In early 2020, the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation published the results of a study of the behavior of young Ukrainians and their political preferences. The main conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that, as a separate social group, young people are extremely diverse.
Among other conclusions, the study also confirms that young people are not radically different from other age groups. Moreover, it’s not the main driver of political change, unlike the 1990s. One explanation for this is that those young people who were the movers and shakers of the Granite and Orange Revolutions are no longer young. According to the research director of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s School for Policy Analysis, Anna Osypchuk, between the Granite Revolution to the Revolution of Dignity, the perecentage of young people among the protestors gradually went down: «During the Maidan, about one third were young people. It was no longer a revolution driven by youth: its core was the generation who had driven the Granite and Orange Revolutions. I think that part of the answer to this question is that people who have not lived through those earlier times have little idea of the danger of returning to them.»
Nevertheless, the ideological focus of young people remains pretty clear. For instance, 60% of young Ukrainians (age 18-29) still see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a positive event. This is the highest proportion among all age groups. Similarly, if there were a referendum on independence in Ukraine today, 81% of this youngest group would favor independence.
Still, there were also some unexpected results. For instance, it turns out that young people are no less susceptible to populism than their elders: nearly 90% of respondents, including in this age group, agree with the statement that Ukraine needs a strong leader. And 61% believe that their politicians are acting «on orders from foreign governments and international organization,»while 63% agree that «socially urgent policy decisions and laws should be immediately approved, even if that means violating procedures.»Another 73.6% agree with the statement «I trust politicians come from the people the most.»Ukrainians of all generations most clearly demonstrated their populist mood during the 2019 elections.
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«As to their convictions regarding the country’s foreign policy vectors, I always say that there will be no regression, Ukraine will not return to Russia, because the generations are slowly changing and most of them now look to the West and not to the East,»said the late Iryna Bekeshkina, then Ilko Kucheriv DIF director. Her optimistic statements were confirmed by the numbers: 54% of young people want Ukraine to join NATO.
Today, the Verkhovna Rada has more young people than ever before. The political and social celebrities, activists and public figures among them also show that authority and the status of «opinion leader»do not depend on age at this point. However, while some members of this age group are ever more actively involved in politics and are joining civil society, others walk under the banners of primary absenteeism. According to an electoral behavior study of social groups carried out October 28, 2020, by the Rating group, only 11% of those aged 19-29 participated in the local elections. Those who did not vote offered three main reasons for their absenteeism: «I don’t live at my registered domicile» (30%), «I was busy the day of the election» (22%), and «The election was uninteresting» (12%). The first two reasons can be eliminated, if only the will were there, the problem with «the election was a bore»is a hard nut to crack without a systematic approach.
Still, the study shows that young people have quite different views of life. Their values and activeness are a complex mix of their level of education, social status, upbringing, and the region they come from. So, youth in eastern and southern oblasts are less politically engaged which was evident in the October local elections: 60% of voters were over the age of 50 there.
And clearly not all young Ukrainians are pro-Ukrainian. It’s not even worth mentioning the reintegration of the sovoksin the temporarily occupied territories if you just look at the ambitious plans of supporters of Shariy from Kharkiv to Lviv or the involvement of young people in the activities of Opposition Platform-Za Zhyttia (OPZZ). The best indicator of how families influence the younger generation is the sharply rising star of the son of Natalia Korolevska and Yuriy Solod. At 19, Rostyslav Solod is already a city council deputy in Kramatorsk from the OPZZ party. There’s no doubt that his «star»parents did not offer their son an alternative worldview, but why do young people choose pro-Russian values?
The first reason is the same for all supporters of the«great and mighty»in OPZZ: illusory stability. Kids grow up certain that «things were better before.»Good, «powerful managers»who make a point of visiting ordinary workers at factories, «philanthropists»who give your granny a box of medications before an election, and the general image of people who «may steal, but they do something,»very reliably transforms the older generation’s nostalgia for the past into the hope that the government will do everything for you in the minds of future voters.
The second reason is that they simply don’t know how things might be different. This is especially true of the children and younger generation who were born or grew up under occupation. Children who were born in 2014 and could already be in Grade 2 have the tricolor before their eyes all the time, hear the adults around them talking, and see signs marked «Danger, mines!»and certainly feel no love lost for Ukraine. However, this is more an issue of social adaptation or reintegration, and is certainly not straightforward.
