Europe Politics

Putin Generation: Russia's loyal youth?

Putin Generation

Putin Generation:
Russia's loyal youth?

Young people are often looked upon as the generation that are capable of driving change in society and politics. In a country like Russia it’s not that simple, with a split apparent between those that are happy with the status quo and those calling for change, making Russia’s political future difficult to predict.

Russians who were 18 and old enough to vote in their first election in 2018 have known no other leader than President Vladimir Putin, who first came to power as prime minister in 1999. This has earned them the nickname, the “Putin Generation.”

Putin’s rise to power in 1990s came amid the tumultuous years of low-living standards, corruption and unbridled capitalism that benefited a small sector of society following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

When Putin became Russia’s president in the year 2000 many Russians were happy to see a leader come to power who promised to reconstruct the country economically and politically.

Since that first presidential election (and his roles subsequently as both president and prime minister since then) Putin has certainly overseen Russia’s restoration to the international stage and a sense of national pride among many Russians.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets with young people at rap music competition in Moscow on November 13, 2009.

01 'Putin Generation'

Putin, now in his fourth (and newly-extended six-year) term in power, has seen his approval ratings remain reasonably high — no more so than when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 when his rating rose to the mid-80% range — and continued to be high despite the international sanctions that followed.

In the last few months, the sheen has again started to come off Putin’s ratings — among older people, in particular — following widely unpopular pension reform and the raising of the retirement age to 65 years from 60 for men and to 60 years from 55 for women. As of July 2019, Putin’s approval rating stood at 68%, according to the independent Levada Center pollster.

Putin has said that he will not run for president in 2024 when the next election is held although many experts say that remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it has got people thinking about a “post-Putin” Russia and which political direction younger people, in particular, will take.

“The younger generation is a very important dimension in Russian politics,” Ulrich Schmid, professor of Russian Culture and Society at St. Gallen University in Switzerland, told CNBC.

“This is the so-called ‘Putin Generation,’ the young generation that cannot be scared off by pointing to the awful situation in the 1990s, because this has been the main political strategy by the political engineers in the Kremlin. Those who were born in (the) ‘90s don’t remember the demise of the Soviet Union, they don’t remember the economic hardships,” Schmid said.

“They still are very much rooted in Western European culture and traditions, especially when it comes to mass and popular culture,” he added.

Demonstration against Putin in Pushkin square, Moscow, Russia, on May 5, 2018.

02 Teenage rebellion

Young people in Russia are facing different challenges from their elders with education, jobs and social mobility high on their priority list, according to experts. In terms of their politics, experts say the majority of young people in Russia appear happy with the status quo — although the young’s higher internet use and exposure to Western influences and culture could affect their perception of politics at home, and their future voting patterns.

Protest and dissent, such as the demonstration in Moscow in late July and last weekend to demand fair local elections, are also becoming more commonplace showing that a growing number of Russians — particularly among the younger generation — do not accept the lack of political plurality in Russia which has been overseen by the ruling United Russia party and Putin.

Max Hess, head of political risk consulting and advisory at AKE, characterized opposition to Putin as something akin to a “teenage rebellion.”

The picture is simply not clear and if it was, we’d all be a bit more certain about Russia’s future.”
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at thinktank Chatham House

“The ‘Putin Generation’ certainly does exist. The basic fact is that they haven’t known an alternative to Putin … But the generation is in the midst of its teenage rebellion years, and it’s really being driven by the internet; this is really playing a big role (in changing young people’s attitudes),” he said.

In the Moscow protests, more than 1,000 people were arrested in one of the biggest police crackdowns in years. The protest’s organiser Alexei Navalny, a high-profile Kremlin critic who has a large young support base, was imprisoned for 30 days for calling the demonstration.

Experts say it’s important not to overstate young people’s support for opposition figures like Navalny, however, with Putin still popular among a majority of young people — as evidenced by the presence of pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin youth movements like the “Young Guard” (or Molodaya Gvardiya) youth wing of the ruling party.

James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at thinktank Chatham House, told CNBC that Russia’s youth does not tell a clear story.

“Some young people under 30 have become more politicized and a good number of your Russians genuinely want change. They want Russia to move towards being more like a Western liberal democratic lifestyle. But the bad news is that there’s signs of a number of young Russians that have retained a nationalist bent.”

“So, we have two competing forces here and we don’t really know which one will win through … We don’t know which direction future generations will go,” he noted.

Members of Yunarmiya youth military organization march in formation during a military parade marking Day of the Russian Guard, in Palace Square.

