Harnessing Youth Power for Peace: A Perspective from Russia
Author: Jatinder Khanna
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 02/02/2010
Youth is the first victim of war; the first fruit of peace. – King Baudouin I, King of Belgium
In today’s world, the man on the street feels his life is fraught with numerous dangers of terrorism, intolerance and violence. Attempts are being made by the international community to provide global answers to the extremely global problem of building lasting peace and security within societies. However, these problems have made even the multinational organizations jittery. This article attempts to seek some answers as to how youth can continue to contribute to peacemaking and peace building efforts in various contexts, including the transitional economy of Russia.
According to the United Nations definition, “youth” are people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. This makes up approximately 18% of the world population. By this definition, while there are about 1.2 billion young people living in the world today, there will be 72 million more youth by 2025. As a matter of fact, the present generation of youth is the largest ever in history.
In light of their share, young people are also critical stakeholders in all aspects of society and polity. Their energy, motivation and vision are essential assets for positive social change and peace. Their ability to bring about peace and reforms in the most sensitive situations cannot be undermined. It is worth recalling that the first major attempt to bring democracy to China involved young Chinese. In Burkina Faso, youth initiatives helped overthrow a dictatorship, and in South Africa, the youth united against apartheid.
Youth and Violence
Here is the real challenge- If the energies of youth are not channelized productively, they can become agents of violence[i] in a society rather than peace builders. In fact, Heinsohn, a social scientist at the University of Bremen theorizes that if 15-29 year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of a society, then violence is practically inevitable.[ii] Data from the Caribbean shows that youth aged 17–25 commit 56% of all crimes in the region. Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the most violent regions worldwide, with a youth homicide rate of 36.4 per 100,000. [iii]
In other cases, the youth find themselves on the other side of the fence when they are not only perpetrators but also victims of violence. According to the World Health Organization, there were 199,000 youth murders worldwide in 2000 alone.
“You caused me to do this” – this is what 23 year old Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people in the Virginia Tech school shooting had to say in his suicide note. His negative feelings and misconduct were directed at his peers. Research contends that the majority of crimes against young people are committed by perpetrators belonging to the same age group as their victims.
At this precarious age, it is often difficult to segregate all the variables that might cause young people to express such angst in this way. The lives of young people worldwide are characterized by transition phase. On an individual level, they face the transition to adulthood, which defines the nature of young people’s later lives. It is a time when they face a combination of opportunities and advancement and the maximum risk and challenge. On a macro scale, it is the youth that face – perhaps more than any other social group – the uncertainties generated by economic and cultural globalisation.
Young people’s experiences are heavily conditioned by their environment (for example, urban or rural) and degree of exposure to certain risks and related stigma, depending on sex, place of residence, socio-cultural context, economic circumstances and marital status. Resource scarcity, difficult living conditions, or tarnished identities can become reasons for youth violence.
Youth and Peace
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding”
– Albert Einstein
By sound interventions by society, the youth of the world can continue to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a peaceful society. The new generation can bring in fresh perspectives as citizens, become dynamic leaders of the future and participate by practicing principles of basic human rights in their day to day life. The protection of peace becomes easier in a democratic setup, where citizens are active and aware of non-violent and constitutional forms of expression. The real challenge is in keeping young adults motivated and regaining their trust in the political institutions that they inevitably will have to lead, and try to seek peace within the non-violent and legal means.
Many political analysts say that the values of young people are reflected in their regions’ own transformation. As observed in China in the 1980s, youthful activism arose from anger over rigid or repressive governments. But as the nation has developed and personal freedoms have increased, the lure of politics among Chinese youth has diminished. Che-po, a political science professor at Lingnan College in Hong Kong says:
The Chinese youth today are more pragmatic than the youth in the ’80s. They first consider about themselves, their own benefit, and their own career future. I will not say they [do] not value the idea of liberty or political freedom. But I don’t think, for example, going after popular elections is such an important thing for Chinese youth.[iv]
Russia faced similar apathy after its disintegration and economic reconstruction. In Soviet Russia, young people could direct their enthusiasm and energy to the development of the nation. In official Soviet discourse, youth (molodezh) appeared as a unified whole. Individual interests were to yield to collective ones and individual aspirations could only exist on the margins of large-scale social projects.[v] The Communist Party in Russia entrusted youth with important tasks such as transforming the countryside and creating the (infrastructural) preconditions for a bright future. Many of the komsomol’skie stroiki (large-scale construction sites with Young Communist League members as labourers) were located in Siberia, such as the Baikal-Amur Railway.[vi]
Today’s Russian youth have a very different attitude. Changes in economic systems are being reflected in their apathy towards issues of their nation. A recent year-long pilot study of nearly 150 young professionals in 5 Russian cities finds them increasingly pessimistic about their own future prospects. In fact, many are now pondering exactly when they should start packing their bags and leaving Russia in search of the elusive better life.[vii]
Max Kiselyev, who heads the research, reasons the apathy amongst the young Russian professionals:
That uncertainty stems from a whole host of events that struck young people at their very core, from the Beslan school hostage tragedy to the passage of a law allowing President Putin to pick regional governors, rather than holding direct elections as before. All their hopes of optimism for the future vanished after the Kremlin-sponsored attack against Russian oil major Yukos and the subsequent jailing of its former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
What is interesting to note is that in erstwhile soviet republics, where economic reforms are rather slow moving and have not yet allowed the creation of a viable young professional class in either of those countries yet, young people are increasingly acting as change makers in various ways. Ukraine-based Independent analyst Ivan Lozowy says young people are increasingly taking up new positions of power in politics. Similar change is underway in Kyrgyzstan, where the Kel-kel youth movement played a role in protests that forced long-time Soviet-style leader Askar Akayev to flee to Russia and ushered in new leadership. Youth movements in Belarus, described by U.S. officials as the last dictatorship in Europe, continue to try and exert change, despite a near total crack-down on the opposition, be it in politics or the media.