The third reason is that it’s easier this way. Teenage years are burdened with stress and challenges, both internal and social: growing up, college entrance exams, choosing a specialization, and the first time voting at 18-21. If they hear in school, in university or in their inner circles about political participation and the importance of democracy itself, that’s good. But if they don’t see any prospects, and someone offers you UAH 200 to put a check mark on your ballot in a certain place, why not agree? During the 2020 election campaign, it was very common to see kids running OPZZ campaign tents. For example, in downtown Kharkiv, three boys age 14, 16 and 17 stood like that because it was quick and easy money, although the boys did not even understand the party’s platform that they were promoting or even what kind of party they were working for. What’s more, not everyone is prepared to resist the influence of their families or friends, and so often it’s easier to quietly agree with their value – at first on the surface, and later internally as well.
Still, can being young justify questionable decisions? By voting for a pro-Russian party, a person is not violating any laws of Ukraine because all these parties are officially registered and have been allowed to run in an election. Nominally, everything is above-board. But a recent story emerged about a journalist for Channel 112, Daria Chyrakh, who once posted a photo in Instagram of herself when she was 14, holding a paper saying «Save Donbass from Ukraine Army»and a St. George ribbon. It confirmed, once again, that the «unprocessed»sins of our youth are sure to catch up to us if they are silenced or unacknowledged.
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The Ukrainian Week talked to a number of politically active young people in Kharkiv Oblast who ran for various levels of councils in the local election. Although none of them gained their dream seats, they remain optimistic. Here are the questions we asked them:
1. There’s a widespread belief that young people are the most apathetic when it comes to politics. What motivates young people to work for change? What are your sources of inspiration?
2. What made you decide to get into politics?
3. What do you think gets in the way of young people being more interested in politics?
4. How much of an influence on the quality of politics can young people have?
5. What do young people have to offer to politics and what does politics give young people?
6. What is your main goal in going into politics?
7. What was your impression of the local elections? How expected were the outcomes? What are your plans for being politically active going forward?
Oleksiy Malko, 26, serviceman, Svitlychna’s Razom [Together] Bloc
- Most young people really are apathetic. For me, that’s the main motivation. «If not me, then who?»I’m inspired by the examples I see in neighboring communities – Pisochyn and Vedenka. Their development is impressive. I’m also inspired by examples in the oblast centers that are changing before our eyes: Ivano-Frankivsk and Khmelnytskiy. These examples and the people – and their achievements – are what keep me from losing my optimism.
- This is not my first time running for office. My first attempt was in 2016, when I was 22. I have ideas that I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time now, but to quickly and effectively carry them out, I need to be in an executive team. Just cooperating with those in power to make these changes that I envision has not been possible, unfortunately.
- It’s the environment in which every teenager lives, is engaged and is growing up. In general, the problem is widespread disillusionment and the lack of visible results that might serve as an example.
- I see this from a different perspective: you need a touch of the maximalist and ambition, and that’s why we need a youthful council. But it has to also function properly, the way it does in Khmlenytskiy and Frankivsk.
- Young people can bring a bit of maximalism to politics and ambition to get real changes happen in a hurry. Politics can give young people the experience of making their ideas come to life, as well as prospects for personal and professional growth. Politics isn’t something separate that affects only a few areas of life: it’s everywhere, which is why all of us should feel a bit of responsibility for their own future.
- To see my ideas come to life and to gain experience.
- Of course, the results were somewhat unexpected. My main goal was to change the town’s mayor. Gaining a seat for myself was secondary. For sure, I’m going to continue in politics. I want a bright future for myself, my neighbors and my children, so that they never have the least desire to move away from their country.
Daria Konokh, 21, student, European Solidarity
- I think that there are different kinds of people. Some live according to the principle, «What I don’t know can’t hurt me,»while others are prepared to fight for a better future. Of course, by entering politics, I found myself in an environment with hundreds of the most worthy young politicians, public figures and volunteers. It’s not often that I have to come out of this comfort zone and return to the mundane world of «passive youth.»For young people to want to engage in politics, they first of all need to understand that this is real power to change both their own personal lives and the life of their country. It’s no less important to see that there’s room for greenhorns in this sphere. Inspiration has to be garnered from your mentors and talented people by absorbing their successes and achievements, and, of course, from within yourself and your goals.
