Twenty years ago, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Government formally dissolved, capping a tumultuous eighteen months that saw fifteen new republics emerge from its detritus.
Celebrations of independence taking place this fall in successor republics have been marked with standard military parades, eloquent speeches and flag-waving youth, eager to make their voices heard in the transition from authoritarianism to an inclusive democracy.
One could argue that the reforms of the past 20 years in the post-Soviet space have led to the rise of a decisive, new, politically conscious generation of young leaders. I argue such a new generation has arisen in spite of reforms and, in some cases, as a reaction against them.
Unlike today’s youth, the first post-Soviet generation was unable or unwilling to demand opportunity, accountability and inclusivity in decision-making. Tragically, the promise of democracy has fallen short in the Central Asian republics, in particular. In 1991, citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan believed that democracy and independence would provide a clear path to economic salvation. Most people in these republics saw their illusions quickly shattered as the advantages of independence benefitted a small elite in each country. The idea of equal rights for all citizens, responsible leaders and effective governing institutions has remained largely out of reach.
Ironically the greatest achievement may be the passage of time itself, which resulted in a young generation coming to the fore with new energies and ideas, unencumbered by the legacy of the Soviet past. Many of today’s citizens in Central Asia have no direct recollection of the Soviet period. A growing majority of citizens are under 25 years, and have come of age in countries that emerged from the detritus of the USSR. For many, the notion of “democracy” is equated with unemployment, graft or official corruption. For others, the fusion of technology with their daily lives has opened a window of possibility.
Kyrgyzstan is a key example of the struggle between democracy and disarray. In 2010, the second “people’s revolution” in five years stunned the country’s citizens as well as its neighbors not only for the rapidity with which yet another government was dispatched, but also with the accompanying level of violence. Two months later, ethnic riots laid bare the hatred between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, long suppressed during the Soviet period.
This conflict reflected deep societal divisions in many post-Soviet republics, including generational differences. As evidenced by the events in Kyrgyzstan, youth in Central Asia are disaffected and prone to outside influences, for better or for worse.
Young persons in Kyrgyzstan increasingly rely on the Internet and social media to get their news and to communicate with their peers. In the aftermath of the April 2010 “revolution,” the Kyrgyz government created a Youth Ministry that played an important role in the discussion of national policy on educational reform, national reconciliation and economic development. Youth-led online informational campaigns, such as the IFES-supported Men Ozum Chechem (“I decide myself”) project, have raised awareness and motivated thousands of youth to be politically aware and active in promoting change in their communities. Young voters played an important role in the October 30, 2011, presidential election, in which the number of participating first-time voters hit an all-time high. This month, for the first time in its 20-year history, a new president was inaugurated in Kyrgyzstan through a peaceful transition in power.
The grim reality of unemployment at home, however, has forced many Kyrgyz citizens — particularly young men — to seek jobs outside the country. The youth of Kyrgyzstan are restless, and have played an outsized role in chasing successive governments from power. It stands to reason that President Almazbek Atambayev faces a similar fate should expectations of reform fail to materialize.
The real commemoration of the 20-year anniversary is the emergence of a young generation that is increasingly self-aware, active and unafraid to make its feelings known. The West must support opportunities for young people in Kyrgyzstan and in neighboring countries to play a role in the peaceful evolution toward a participatory democracy. This should be a foreign policy priority of the United States, even amidst steep cuts in foreign aid and the primacy of security issues in relations with states in the region. Stable, inclusive democracies are better partners on all fronts. The challenge, in turn, for the incumbent regimes of the region is to recognize the landscape has shifted, and move away from “survival at any cost” to accepting and embracing the fact that transition is already upon them.