Fredrik Rydström | The Lithuania Tribune
In the era of Soviet disintegration and national revival, people worldwide became enchanted with the challenge posed to the totalitarian regime by Solidarnost in Poland and Sajudis in Lithuania, among others. As these movements proliferated and turned into genuine catalysts of political and social change, several Western analysts were hasty to conclude that their groundbreaking achievements symbolized and harbingered a long anticipated victory for civil society as a whole in the region. However, despite their magnetic attraction and unifying powers, neither Solidarnost nor Sajudis managed, in the aftermath of democratic restoration, to fully preserve the civic nature of their respective organization, and to create an institutional framework based on broad ranged and vibrant civic participation.
Although Sajudis indeed is to be considered as a genuine political mass movement, which managed to attract support from all segments of society, one should also recognize that the core of the organization mainly consisted of an older generation of intellectuals, roughly in the same age as the leading apparatchiks in the Communist Party which they fought. Consequently, when the foundations for a modern political system and nascent democratic institutions subsequently were established, and the defeated communist oligarchy re-entered politics albeit in new ideological clothing, young people remained proportionally misrepresented among the rank and file in all the major emerging political parties.
As has been illustrated by the vast amount of surveys being conducted and published on the subject since then, Lithuania’s political parties, irregardless of their alleged ideological frame of preferences, has proven persistently unable to attract and co-opt the younger generation of Lithuanians. As a result, the majority of Lithuanian youth appears indifferent to national politics, and tends to view Seimas as a largely isolated and desecrated island over which they lack any influence. The sad fact is therefore that the present alienation of Lithuania’s young people from the active involvement in politics marks an ominous continuity with the past. To be sure, when new grass-root movements arise, which they do from time to time, usually as a reaction against some unpopular policy measure adopted by the political establishment, their leaders and most zealous supporters are normally made up by representatives of the older generation.
What have constituted a grave source of concern and maybe the single most important impediment to the consolidation and wider social accommodation of democracy in Lithuania, as well as in the majority of new EU member states, is the undeveloped status of civic society and the lack of civic initiative. Accustomed to the artificial structure of civic society which prevailed in Soviet Union, when state and society were merged together and no social activity was allowed outside the confines of the ubiquitous state, there is perhaps no wonder why the older generation fail to grasp just how important a vibrant civic society is for the functioning of democratic institutions. Still worse, however, is that also the young generation, essentially untainted by the past, continues to show little interest in collective organization and civic action.
Consequently, the inability to stimulate the emergence of civic initiatives among young people and to accommodate youth in political life constitutes one of the greatest shortcomings of Lithuanian democracy. In fact, when bourgeoning civic youth organizations have been successfully established, it has been the EU rather than the Lithuanian government who has acted as their main promoter and benefactor. The result of the EU’s many youth policy programs has, to some extent, ameliorated the situation in Lithuania, which the virtual mushrooming of new and innovative youth organizations bear witness of. However, despite the establishment of new civic platforms for youth initiative, the overall participation among young people in the activities of civic society groups has remained relatively constant and only increased slightly.
There are, nevertheless, other sides to the story, and one should definitely not be quick to assume that Lithuanian youth are suffering from civic impotence and an omnipresent incapability of organizing itself collectively. What traditionally has, and still is, to be considered as the bastion of youth organization in Lithuania is the activity and influence of student unions in Lithuanian universities. In fact, the active involvement and engagement of students in these institutions does correspond to, or even surpass, the European average. However, if once again resort to criticism, one should also assert that their impact on internal decision-making has been fairly limited and their numerical strength unevenly distributed across the country.
It seems, at this point of the text, appropriate enough to dwell further on the Lithuanian university system, as it constitutes the greatest single platform for the organization and channelling of civic engagement among Lithuanian youth. With roughly 40 percent of young people participating in higher education (not necessarily university studies), Lithuanian youth are, from a quantitative perspective, among the best educated in the EU. And although the quality of higher education may vary geographically, the overall qualitative dimension of the education system has, financed through a fairly generous allocation of state funds and increased tuition fees, nevertheless improved tremendously amidst cumbrous economic conditions.
