Events

Generation Gap in Belarus

January 24, 1999 // 11:00pm

By Nancy Popson

A generational approach to analysis of the transition process is useful in that it allows for a long-term perspective necessary to understand the institutional, ideological, and value shifts crucial to the transition, said Larissa Titarenko, Professor of Sociology at Belarus State University and Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 25 January 1999. The quality of life of the first post-Soviet generation will be the benchmark for the success or failure of the transition in Belarus, and therefore analysis of the younger generation today is important in understanding the progress and prospects for reform.

In order to analyze the development of the younger generation in Belarus, Titarenko noted that it is important to understand the conditions in which they live. She described Belarus as in an economic crisis situation. Its refusal to follow IMF orthodoxy alienated it from the West and forced its dependence on what since August 1998 has been a flailing Russian economy. According to Titarenko, the new union treaty with Russia also poses questions as to what type of society Belarusian youth will experience in the near future--a sovereign Belarus, a Belarus swallowed by Russia, or a Belarusian-Russian union aimed at reviving the Soviet Union.

It is in this environment that the first post-Soviet generation finds itself today. Titarenko noted that youth development is also affected by a generation gap exacerbated by the different "psychological virtual worlds" in which each generation lives.

According to Titarenko, the older generation lives in the past, in a dream world marked by socialist equality and no market economy. They have not adjusted to the realities of the new Belarusian society, and in fact view the transition as the cause of the deterioration of social and economic conditions since 1991.

The younger generation, on the other hand, sees themselves in a democratic and market-oriented world that does not yet exist in Belarus, said Titarenko. They grew up during a time when criticism of the Soviet regime prevailed, and so from the beginning of their lives had an anti-communist orientation. Titarenko noted that their main problem is the lack of capital to realize their expectations. She explained that in Belarus the younger generation is one of the poorest groups of the population--even poorer than pensioners. The younger generation tends to live in urban areas, with more than 50 percent of university students residing in Minsk.

The psychological virtual world of the younger generation makes them the most likely to have the potential to bring about future changes, said Titarenko. It is therefore important to look at youth's assessment of their current situation in order to analyze their potential to support reform over the long term.

The younger generation has a rather negative view of the economic situation in Belarus, said Titarenko. After the 1998 Russian crisis, almost 70 percent of Belarusian youth considered the situation in their country to be one of "crisis." However, only 7 percent felt that a return to the planned economy was necessary, with 68 percent favoring some pattern of market reform. Approximately two-thirds worry for their financial well- being, with 50 percent still relying on parental support to survive. Titarenko noted that while a majority want to work in private firms or start their own business, they are hindered by a lack of capital and knowledge.

Politically, the younger generation negatively appraises both the Soviet past and perestroika-era Belarus. Titarenko described their reaction to the current political situation as split--one-half assess it positively and one-half negatively. Youth are more likely to participate in political protests than the rest of the population, especially in Minsk. More than 40 percent belong to youth organizations, although most do not belong to political parties. Titarenko noted that 15-30 percent of the younger generation support Lukashenka, 10-15 percent liberal democrats, and only 1-2 percent leftist leaders.

Titarenko also pointed out that the new post-Soviet generation seems to be the only group in Belarus for whom Belarusian national identity is important. While the older generation identifies with a Soviet identity, more than two-thirds of the youth identify themselves with Belarus.

What is in the future for this post-Soviet generation? Titarenko pointed to three developmental paths that will affect Belarusian youth. The first possible path is maintenance of the status quo, which Titarenko predicted would cause large-scale youth emigration, draining Belarus of its base of support for reforms. The second is continued development as part of Russia. She noted that this would make Belarus more susceptible to the problems of crime and corruption plaguing Russia--opening criminal opportunities for Belarusian youth. The third possibility is the independent development of Belarus. Titarenko stressed that this could be positive for the younger generation, but only if Belarus does not become politically and economically isolated from the West.

Titarenko concluded that the positive involvement of the younger generation in Belarus' transition is critical to its success. She recommended that a U.S. policy of flexibility and engagement with Belarus would be the best option. In her view, such a strategy would directly effect democracy building; give Belarus independence from Russia; and improve opportunities for the younger generation, enhancing the natural support-base for a democratic, market-oriented society.

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