attended by top government officials, including Vladimir Putin. (The tradition of politically themed youth camps in Russia had, in fact, been started in the 1990s by the now-jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose New Civilization initiative aimed at instilling in young Russians the values of democracy and civic awareness. The program was terminated soon after Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003.)

Over the years, the members of Nashi, buoyed by generous financial and administrative backing, have excelled in harassing opposition activists and human rights campaigners, as well as in ginning up an imitation of “mass support” for Putin at pro-regime rallies. Yet, as tens of thousands of Russians—mostly young people—went to the streets in December 2011 to protest a fraudulent election and demand democratic reforms, the regime’s supporters from Nashi were nowhere to be seen—the clearest indication of the movement’s manufactured,top-down nature.

The 2011–2012 anti-Putin protests in Russia fall outside the scope of the study, which was completed in 2011, but polling data presented in The Next Generation reveal the changing attitudes of Russia’s youth over the last several years and indicate why they took to the streets to protest Putin’s election fraud. In 2010, the top answer given by young Russians to the question “What does democracy mean to you first and foremost?” was “free and fair elections.” (The top answer to the same question from their Ukrainian and Azerbaijani peers was “prosperity, stable growth of the economy.”)

The much-discussed correlation between a growing middle class and a growing demand for political freedom is also confirmed by Diuk’s data. It shows that the proportion of Russia’s young people with high incomes has increased from 5.9 percent in 2003 to 15.6 percent in 2010. No less important to the rise of civic awareness was the expanded access to information. In 2003, the Internet, the country’s only truly uncensored source of news, was available to 18.4 percent of young Russians. By 2010, this figure had reached 60.5 percent.

While the numbers for the other two countries are lower, the overall trend is the same: the proportion of young people with incomes above $500 per month has increased from 0.1 percent to 1.3 percent in Ukraine, and from 0.0 percent to 6.0 percent in Azerbaijan (the largest increase of the three states in the study). Unlike Russia or Ukraine, Azerbaijan has never been considered an electoral democracy. (The only vote approaching accepted standards of political competition took place in 1992.) It also holds the dubious distinction of being the only post-Soviet country to have undergone a dynastic succession: the presidency was transferred in 2003 from Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham Aliyev. With civil society under stronger pressure from the authorities arguably even than in Putin’s Russia, and with access to the Internet much more limited (only 27.8 percent of young Azerbaijanis were online in 2010), pro-democracy youth movements are not as visible in Azerbaijan as they are in the other two countries—although a number of groups, such as Yox! (“No!”), were formed at the time of the 2005 parliamentary election and actively participated in the post-election protests. Diuk concludes that Azerbaijan’s youth is somewhat behind the Russians and Ukrainians in its support for political freedoms. Yet a plurality (39.4 percent) of young Azerbaijanis described their views as social democratic, outnumbering both nationalists (31.6 percent) and Islamists (14.2 percent). Asked to name the most important aspect of democracy, 36.6 percent of Azerbaijani respondents named “free and fair elections.”

 

Ukraine offers the only example in the study where youth movements actually prompted change in the political system. The four-year civic campaign, initially called “Ukraine without Kuchma,” culminated in the now-famous “Orange Revolution” of November 2004, in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians successfully rallied to overturn the results of a fraudulent election. Initially welcomed into the new administration of Viktor Yushchenko, many young NGO leaders were later pushed aside, or left of their own will, disillusioned with political infighting and the slow pace of reforms. (Some, like Pora co-founder Vladislav Kaskiv, who now works for President Viktor Yanukovich, have switched camps for career reasons.) Like much of Ukrainian public opinion, these young people were disillusioned by the record of the “Orange” administration. By the end of Yushchenko’s presidential term in 2010, he was even more unpopular among young Ukrainians than President Leonid Kuchma had been in 2003 (respectively, 78.4 and 72.5 percent).

Since Diuk’s study was completed, events in Russia have shown in practice what polling trends had begun to point to in theory. Following the December 2011 parliamentary elections (in which, according to independent estimates, between thirteen and fifteen million votes were “stolen” by Putin’s United Russia party), tens of thousands of Russians came out on the streets of Moscow and other cities to demand new elections, the release of political prisoners, and the registration of opposition parties. These were Russia’s largest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades. The rally on December 24th, which took place (symbolically) on Andrei Sakharov Avenue in central Moscow, attracted some one hundred and twenty thousand participants. According to the survey conducted at that rally by the Levada Center (the same agency that compiled polling data for Diuk’s book), fifty-six percent of the anti-Putin protesters in Moscow were aged eighteen to thirty-nine. More recent studies by the Levada Center have shown that while US- and European-style liberal democracy appeals to twenty-seven percent of the overall Russian population (thirty-eight percent want a democracy that takes account of “national traditions”), this figure rises to forty-two percent (a plurality) among those aged twenty-five and younger.

As Nadia Diuk shows yet again in this compelling book, generational change, while never one-dimensional, still remains “the dynamic of historical development.”

Vladimir V. Kara-Murza is the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma. A member of the federal council of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party, he was previously an opposition candidate for the Russian Parliament. He blogs weekly for World Affairs.

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