Youth in Eastern Europe – Disillusioned, frustrated, or optimistic?

How does the youth view politics, the EU and democratisation? Haley Reimbold and Klaus Hurrelmann explain why their perceptions matter.

Recent Youth Studies conducted in South Eastern European nations supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung present a detailed picture of where youth values, attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions align or diverge in the region. Building on the Shell Youth Study conducted in Germany every four to five years since 1953, this research has been led by national teams since 2011 with seven countries producing reports recently including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia.

Studying democratization processes, EU integration, and the inter-linkages between these two areas is especially relevant in South Eastern Europe as EU integration is often cited as the main incentive or external impetus for democratization yet to become integrated into the EU, countries must reach a certain level of democratic development.

To date, limited research has been conducted focused on youth perceptions and attitudes toward EU integration and democratization in South Eastern Europe despite the fact that youth are critical stakeholders in helping countries overcome post-conflict democratization challenges. Additionally, youth are often catalysts for change within societies and their buy-in to EU integration and democratization processes can determine the success of such processes.

Youth have not been addressed in studies of EU integration of SEE and not been treated systematically in democratization studies. There are diverging expectations in regards to youth contributions to democratization. Research has established that social and political unrest is more likely in nations with large youth cohorts. This is especially true among marginalized groups in nations that provide few options for the advancement of educational or economic prospects. On the other hand, youth help to overcome negative consequences in some post-conflict democratization cases. For example, youth were able to offset ethnic divisions, which were solidified with introduction of power sharing institutions, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Education and youth were the most productive domains for reconciliation and democratization in the post-conflict period.

Youth perceptions and engagement levels can provide indications of a country’s future direction and assessments of the opportunities available to them as well as the performance of country leadership and international institutions. If youth are becoming increasingly frustrated or disenfranchised from formal political processes, for example, uprisings or more informal modes of participation may occur. Youth studies, especially when they involve youth in the research process, reinforce the importance of young peoples’ perspectives and can contribute to re-engaging youth and ensuring that they feel heard by national and international players. And, an obvious benefit is that leadership can assess their performance and develop new strategies, when needed, to improve youth satisfaction. Of course, this research is ever more critical today, with fewer people accessing traditional modes of political and civic engagement and the growing use of online and alternative methods of influencing social and political change.

While great variance exists across countries completing Youth Reports on many issue areas, commonalities emerged as well. For example, the most important value cited by youth in every country was personal dignity – political parties were among the least trusted institutions in all countries. Across all seven countries, youth believed that they could have greater political efficacy and influence governing institutions more at the local level than at the national level. Support for EU integration was widespread, but in countries that have recently joined the EU, support levels were almost 50 percent lower than in countries that are not yet part of the EU. This could be an indicator of youth feeling disillusioned and holding potentially unrealistic and unmet expectations from EU integration.

A fundamental problem of most SEE countries is the low level of trust and participation. While confidence in political institutions across the world declined since 1990, in Baltic countries this shift was extreme. The problem: The better political authorities perform, the more people will trust them, the more trusting and efficacious they will feel, and the more likely they will be to take part in democratic processes. Without young people having confidence in the system and leadership of their nation, we have to raise concerns that this could lead to the erosion of legitimacy of the foundations of the nation and representative government in the next generation.

The EU has several programs that support youth in action; however, national governments can make a greater effort to target youth support. Supporting youth organizations, financially and technically, would be beneficial to expand informal educational possibilities, but also to empower youth engagement. It is very likely that if a person becomes active in a youth organization, that she will remain socially active in adulthood as well.

Klaus Hurrelmann presented these ideas in a keynote at the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation’s conference Youth in East Europe: Challenges and Perspectives in Times of Transition on 27 February 2015.

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