The 1989 revolutions that delivered Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination are nearly 30 years in the past. In four countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – democratic and economic transitions proceeded quickly and were rewarded by European Union and NATO membership some 15 years ago. Most citizens prospered in the “New Europe,” but some did not. The political wave of populism now sweeping most of Europe in the wake of the financial and refugee crises has profoundly changed politics in Central Europe. Once sporting assured new democracies, a number of countries in the region have abruptly reversed political course, pulling back from Europe and weakening democratic guarantees of equal rights, rule of law, independent media and fair and transparent electoral competition. For many of the region’s 60 million people who went through the transition process, the current bout of democracy recession provokes alarm over what they see as abrogation of the ideals that inspired the Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring, the Solidarity Movement, on through to the prosperous and open societies of today.
For Central Europe's young people, who didn’t experience communism first-hand, history’s echoes are more faint. The democracy rollback and reactionary trends are disconcerting for many of them. Thousands have marched in the last year in Bratislava, Budapest, and Warsaw to protest against corruption and controversial judicial and social legislation. But the lens through which they view politics differs from those of older generations. Young people are more nuanced on the subjects of democracy and integration, less tethered to the values that defined Soviet-era dissidence and the post-1989 transitions. And just as young people are forming their political beliefs and views, online disinformation is scrambling their signals, not just about political events, but about the nature of democratic politics itself.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been present in Central Europe since 1989, supporting political parties, legislatures, and civil society, and thousands of people who entered the democratic fray as elected leaders, advocates, watchdogs, and voters. The Institute has observed democratic developments in the region with growing concern as it continues to support democratic discourse among parties, civic groups, and ethnic and religious minorities.
In these programs, NDI is focusing on young people. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in partnership with local social research groups, NDI is conducting public opinion polling and focus group research with people aged 16-29 in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The research was conducted prior to unprecedented demonstrations in Slovakia arising from the February murder of an investigative journalist that led to the resignation of the Prime Minister. It was also held before the April parliamentary elections in Hungary.
The attached consolidated report reveals some measure of ambiguity among young people on democracy, identity, and politics. Young people overall believe that democracy is the idea system of governance -- between 70 and 80 percent, however, they are dissatisfied with the political situation in their respective countries. Focus groups reveal that their disillusionment with politicians and repudiation of perceived government corruption manifests in low levels of political participation beyond voting.
Youth personally identify with Europe and connect EU integration with social and economic advancement. They are patriotic in their appreciation of their countries’ histories and contributions to Europe, which leads them to view their national, local, and European identities as complementary. Most do not want to see religion mixed with politics or connect religion to national identity. They endorse gender equality, but are lukewarm about equality on the basis of sexual orientation.
Young people have concerns about economic and national security that prompts a significant portion, ranging from 40 percent in Poland to nearly 60 percent in Hungary, to say that they are willing to sacrifice some democratic principles -- such as civil liberties and human rights -- to ensure a higher standard of living and protect national security. An extremely low number – below 20 percent in Poland, lower than 10 percent in Hungary and Slovakia – view immigrants as contributing positively to society, and near-majorities of young people are not happy with ethnic and religious diversity in their societies.Young poles in particular see their society’s relative ethnic homogeneity as contributing to Polish unity and national security.
Sentiment among youth divides by education, gender, urban/rural locale, and political affiliation. On most social issues young women and men express similar sentiments, but young men are more rigid in those views than young women. Priority issues also diverge between urban and rural geographies. Youth in urban areas have a higher level of interest in the quality of government and democracy than those outside of cities, who are more concerned with socio-economic issues.
Young people turn to the internet, primarily Facebook, for news and information more than they rely on broadcast or print media. In focus groups, youth note that they use Facebook as a first source of information, which they then verify through other online outlets. Many consider disinformation to exist but are split on its source. Most young Poles attribute disinformation to the Kremlin. Young Slovaks are divided. Young Hungarians do not see Kremlin interference in the media.
The research suggests that mainstream political actors should engage young people through new and direct forms of dialogues, prioritizing topics of youth interest, including but not limited to anti-corruption initiatives. More research by NDI and other organizations is needed to render a fuller understanding of youth sentiment in Central Europe on politics and democracy, particularly with so much uncertainty about the democratic moorings of the countries in question and about the European project overall.