03 FOSTERING LOYALTY

Putin and the Kremlin have certainly made efforts to inculcate a sense of loyalty and national fervor toward Russia, and its leader, over the last two decades.

Perhaps the most overt attempt to engage Russia’s youth to support the government came in the mid-2000s with the creation of a political youth movement known as Nashi, or “Ours” when translated, as well as more modern youth movements like the Young Guard and the military-patriotic movement Yunarmiya (Young Army), which is also funded by the government.

There are signs that the youth fervor that once surrounded Putin has died down. Schmid told CNBC that studies done by the Levada Center found that the young generation “is apolitical” and “preoccupied with their own careers mainly.” But he added that “I think they have quite a favorable view of Putin’s foreign policy towards crime and the West.”

Russia's age structure
Source: CIA Factbook 2018

Russians aged between 15-24 only make up 9.4% of the population, according to the CIA’s 2018 Factbook, whereas the proportion of key voters (in the 25-54 age) make up 44.2% of Russia’s 144 million population.

Schmid also noted that Putin had done little in his last election campaign to engage the youth vote, perhaps because it constitutes a small voter base for the Kremlin.

“Putin did not present a program. Before the election there was no list of what he wants to achieve in the future on his website. There was just a list of his achievements over the last 18 years and his promise to the younger generation is more of the same,” he said.

“I think we can observe here a clear change in his policies towards younger people. In 2005 the Kremlin strived to organize this youth organization ‘Nashi’ … But today such mass mobilizations seem to be rather improbable.”

A young, Russian demonstrator holds up a sign reading “In Putin We Trust”  during a rally staged by pro-Kremlin youth groups in central Moscow, 2011.

04 HAPPY YOUTH?

Polls reflecting young people’s attitudes toward Putin and their country are few and far between, but the few surveys on youth attitudes in Russia have tended to show that young people are more optimistic than their elders about the state of Russian politics and the economy.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center’s global attitudes survey conducted in June 2017 of Russian adults, questioned on a variety of domestic and foreign affairs, showed that younger Russians aged 18 to 29 were “way more upbeat” about the overall direction of the country than older Russians. Sixty-seven percent of 18 to 29-year-olds expressed satisfaction while only 51% of those 50 and older said the same.

When children today in (survey country) grow up, do you think they will be better off or worse off financially than their parents?

The survey also showed that far more young people were happy with Russia’s economy, its potential and their own personal economic situation than their older counterparts.

Older Russians (more directly affected by Putin’s unpopular pension reforms) were more concerned than younger people about crime, corrupt political leaders and business people and the rising wealth gap.

Young people do have some reasons to be cheerful. The adult unemployment rate in Russia is low, at 4.5% in May 2019, down from 4.7% the previous month according to Russia’s Labour Ministry. CNBC contacted the ministry for data on youth unemployment but has yet to receive a response. The International Labour Organization estimates that the youth unemployment rate (for 15-24 year olds) has hovered around 16% in recent years, similar to the European average.

05 THE ECONOMIC FACTOR

The economy could play a large part in how Russia’s young people develop their political allegiances. Again though, there is a divergence in Russia between the experiences of young, urban people and those in more rural areas where access to jobs, the internet and education are different.

Living standards and costs have been affected in recent years by Russia’s wider economic crisis following a steep drop in oil prices (Russia’s natural resources like oil and gas are reportedly valued at 60% of its GDP) and ongoing sanctions imposed on the country following the Crimea annexation and its support for an uprising in eastern Ukraine. The ruble has plummeted (the dollar is up some 90% against the currency since early 2014) sending inflation soaring which the central bank is still working to counter. Consumer price growth reached 16% in the middle of 2015 but has since sunk to around 4%. An approximate 110% jump in oil prices since a trough in January 2016 has helped the economy somewhat.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) cut its forecast for Russian 2019 GDP (gross domestic product) growth to 1.2% in July, saying its downgrade reflected a weak first-quarter estimate, lower oil prices and the impact of the higher tax rate on private consumption.  It added that broad reforms – including “creating a more vibrant private sector, and reducing the footprint of the state,” were a priority.

A sense of prosperity — or lack thereof — is crucial to how Russia’s young people view the government and their future, AKE’s Hess said.

“For those younger generations there has been social mobility and Russian living standards have increased since Putin came to power. But my concern is that there are no real new hubs of economic wealth being created. The generation at university now in their late teens or twenties, they could see that social mobility declining. Then they’ll question ‘Why is this’ — and I think we’re getting to that stage,” he said.

Credits

Writer: Holly Ellyatt
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Images: Getty Images