- I think that a fairly large proportion of people has begun to follow the political situation in the country since the tumultuous events on the Maidan, the start of the war in the Donbas, and the launch of eurointegration. At the same time, we’ve seen a load of «couch critics,»know-it-alls and readers of Twitter and Facebook. I was one of those «couch critics.»I always felt that I could do more, that I had the power to influence certain events, but I couldn’t figure out the mechanism for applying my skills, knowledge and ambitions.
- I’m sure that some parties are setting up barriers on purpose. Politicians who have been elected not for the first time don’t want to give up their places on the lists to young and inexperienced boys and girls.
- The quality of politics directly depends on the presence of young people, because 20-year old deputies give a huge boost of energy to factions in a council, generate phenomenal ideas, are happy to take on responsibility, and work without cease. I think that young people should be engaged in politics.
- Young people bring new ideas to politics, an energy boost to keep working, and fresh, new approaches to resolving various issues. And so new projects are launched and old processes are reformed. I would call this the modernization of political activities. And politics, in turn, gives young people a powerful start for personal development.
- To change my country for the better. However hyperbolic this might sound, that’s it. It’s a complicated process of changes and reforms that is composed of thousands of little steps.
- The results were pretty unexpected for me. This was my first time running for office and I was shocked at the number of people who supported me by putting their check mark next to my name. Even though I didn’t make it, I took this strong result as an indication that I’m moving in the right direction and people trust me. I remain active since this was the first but definitely not the last election in my life.
Mikhail Aksionov, 21, student, Democratychna sokyra [Democratic axe]
- It’s true that there aren’t a lot of young people in politics. But this is not in any way because they are supposedly «politically apathetic.»That’s not true. Let’s remember at least the example of revolutions in Ukraine’s modern history, when students were the driving force. The main thing is to find yourself a reason. In fact, a lot of those who have just started on their political paths may not entirely understand their own motives. It’s there, even if it’s deep inside you, you don’t understand it, but anyway you get up and try to change something in this world. Later on comes understanding and growing hope for a better future. The future is very far but you’re ready to go further and to do whatever it takes to go make sure there’s at least a single chance that this hope won’t fade. And this gives you strength.
- When I was little, my father would often kid me: «You’ll grow up and be president!»I’ve always been keen about knowledge and the unknown. When I joined the party, I got to know the people who determine the agenda in my country – even if it’s just a little. I saw an opportunity to expand and fill my image of the world with new bits of the puzzle. And my father stopped kidding. My pathway to politics has been filled with lucky coincidences and accidents. My motivation came later. I don’t believe in fate, but what if this is it?
- This question is hard to answer because I didn’t feel any obstacles to getting involved in politics. However, I can see two reasons. The first one is the dominance of political parties that are leader-oriented in Ukrainian politics. Leader-oriented parties are always top-down and young people don’t really like to completely subordinate themselves to someone else. The other major barrier is the traditional way that Ukrainian parties build themselves, especially the «youth»ones. The Ukrainian style of party-building can really be called a logical extension of the soviet style and this is the main factor why young people are missing in politics. Parties are organized like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, party bosses are now «contemporary leaders,»while the Komsomol and Pioneers have been turned into «youth parties.»
- It’s very important for young people to be present in politics because democracy should be representative. Which means the interests of young people should also be represented and defended. I believe that the quality of politics depends on the quality of ideas, and not age or the number of terms politicians themselves have served.
- Young people are trendsetters. They set the dynamics. Politics, on the contrary, is reactive and adapts to new trends. Young people generate new challenges for politics, while politics tries to respond to them. Young people are drawn to an open, progressive society, whereas politics is resisting this today. But I hope that this will change in the future. Perhaps precisely because these same young people will become part of big politics.
- I want us to be living in a strong country, where money is spent on decent roads, on a fair system of justice, on making the economy more competitive, and on securing the national borders, not on kickbacks or shoring up failing state enterprises and flocks of ineffective officials. I’m not inventing the wheel here. I just want Ukraine to go on that path that it should have been on for 29 years already.
- I wasn’t expecting very high results, firstly because of the limits of my and my party’s resources. And the result hasn’t discouraged me: I plan to continue to work on myself in order to do better in the next election. Hanna Tsiomyk, Kharkiv
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj