Young Eastern Europeans Disillusioned With the West

A girl wearing military fatigues walks in front of placards considered a symbol of resistance against a Russian-created insurgency in Ukraine.

SourceSERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because first Crimea, then eastern Ukraine — who’s next?

In a noisy café in central Kiev, where anti-Putin stickers adorn the doors and young people from across Ukraine’s busy capital like to relax after work, the Lebediev brothers — Vitalii, 24, and Oleksii, 23 — worry about the impact of developments in Britain and the U.S. on their futures. “Before Brexit, I didn’t think there were such big problems” in the European Union, says Vitalii over a cup of tea. But now, “we have to think twice … if this is our future.” Oleksii also is concerned: “Russia will make its move for sure once we don’t have as much support from the U.S. and European Union.”

The brothers are far from alone in their fears. Ukrainian millennials, like their counterparts in other Central and Eastern European countries, once saw the West in a very positive light. A 2014 study by the European Youth Parliament found that more than 60 percent of Poles ages 15 to 28 wanted more European integration. Last spring a Pew Research Center poll of Ukrainians ages 18 to 29 showed that nearly 80 percent of respondents had favorable views of the West. However, recent conversations with young people and experts from six countries — Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — reveal that 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the region’s youth are disillusioned with both the EU and the U.S.

Millennial anxieties about growing Russian influence extend across the political spectrum.

Young people have begun worrying what Brexit and the election of Donald Trump mean for their countries’ security. They are highly aware of the region’s history as a playground for great powers and fear that a smaller, weaker EU and Trump’s isolationist tendencies will result in growing Russian influence in their countries’ economies, media and political decision-making. Flóra Somogyi, a 25-year-old Hungarian living in London, describes her reaction to the results of the American presidential election: “I actually cried. I knew the implications for Eastern Europe and [Trump’s] take on NATO.” (Trump has called the alliance “obsolete.”)

Millennial anxieties about growing Russian influence extend across the political spectrum. “Young Poles are generally more conservative than Western Europeans and were supportive of Donald Trump because of his conservative approach to social policies and international relations,” explains Wojciech Jakóbik, an analyst at the Jagiellonian Institute, a think tank in Warsaw. Nevertheless, conservative young Poles are “afraid of Trump’s statements about reconciliation with Russia.” One result: Membership in Polish paramilitary organizations has more than tripled to 100,000 volunteers since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine in early 2014.

In addition, young people are concerned how Brexit and Trump will impact the trajectory of their nations’ political systems. In Ukraine, that fear centers on reform. “Many positive changes in Ukraine became real only thanks to external pressure from our partners, mostly the European Union and the United States,” argues Anton Marchuk, a 20-year-old Ukrainian anticorruption campaigner who was named one of Forbes’ top 30 under 30 in Europe.

Moreover, recent political changes in the West are beginning to affect how young people see their own futures. While it’s unclear what Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policies will look like, some young Central and Eastern Europeans already are beginning to rethink their personal plans. “There’s going to be a big shift because of Brexit,” says George Greskovits, director of academic programs at the Milestone Institute in Budapest, which prepares high-performing Hungarian high school students who are applying to Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities. Currently, EU students are considered “home” students in the U.K. and pay the same tuition as their British peers. Following Brexit, Europeans expect they’ll be considered international students, leading to a sharp rise in fees. At Oxford, for example, that means instead of paying about $11,500 in tuition per year, with eligibility for government loans, Greskovits’ students could end up paying roughly $29,000 to $38,000, with no opportunities for loans. As a result, Greskovits encourages many of his students to apply to Canadian and American schools as well as British ones.

But some observers believe that political turmoil has not undermined young peoples’ trust in their Western neighbors. “Ukrainian youth still consider the Western model of development as the most attractive one, despite some disillusionment both in the pace of Ukrainian reforms and in the EU’s intention to help Kiev,” says Maksym Khylko, chairman of the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation. Optimists also point to the recent declaration by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that the U.S. will continue sanctions against Russia as a signal that the Trump administration will not seek a full rapprochement with Moscow. American “values are constant, they are democratic — even with Trump,” says Inna Madruga, a 22-year-old Ukrainian in Kiev.

All the same, far-right groups have attracted a segment of the region’s youth over the past six or seven years as the EU has experienced economic and political challenges. Brexit and Trump could accelerate that trend as millennial radicals turn to anti-EU and anti-NATO political parties and social movements. Or they might simply become too disenchanted with the West to oppose the new nationalist and populist political tide.

For Oleksii and Vitalii Lebediev, the future appears uncertain. Oleksii warns, “Everyone is afraid in Ukraine what will happen next.”

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