A front row seat in observing the changes in post-Communist Europe over the past two decades allowed the National Endowment for Democracy’s Nadia Diuk to draw some conclusions on political change, transition, youth, and identity for her recently published book on The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.
One of the reasons why I started to study youth and generational change was because of my interest in transition and political change. How do government’s change? In democratic countries we see a transparent process of citizens voting for their representatives in elections and holding them accountable through democratic institutions of a democracy, including a free press and an independent judiciary. In authoritarian states, leadership changes are conducted through a process that is often opaque and hard to discern. The end result usually entails the leader appointing his (and it usually is “his”) successor. Or sometimes there is a military takeover, or an inside “palace” coup, and occasionally there will be a revolution that brings in a new government. But even when these “revolutions” take place, as we have seen in the past decade, we are never certain that the system will be changed and that no other dictator will ever emerge to take the place of the one just deposedThe only element that we do know for sure, the one element that makes political change inevitable—is the progress of generations.
I would like us to question the notion that youth programs should train “future leaders” and that “youth politics” are preparation for entering the adult world of politics. The median age in Kosovo is 27; it is a very young country, so it seems appropriate that many of the politicians here should also be from a younger generation.
Kosovo and the Western Balkan region overall are going through what Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi has referred to as a “moussaka of transitions.” Four such transitions relate directly to this region and to regions such as the former Soviet Union, which also went through the challenge of multiple transitions.
The first transition is in the political system—the transition from authoritarianism or communism to democracy. Even though many of you will not remember life under communism, you may recognize some of the trends in the way young people were treated as common in any state where democratic norms have not yet take root. In a dictatorship, it is the young who are often pushed aside and kept away from the real business of politics. When an elite has entrenched itself in power, there is often little space for innovation or for young people to move up the political ladder.
Often these elites, or the dictator in some cases, will claim that they know what is best for all citizens. Instead of being able to participate freely in the political process, young people become the “object” of politics. Politics is defined and organized for them. In many of the post-communist countries of the former Soviet Union the remnants of this system may be seen in the way “youth politics” is formed—usually by older officials—through the establishment of a Ministry for Youth (often included into the same office as Culture and Sport). In order to take part in politics young people may have to compromise their ideals to receive the support of the establishment.
In the past decade we have seen how idealistic young people have led protest movements that have brought down governments—in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Egypt. But often, when the protests have subsided and the young people have packed up their tents and gone home, the old system reasserts itself and the older more seasoned politicians come back—and the ideals and aspirations that brought the young people out onto the streets are lost.
There are still some countries where the ruling elite takes advantage of the energy and enthusiasm of young people to create youth movements in support of the ruling power, as in Russia, with the youth group Nashi.
In some countries, it is not only an older generation in government that wants to hang on to power; opposition leaders sometimes stay in place for years, preventing younger people from moving up into leadership positions in opposition political parties and movements. Democratic rotation should apply to these parties as well as to pro-government parties and bureaucracies.
The second transition for Kosovo and for this region as a whole has been to navigate the road from a planned economy to a free market. The system of “worker’s self-management” in old Yugoslavia operated essentially as a command economy run by the Communist Party. As with any economy that is reforming it is often the young people who are hit the hardest, with youth experiencing the highest levels of unemployment. For this reason young people should be involved in economic reform so as not to be left out of the equation. The transition to a free market economy should involve and be responsive to the needs of young people who are the work-force that will be the engine of economic success over the long term.
The third transition particularly relevant for this part of the world is the challenge of coping with the consequences and healing in a post-conflict society. Again, young people are perhaps in the best position to take the lead. Moving on from a brutal, recent past that has claimed the lives of many innocent victims is a very hard process to accomplish; while the past and its lessons should never be forgotten, young people stand the best chance of getting beyond the strictures the past can sometimes impose, holding future generations captive to prejudices that prevent a positive resolution of problems.
The fourth transition is closely connected to the previous one—forging a new national identity as part of the challenge of establishing an independent state. The struggle for independent statehood for Kosovo is recent enough for many young people in this room to have experienced directly. The process of building an independent state starts with the creation of new national institutions but it also includes the creation of a new national identity. What kind of identity should Kosovo have and what kind of political culture will sustain and support independent Kosovo moving forward?
These are questions for young people to decide. Young people are in the best position to make it happen—you can imagine what kind of country you want Kosovo to be and work toward realizing that vision in the future. And that future begins now; every action you take now is a building block toward the future you are aiming to achieve.
Nadia Diuk is vice president for programs, Africa, Central Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and author of The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan: Youth, Politics, Identity, and Change.
The above extract is taken from a speech to the Prishtina Youth Summit in Kosovo, Albania, December 14th-16th 2012.