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Children Of The Revolution

12 minute read

Peter Pazitny reads J.R.R. Tolkien, listens to massive attack, plays EyeToy games on his PlayStation, and likes to hike, cycle and go barhopping on weekends. In other words, he’s 28. He also works 12 hours a day as an adviser to the Slovak Ministry of Health, where he’s helping to roll out a major reform package with a scope and ambition that would shame his peers in Western Europe. The reforms aim to balance the budget by introducing patient contributions for care and open up the entire sector to competition. “It’s a huge challenge. I’m proud to be part of this,” says Pazitny, who eschews an office in favor of two mobile phones and a laptop computer. “We believe in the private sector, we believe that people should take care of themselves, and that the state should intervene only when absolutely necessary.”

That’s a radical creed in Central and Eastern Europe, where in most countries the reformist zeal of the mid-1990s has given way to complacency and partisan bickering. Politics is still an older persons’ game in most of the region, so in Slovakia they call Pazitny and his bright young cohorts the kinder managers, using the German word for child. Apart from Pazitny, there is Miroslav Beblavy, 27, State Secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Family; Vladimír Tvaroska, 31, State Secretary of the Ministry of Finance; and Richard Rybnícek, 34, general director of Slovak Television. A senior Cabinet member, Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic, is all of 30.

As eight Central and East European nations plus Malta and Cyprus prepare to join the European Union on May 1, Pazitny and his colleagues are engaged in something far more serious than child’s play. In addition to the health reforms, the kinder managers are introducing the region’s first “three strikes and you’re out” law that carries mandatory life sentences for people convicted of three felonies; they’ve helped push through a flat 19% tax rate for businesses and individuals; they’ve worked to ditch the old pay-as-you-go pension system, and are now setting up a partially privatized scheme instead.

Make room, Brussels: the New Europeans are coming to town. Across Central and Eastern Europe, stiff-necked apparatchiks and stolid shift workers are on their way out, and young, progressive politicians and risk-taking entrepreneurs are making themselves heard. The generation that came of age since 1989 isn’t yet running the show, but it is fiercely individualistic, competitive and outward looking — and breathing real life into the term New Europe. When they join the E.U. next month, these children of the postcommunist revolution will bring with them an intense curiosity and desire to succeed, together with a firm belief in the virtues of open borders, and a refreshing self-confidence about their place in Europe — and Europe’s place in the world. “It’s their turn now,” says Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz.

The enthusiasm of this new generation of young Central and East European leaders stands in marked contrast to some of their parents, many of whom fought for the changes now taking place but recognize that only their children will reap the full rewards. “The benefits will not be shared equally,” says Cimoszewicz. “I can’t promise my generation that their prospects will improve, but young Poles will face fantastic opportunities.” For the older generation, E.U. enlargement is less a question of lower tariffs and open borders than the culmination of a historical journey. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga takes the long view. “[We’re taking] revenge on history,” she says, “by taking our rightful place in the community of nations.”

After 15 years of wrenching economic and social reforms, chronically unstable political leadership and, more recently, dire unemployment, it’s easy to understand why some in the region are disheartened. And it’s bracing to recognize that twentysomethings like Warsaw lawyer Julek Janiszewski are full of optimism and see joining Europe as a ticket to a better future. “The E.U. is an inspiration, a source of new knowledge, new experience,” he says over an espresso in a fashionable Warsaw café. “Having been ostracized for 50 years, we lack professionals in every domain. The greatest opportunity is that the best young people will leave the country for a time, then they will return and put this country on its feet.”

As a group, young Central and East Europeans work harder than their parents, yet are more uncertain about the future; they are better educated, but less politically engaged; they are receptive to foreign influences in culture and politics and liberal on economic issues, but more socially conservative. They are, in short, like E.U. analyst Rafal Rowinski, 28, of the Robert Schuman Foundation in Warsaw, which promotes democratic reform. “Our generation has a broader perspective,” he says. “We are more flexible, open to compromise. We believe in a unified Europe.”

One of the ways this openness is expressing itself is in the demand for education. Under communism, young Poles didn’t automatically expect to go to university; it was not seen as the only, or even the best, route to advancement. In the 1980s, for example, only about 150,000 Poles between the ages of 19 and 25 were working toward a degree. By the beginning of the 1990s, that number had risen to 300,000, and now some 2 million — roughly half of all Poles between the ages of 19 and 25 — are in higher education of some sort. Private colleges are in heated competition across the country, while university lecturers are in heavy demand. “We are under siege,” says Krzysztof Kosela, a professor of sociology at Warsaw University. “We are seeing more and more students apply, and they are working harder than ever. Young people see a higher education as the key to normal life.”

Demand to study abroad is also high. At Charles University in Prague, there are four applicants for every spot in the E.U.-sponsored Erasmus student-exchange program, which provides scholarships to study in Western Europe. And young people know that if they want to get ahead in the new unified Europe, they need to speak the languages. According to an E.U. survey conducted last year, 81% of people aged 15-24 in the accession countries believe that foreign-language skills are the most important job qualification, compared to just 44% in the current E.U. member states; 83% report that they already speak a foreign tongue, compared to 68% among the E.U.’s current membership. English is the most popular, and fashionable, lingua franca. A new advertising campaign for the Polish vodka Luksusowa targets young consumers not with promises of hot sex or fast cars but with free English lessons.

