International Roundtable: The Youth Factor Rises in Central Europe

The Institute for Global Analytics in partnership with Free Press for Eastern Europe and Science+ held the international roundtable The Youth Factor Rises in Central Europe: The Attitudes of Millennials and Gen Z in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia and Serbia towards Russia’s War against Ukraine, Traditional Values, and Democracy, which took place on January 29 at Grand Hotel Sofia.

The event was inspired by the concerning trends regarding Bulgarian youth’s dispositions that IGA has identified and that are likely to have far-reaching consequences for Bulgaria’s democratic development and pro-Western orientation. Despite expectations to the contrary, young people in Bulgaria are not distinguished by significantly more progressive and democratic political stances, further expressing socially conservative views. The roundtable discussed the root causes of these dispositional trends, drew cross-country similarities and differences between Bulgarian youth and their Balkan, Central European and Baltic counterparts and put forward potential remedies.

In the opening remarks, Dr. Rumena Filipova of IGA, Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, director of Free Press, Diana Petriashvili, operating director of Free Press, and Ruslan Trad, Bulgaria country coordinator of Free Press converged on the notion that youth attitudes to democracy, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ability to discern disinformation are critical to state and societal resilience. They also represent an added risk factor to already insufficient defenses against Russian authoritarian propaganda in Central Europe.

Dr. Rumena Filipova opened the discussion panel with a presentation, which outlined the key trends in Bulgarian youth’s thinking, also referring to the attitudinal tendencies of their international counterparts. The factors explaining the reasons behind young generations’ stances were further discussed. IGA’s chairperson singled out in particular that 71% of 18-34 year-olds in Bulgaria think that the EU ‘dictates to Bulgaria without the latter having the power to influence Brussels’ and that almost 40% blame Ukraine for the war. She noted the world-wide trends towards declining youth participation in elections and growing dissatisfaction with democracy.

Szabolcs Panyi, Lead Central Europe Investigator at VSquare, noted that most young people in Hungary have known only Viktor Orban as a defining political actor, which has impacted their views in a pro-Russian direction (given the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Kremlin-friendly stances). An increasing share of youth in Hungary support far-right parties; voter abstention and alienation continue to characterize young people’s behavior, although signs of democratic activism can also be identified. 

Otto Tabuns, founding director of the Baltic Security Foundation, directed attention to the divisive role that educational instruction in the Russian language has played in Latvia. History teaching programs in Latvian and Russian, respectively, differed in their interpretation of Russia’s/the Soviet Union’s role in Latvian history (although there is now a process of reform limiting mandatory learning of Russian). Mr. Tabuns further highlighted the trend towards diversity in Gen Z as there is a growing presence of foreign students in Latvia. 

Daniel Sunter, founder of the Balkan Security Network, pointed out contradictory trends that characterize Serbian youth’s attitudes. On the one hand, young people exhibit somewhat more liberal tendencies than older generations as regards migration, the EU, the importance attached to personal freedom. At the same time, there continues to be a trend favoring strong leadership and support for Belgrade’s ‘balanced’ foreign policy that does not decisively side with the West. 

Dr. Kristof Veres, research fellow at the Danube Institute and Warsaw Institute, discussed Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories as part of the Kremlin’s weaponization of education and identity-building in order to create new Russia-friendly generations. Dr. Veres presented the key disinformation narratives that the Kremlin deploys to embellish the conditions under which abducted Ukrainian children live in Russia, while fabricating Ukrainian ‘abuses’ of its own children.