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Baltics: Analysis From Washington: Generational Politics In Post-Soviet States

  • Paul Goble

Tallinn, 29 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Today is the 70th birthday of Estonian President Lennart Meri. His prime minister, Mart Laar, is 38. Both are committed to democracy and free markets. And together they represent one of several very different patterns in the politics of generations in post-communist countries.

As in the neighboring Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania, politics in Estonia often finds the oldest and the youngest generations united against those of middle age with regard to the transformation of that society.

The oldest are committed to this process because they were formed by the experiences of Estonia prior to the Soviet occupation, while the youngest are committed to it because they were the least affected by that occupation.

Not surprisingly, Estonians of middle age often have a very different approach precisely because of their different life experiences. They were the most thoroughly integrated into the communist system and consequently were the most affected by it. And thus they often find themselves on the other side of these debates.

This Baltic pattern of generational politics is very different than the one found in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics. And these differences are likely to have an increasingly important impact on the development of these societies and on the way in which their leaderships will interact with the West.

In most of the former Soviet republics, the generational divide is between the older half of the population and the younger half, with the older age groups in general more attached to the values of the Soviet past and less committed to the values of both democracy and free markets. In these states, the younger people, especially those in their 20s and 30s frequently serve as the major motive force for social, political and economic transformations.

That pattern has provided a certain basis for optimism in and about these countries over the longer term, leading both people there and governments in the West to conclude that over time, the young will become the dominant force as the old leave the scene. But there is a third pattern of generational politics, one seen most clearly in the Russian Federation. And that pattern may give rise to a future very different than the advocates of freedom currently support.

In that country, members of the older generation do in fact remain more committed to the values of communism. It is almost a cliche to say that Russian pensioners are the primary support group for communists and nationalists in the Duma and elsewhere.

But there the resemblance to the situation in most other former Soviet republics ends. A variety of data suggests that the relationship of the young and the middle-aged to the values of democracy and free markets are very different there than elsewhere.

All polling data show that the young, those in their 20s and 30s, are the most committed to free markets, but these same polls suggest that the very youngest Russians may be less committed to democracy than are the middle age Russians. If that remains true, Russia may toward capitalism than toward democracy.

Such a generational analysis, however, would be incomplete unless two other factors are included the ability of one generation to change the values of another and the very different levels of participation among these generations. In some societies, the oldest groups continue to have enormous influence over younger ones. On Saturday, participants at a conference at Tartu University described Estonian President Meri as the chief pedagogue of Estonia, a recognition of his influence on all generations in that country. But elsewhere, representatives of the older generation appear to have significantly less influence. In many cases, younger groups have simply ignored the values of older ones, a pattern that may allow for greater change in some and much less in others.

And all these countries face a situation long noted elsewhere. Older groups tend to participate in the political process more than middle aged and younger ones. And that in turn gives them disproportionate influence at least in the short term.

Again, sometimes as in Ukraine or Belarus, it means that the values of the past may continue to exert an influence on the political process disproportionate to the number of people in those societies who hold them. And on other occasions, it may mean that the future will be bleaker than many had hoped.

Almost a century ago, the writers of the Russian literary political collection Signposts noted that a society that stops respecting the values of the older generation and begins to worship the young will be in the deepest trouble.

But the experience of the post-communist states suggests that sometimes that may not be the case - at least in the political sphere. And that conclusion in turn means that generational change in these countries may have a variety of consequences, not all of which are likely to be good.