Those lessons were absorbed long ago by the region’s emerging entrepreneurial class. Unlike their parents, these young people see the E.U. not as a refuge from political oppression but as a market to exploit. “The E.U. is the best club in the world,” enthuses Katia Jurgec Bricman, 35. She quit a teaching job five years ago in Kotlje, Slovenia, to start a porcelain business with her husband, Jure. They now produce 8,000 cups, saucers and vases a year, many for export to Italy and France. The stability of European markets and the eventual adoption of the euro will make it easier to plan for the long term, says Jure. “We will be equal with other businesses in Europe,” he says. “To be equal will be enough for us, because right now we are the Third World.”

Maciej Sledzinski and Andrzej Smialek look forward to equality, too. They met 15 years ago while studying industrial design in the picturesque medieval Polish town of Kraków. In 1993, while they were still students, they helped start Ergo, a firm that makes point-of-sale dispensers for clients like Nestlé and Philip Morris, in a crumbling warehouse on the city’s outskirts. As barriers between Poland and the E.U. have fallen, Ergo’s profits have risen. The two are keenly aware that in Poland some of their peers are already shying away from the challenges of the E.U., and not everyone will thrive under harsher competition. “We have two speeds: one for those who are comfortable with E.U. enlargement and modernization, and another for those who are not,” says Sledzinski. “I see the E.U. as an opportunity. There’s more competition, but we can handle that.” He and Smialek have a running start: their business is already operating abroad.

For those who don’t make a successful transition, times could be tough. Young Czechs and Poles face the highest unemployment rates in decades. The jobless rate in Poland for people between 19 and 30 is 30%, double what it was a decade ago, and in the Czech Republic, it’s 15% for 20- to 24-year-olds. Unlike their Western neighbors, young Central and East Europeans have little in the way of social safety nets. And young people don’t get much of a helping hand from their parents either, since family wealth is practically nonexistent due to low incomes under communism.

The blight has consigned men like Antonín Hornák, 25, to history. An unemployed mechanic, he lives with his wife and baby daughter in the same attic room that he occupied as a child in an impoverished region of South Moravia in the Czech Republic. Unable to find a permanent job, he has been forced to take odd seasonal jobs. “I want to live in a world where jobs are plentiful, so young people can earn a decent living and find accommodation so it would be a joy to start a family,” he says. Over beers, he and his friends fantasize about the imagined security of communist times. “We were born in the wrong era,” he says.

Even among those with immaculate job qualifications, competition for work is fierce. Just four years ago, Zoltán Török, 34, an economist in Budapest, couldn’t find anyone willing to take a research job at his bank for j30,000 a year, more than four times the average salary in Hungary. Last year he posted the same job and got 15 applications within two weeks. In the 1990s, “it was easy to make fast progress in one’s career,” he says. “You left university and already qualified for middle-management positions.” That’s no longer possible because there are now far fewer jobs and far more qualified applicants. Some people blame the E.U.-mandated reforms for making a bad situation worse. Katerina Konecná, 23, is the Czech Republic’s youngest M.P. — representing the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Konecná is too young to remember the era of Soviet rule and doesn’t advocate turning back the clock, but she believes the E.U. is forcing reforms to take place too quickly for ordinary Czechs to keep up. “Integration is necessary,” she says, “but not right now.”

Konecná put herself through university by stocking supermarket shelves and doing the odd secretarial job. Now, she says, she wants to offer “the solidarity and social system that will support the young generation” by building affordable apartments and increasing welfare benefits to parents. “We are trying to give young people a chance,” Konecná says. Her message is striking a chord. Support for the Communist Party among 18- to 29-year-olds in the Czech Republic grew from 5% to 9% over the past two years.

But Konecná is still an exception, both in her brand of politics and in the fact that she takes an interest in the subject at all. Disgusted with the partisan wrangling and tainted pasts of its leaders, the younger generation has turned away from politics. Young people in the region vote in disproportionately low numbers, and they hold their national politicians in contempt. “They are spineless apparatchiks,” scoffs Jakub Boratynski, 36, program director of the Stefan Batory Foundation, a group promoting democratic reform in Poland and the former Soviet bloc. “These people are losers,” he adds of the old-guard politicians running for the European Parliament in June. In this respect at least, young Central and East Europeans resemble their counterparts in the West.

In other respects, however, they are very different. According to an E.U. poll, young Central and East Europeans favor capital punishment in higher numbers than their Western counterparts, and are less enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. In Roman Catholic Poland, the young generation still attends church in large numbers, unlike in Western Europe, where church membership among youth has dropped drastically over the last 20 years. Still, young people from the new member states do share Western concerns about the potential loss of national identity in a larger E.U. — and they’re determined to remain unique.

Young Poles, for example, dress in the same baggy trousers and tank tops as those in the West, but they prefer Polish movies — a homegrown version of Bridget Jones’s Diary recently broke box office records — and Polish music. “When Poles listen to Eminem they don’t understand the lyrics and therefore don’t get the message,” admits Izabella Miejluk, 29, marketing director for mtv Polska. Polish artists like rapper O.S.T.R. are more popular. His hit Poland My Love, a caustic ballad taking his country to task for selling out to commercialism, won him a wide following. The lyrics criticize crass consumerism, but also display national pride: “Thank you for your wisdom/ Even if I tread my own path/ I take what fate gives my life/ Made in Poland.” To meet rising demand, mtv Polska is this month bumping up its homegrown content from about 25% to around 45%.

There are signs that many young Central and East Europeans, like their Western peers, are starting to take the E.U. for granted. Enlargement “is essentially a good thing,” says Karolína Píchová, 27, a Czech opera singer, who, much like her friend and colleague Barbora Polásková, has no plans to celebrate E.U. accession. “It doesn’t make one jump up and down,” she says. “That would be overdoing it.” May 1 will just confirm what she already knows: as far as joining Europe is concerned, she’s already there.

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