However, the impressive quantitative expansion and qualitative enhancement of higher education in Lithuania may, from a socioeconomic point of view, in fact turn out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, this development has undeniably alleviated the situation for Lithuanian youth as their career possibilities and attraction on the international labour market has increased considerably. On the other hand, however, despite significant progress, the growth of the Lithuanian economy has yet been unable to match the rapid expansion of higher education, and the national labour market has, as a consequence, so far suffered from profound tendencies of saturation. In short, the Lithuanian labour market is still not entirely capable of absorbing and providing adequate jobs for the thousands of able-bodied and well-educated graduates that every year are being churned out from the universities.
Although the rate of unemployment continuous to be persistently high in Lithuania, it would be wrong to simply conclude that the lack of job opportunities in general constitutes the main explanation to why a significant proportion of Lithuania’s best educated youth choose to emigrate. Instead, as the most recently published studies on the subject confirms, the main reasons behind the decision to emigrate among university graduates are, more than anything else, linked to the lack of available jobs in the business and service oriented sector of the economy, and the insufficient salaries offered to those interested in pursuing a career in public service.
Notwithstanding the sheer magnitude of the problem, frequently labelled as a national trauma, one should, in all fairness, recognize the efforts being made to alleviate the situation and the high level of concern key policymakers has attached to the issue. In order to fully remedy the situation, the attraction of foreign investments and establishment of service-oriented and technology-intensive foreign industries has been widely encouraged.
Having the creation of a “innovate economy” founded on a flourishing high-tech service industry as its pronounced goal, few Lithuanian governments has, despite the impact of the economic crisis, been as steadfast, ambitious and successful in attracting and accommodating foreign companies as the present one. Never mind some of PM Andrius Kubilius overblown economic prophesies, clearly at odds with reality, he has, nonetheless, plenty of reasons to be satisfied with the current development as the upsurge of foreign companies showing interest in investing in Lithuania continues to grow. What is more, those service-oriented and technology-intensive foreign companies already up and running in the country has, with a few exceptions, confirmed their satisfaction with and positive experience of the economic opportunities and business climate offered in Lithuania. Besides this, when asked about the upsides of outsourcing their activities to Lithuania, spokespersons for foreign companies frequently mentions the abundant supply of a young, well-trained and able-bodied labour-force.
I would like to end this article with some final remarks, or thoughts, about the future prospects and most pressing issues facing Lithuanian youth. If the reader would agree with me in that the single greatest, most important and enduring achievement of the older generation of Lithuanians, still largely in control of political power, has been the construction and consolidation of national and democratic institutions, then it should be the mission of the young generation to refine those institutions and to increase the importance and awareness of its presence within Europe.
Although Lithuania was granted EU membership in 2004, it appears that the political and economic elite still are accustomed to communicating news about its affairs, apart from in Lithuanian, in the Polish or, above all, the Russian language. Thus, it seems, in my opinion, not too far-fetched to assert that Lithuania today, although almost twenty years has past since the resurrection of national independence, is better equipped and more successful in conveying information about itself eastwards rather than westwards. What is true and frequently pointed out by Lithuanians themselves: the interest and demand for information about what is going on in Lithuania is deploringly low in the fellow EU member states, including the country’s closest neighbours.
However, though this impression might turn out to be true, what should be familiar to everyone who aspires to understand the concepts and complex rules of the post-modern economy: the classical model of the supply-and-demand chain has been rejected, as supplies stimulates the upsurge of demand in the modern market place rather than vice-versa. In other words, though Lithuania indeed may be comprehended as a largely obscure miniature state at the fringe of Europe, and therefore remains fairly unknown to the outside world, it is, to my mind, the lack of information communicated in English, the lingua franca of the EU, rather than a diffused and immutable state of indifference and lack of concern on the part of its neighbours that impedes a more profound international interest and understanding of the country.
As for being raised and educated in a society fundamentally different from that which their parents grew up in, Lithuanian youth, increasingly mobile and experienced English speakers, has been endowed with the skills and talents needed to bring the country closer to Europe and to, in the lack of better words, “put Lithuania on the map”. Of course, without the assistance of a budding civic society and the active participation of young people in the political process, the qualities and capabilities possessed by Lithuanian youth may become exploited by external actors instead or, worse yet, totally wasted.
Fredrik Rydström is a distinguished academic from Sweden who graduated Vilnius University in Spring 2010. He has lived for almost two years in Lithuania where he ound true love: the kibinas. Fredrik has held several lectures about and specialized in Baltic-Nordic relations.