Geopolitics

Generation Putin, Taking The Temperature Of Russian Youth

Ahead of next year's presidential election, where Vladimir Putin will seek a fourth term, young people in Russia are divided over the country's future.

Rubble bauble
Maria Bashmakova

SAINT PETERSBURG — Street protests in Russia over the past year have turned very much into a youth movement. But the increasing presence of university activists, and even high school students, seems to fly in the face of the belief that the young generation is widely considered to be apolitical and consumerism-oriented.

In light of this apparent contradiction, and ahead of next spring's presidential election, Kommersant has sought to better understand today's youth, and attempt to predict whether they will support President Vladimir Putin"s campaign for a fourth term.

Kommersant commissioned the Public Opinion Foundation to study 18-25 year-olds in its recent weekly survey of electoral preferences, and the results turned out to be quite similar to polls of the whole population. In November, the national survey showed 68% of the entire population supported Putin, compared to 66% of young people.

Putin's popularity among the youth is generally confirmed by the Higher School of Economics' survey results. Among 6,000 students from 109 universities, 47% are ready to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election. Alexei Navalny comes in second with only 7% of potential votes, while 12% do not intend to vote at all, with 15% undecided.

According to Higher School of Economics' researcher Valeriya Kasamara, a significant portion of young people sympathize with Putin "because he is the president who has been in power for as long as they can remember." Navalny, by contrast, is seen as a threat to stability and is particularly criticized by voters outside the capital.

Attitudes toward street protests are rather skeptical: 72% say that such anti-government demonstrations is not an efficient way of influencing the authorities, though 34% of respondents consider a mass protest across the country possible, and 14% are ready to take to the streets.

I feel close to the USSR, though it is hard to explain why.

While Putin remains "a national hero" to many, deputies of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, are considered the least trustworthy according to 66% of respondents, followed by local deputies, mayors and governors (61%). Journalists and TV presenters come third with 56% considering them unreliable. Curiously enough, television maintains a relatively high level of trust as a source of information, with 42% of students trusting it.

Russians in the 18-to-25 year-old strata are the first generation that did not live in the Soviet Union. Marking 100 years after the October Revolution, sociologists note that many students have a vague image of Soviet history, though they do have clearer knowledge of a few individual figures, like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. The latter is associated with tyranny, victory in World War II, and the "efficient management" assigned to him by many history books. Lenin remains a "great revolutionary" in the eyes of today's youth.

Putin poses with the military police — Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Planet Pix/ZUMA

"I feel close to the USSR, though it is hard to explain why. Somehow I like everything — photos, fashion, songs of those years. The era is perceived as something inherent even to our generation", says 23-year-old Kaleria. Another young Russian girl Alexandra knows the USSR by her grandmother's tales and history classes, and associates it with "debt," "hard work at plants,", "space conquest", "war", "waiting in line" and "world's best educational system."

While interest in the Soviet past remains, it is now in decline, Valeria Kasamara from the Russian Public Opinion Research center explains, noting the decline has accelerated since 2014: "Before that, there was nostalgia. The country seemed to be moving forward with its head turned back to the past," she says.

While letting go of the Soviet past, Russian youth does not seem to have a clear idea on what the country's new unifying national ideology could be. A 23-year-old St. Petersburg State University's graduate name Alexandra admits that when given such a task, her group of friends has "failed miserably."

The concept of traditional values ​​for students is vague. A sociologist Yana Krupets remembers how young respondents named "traditional Russian birch trees' a national value to her once.

"For me, traditional values ​​are in our history, culture, characteristic rituals like bathhouses or Orthodox holidays, or Soviet movies only dear and comprehensible to a Russian soul," says 20-year-old Galina.

Victor, 22, who identifies himself as a "social democrat, says traditional values lie in the "family institution," based on "marriage, heterosexual love, caring for children, virginity, fidelity, patriotism and heroism."

According to other recent surveys, a significant number of Russian students are having doubts on whether to stay in Russia or to leave the country for good. Among the reasons for emigration, students cite the Orthodox Church's growing influence on everyday life, lack of career opportunities, fears associated with the growth of nationalism and the likelihood of inter-ethnic conflicts.

Then there was the November study by a Russian social design center that found a significant number of young people "love their country but, should anything happen, would leave at once."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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