Efforts Directed at Youth in Russia for Ushering Peace
Partnerships of young people across the borders can be instrumental in bringing about true change in mindsets by breaking stereotypes and promoting a culture of peace and non-violence. A case in point is the Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM)[viii], a network of young activists and youth organizations in Russia and other New Independent States. Through its various projects, YHRM educates youth on ways to defend and exercise their civil, political, social, student, and labour rights. As part of these campaigns YHRM and its partners prepare and distribute printed materials, develop guidebooks, create web resources, and participate in demonstrations, picketing, and other forms of action to promote peace and tolerance.
Since the early 1990s, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria republics in the North Caucasus have been touched by ethnic and military conflicts. Hostilities between the Ossetians and the Ingush, for example, left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced. After the Beslan school siege in 2004, when over 1,200 people were taken hostage by terrorists and over 330 were killed – most of them children – UNICEF had to consider ways to confront the ensuing escalation in violence. The Peace and Tolerance Summer Camp project, which was an outcome of a direct partnership with regional governments, has been in place since then. The Ministry of Education in Dagestan has supported the project so strongly that peace and tolerance are now officially included in the local school curriculum.[ix]
The Youth and Peace Education Network of Pax Christi International, a division of the international catholic non-profit organization, organizes “traveling exchanges” to step over prejudices prevailing in the region. Young participants of these International Routes visit St. Petersburg, Moscow, smaller cities such as Novgorod and Pskov, as well as important pace memorials. In various cities, the participants get a chance to meet youth NGOs, charitable and human rights organisations and representatives of various religions involved in reconciliation work and non-violent conflict resolution. These visits help participants to understand Russia, its inhabitants, and their traditions more profoundly in order to step over prejudices, thus contributing to the creation of a culture of peace and non-violence. In its other efforts, the network has organised joint projects on “Your Role as a Citizen” and “Peace in the Class”, which are aimed at enhancing the capacities of Russian youth to stand up for their constitutional rights. Through these projects, extensive contacts have been made with human rights activists and schoolteachers from Chechnya and the autonomous Komi Republic. They could participate in the various project activities, leading to a reflection process among the participants on violent conflict within the Russian Federation.[x]
One of the key results was the shackling of dangerous stereotypes that one community holds about other one. As one 15-year-old camper puts it:
We used to think that Ingush and Chechens were very violent people, but now we see that’s not the case, We should not fight with them, and we need to all get along and respect each other. They are just like us.
UNICEF has documented its outcome as follows:
By sharing and celebrating their different cultures, the children absorbed the camp’s key message of mutual respect. In the evenings, teams presented their republics’ best music and dance traditions. The programme not only helped the children to accept and understand their differences but also revealed how much the people of Russia’s North Caucasus region have in common.
In another initiative aimed at the same region, the Russian Peace Foundation organizes a traditional youth festival “Peace to the Peoples of the Caucasus” on a regular basis.[xi] These are important initiatives for empowering youth and building peace and their successes deserve to be recognized and built upon.
Peace building is, to some degree, a question of harnessing the resource of youth most productively so that they are not relegated to the background but come to forefront of society and polity to contribute to progress of a peaceful world. The answers may be long term but creative solutions have to be found to engage and involve youth and help them in their journey from childhood to responsible adulthood.
[i] Sociologist, Johan Galtung defines violence as “avoidable insult to basic human needs”- survival, well being, identity, and freedom.
[ii] Attenhofer, Jonas. ‘Youth bulge’ violence. 10 April 2007. Accessed on 23 April 2008 at http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1176152765213
[iv]Asian Youth’s Fervor for Politics Fading. 15 November 2005. Accessed on 14 May 2008 at http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2005-11/2005-11-15-voa6.cfm?CFID=237297861&CFTOKEN=58967982
[v] Habeck, Joachim Otto (2005) ‘Introduction: growing research on youth in Siberia’, Sibirica: Journal of Siberian Studies, 4:1, 2 – 13
[vii] McAdams, Lisa. Youth Try to Drive Revolutionary Change in Former Soviet Union. 14 November 2005. Accessed on 4 May 2008 on http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2005-11/2005-11-14-voa74.cfm?CFID=233606594&CFTOKEN=92921782
[viii] What’s Being Done On . . . Political and Civic Participation of Youth? May 2004. Accessed on 23 April 2008 at http://www.wmd.org/wbdo/may-july04/humanRights.html
[ix] Varoli, John. Summer youth camps promote peace in the North Caucasus. 24 September 2007. Accessed on 20 April 2008 at http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/russia_40970.html
[x] Report of the Youth and Peace Education Network of Pax Chisti International 2001-2004. 4 March 2004. Accessed on 24 April 2008 at http://www3.unesco.org/iycp/Report/Paxchristi2.pdf