Post-Soviet Youth in Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"Who are the next generation of post-Soviet youth, and why is it important to study them and their leaders?" asked Nadia Diuk, Director, Central Europe and Eurasia Section, National Endowment for Democracy, at a 24 March 2003 noon discussion at the Kennan Institute. Diuk stated that she grew interested in this question after reading President Vladimir Putin's autobiography, which led her to wonder what would be in the autobiography of the Russian president in 2016: "What will be this future person's values? What are the institutional mechanisms that will bring this person to power? Putin and his generation came to power in a certain way; are those mechanisms going to stay the same?"

To answer these questions, Diuk decided to study the "next generation" in Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. This generation is comprised of individuals who were born in or soon after 1968. They came of age when Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms were first introduced in the mid-1980s, and are now thirty-five years old or younger. It is a generation that has not yet achieved power, noted Diuk. In Ukraine, a youth movement helped topple a prime minister in 1990, but in the years since, none of the leaders from that movement have come to prominence. In Russia, each of the main political parties has a youth wing, but, she said, none have really had an impact and the leaders of the parties themselves are largely the same as ten years ago. This generation was active in Azerbaijan's drive for independence, but a much older generation governs today.

Diuk stated that the first task of her study, and the subject of her presentation, was to build a portrait of this generation in the three countries. In November 2002, according to Diuk, an opinion poll of 18-34 year-olds was conducted in Russia and Ukraine, while data from Azerbaijan remains incomplete. The statistics gathered from the responses provide insight into the demographic situation of the next generation and illustrate differing opinions on issues including freedom, equality, and trust in state and societal institutions in the three countries.

Diuk explained that the demographic data from the poll found that Russians of this generation are financially better off than those in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, although the high incomes of respondents in Moscow and St. Petersburg skewed the sample. She also found that quarter or more of the respondents in each country stated that they earn more than their parents. Young people in Ukraine and Russia were more likely to own a car than young people in Azerbaijan, but young Azeris reported greater usage of cell phones and the internet than in Russia and Ukraine.

Other poll questions in Russia and Ukraine focused on the values held by this generation. Respondents were asked to prioritize among seven values. According to Diuk, in both Russia and Ukraine materialistic values such as the right to a job, the right to a home, and the right to education were the three most important values, with freedom of speech coming in fourth and freedom of conscience coming in last. However, she noted, Russians and Ukrainians have differing views regarding freedom and equality: in Ukraine, more than half of the respondents expressed a preference for equality, while over 53 percent of Russian respondents opted for freedom over equality. In both countries, majorities of over 60 percent feel that the state should ensure that all citizens have a decent standard of living.

Trust in government institutions was another component of Diuk's survey. She posited that one way that societal change can be measured is by the level of confidence people have in social and state institutions. Diuk's reported that in Russia, President Putin enjoys a confidence rating of over 80 percent, but other government institutions there were not trusted. In Ukraine, where President Kuchma is beset by scandal, only 21 percent expressed trust in the president, with other government institutions scoring even lower. In both countries, educational institutions and the media were highly trusted, and political parties scored at the bottom, according to Diuk.

Diuk stated that there is also a low level of confidence in non-governmental organizations, which does not bode well for the development of civil society. She noted that one interesting finding from the survey showed that the respondents place the most confidence in friends and family. This, Diuk explained, indicates that people rely on clans of "networks of trust" rather than on state institutions.

When asked whether the values evidenced by the next generation in the poll results were more indicative of a softer Soviet paternalism rather than a basis for a blossoming democracy, Diuk disagreed slightly. "It is a mixed picture," said Diuk. "The paternal impulses are there, but [this generation] is more open and self-reliant. They choose jobs, homes, and education because the economic levels of [their] societies have not provided a standard of living where they can be comfortable thinking about the values of freedom."

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