Why are young voices and young leadership critical to democracy?

NDI Chairman Madeleine Albright met with members of EDYN in Berlin to discuss youth leadership and the future of democracy in Europe on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

DemWorks is coming to you from the heart of Berlin on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thirty years ago, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe - revolutions that were driven by young people who demanded democracy. Decades later, democracy faces new challenges in Europe, and a new generation is driving a new wave of change.

NDI’s Nadia Mouzykina and IRI’s Sam Johannes are joined by three inspiring members of the European Democracy Youth Network to discuss why young voices and young leaders are critical to democracy.

EDYN is supported by the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and USAID.

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Nadia Mouzykina: Hi, my name is Nadia Mouzykina and welcome to a special podcast between the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

I'm  a Director for Central and Eastern Europe programs at NDI and I'm joined today by my colleague, Sam Johannes, who is a Program Officer for trans-atlantic strategy at IRI and also a producer of our eyes global podcast. We're here in the heart of Germany, in Berlin, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with members of the European Democracy Youth Network, EDYN, a program that's supported by NDI, IRI, and USAID.

Thank you for joining us today for a discussion about why young voices and young leadership are critical for democracy. We're here with three inspiring young leaders from across Europe.

Natalia Slepuhin: Hello Sam and Nadia. My name is Natalia. I'm from Republic of Moldova. I'm the current president of an NGO Primaria Mia. Our main goal is to bring closer the citizens and the local elected officials in order to find solutions to local problems. 

Donjet Bislimi: Hello Nadia and Sam. I am Donjet Bislimi. I come from the Republic of Kosovo I'm a medical doctor, I'm the head of the Democratic Youth of Kosovo, the youth wing of PDK [Democratic Party of Kosovo]. I'm a counselor in my municipality and I was an MP candidate. I am very happy to be part of EDYN and to be part of the Leadership Council. During this year we did a great job together and I know that we are going to do a great job in the next year as well. 

Vykintas Vaitkevičius: Hey everyone my name is Vykintas Vaitkevičius. I come from Lithuania, the capital city Vilnius, and well, how I'm involved in politics currently, so I am a campaign manager in the Homeland Union Conservative Party and I'm a Vice President of the youth organization of the party of conservatives in the Homeland Union. That's why I joined EDYN because I'm involved politically. I wanted to be a part of the Network of young politicians and activists all across Europe.

NM: Thank you so much. 30 years ago, a wave of revolution swept across Europe, including many of your countries… revolutions that were really driven by young people who were demanding change and demanding democracy. Decades later, democracy faces new challenges in Europe and a new generation, including all of you, is driving a new wave of change. So being here in Berlin to meet with the other EDYN members, can you please tell our listeners a little bit more about this group? What is this group and why are you a part of it?

DB: Almost a year ago, in December of 2018, we formed this network. 100% collaboration with NDI, IRI, and USAID. We were ten, eleven co-founders from the Balkans and different countries from Euro-Asia. Our main values are very important for us and we base our work in those values that we agreed on and our main mission is to be much inclusive as we can be and to promote democracy and to empower youth generation of new leaders in every EDYN member countries, but in other countries as well. Facing new problems with democracy here in Europe and in our countries, I think that this is our most big motivation to continue with this work and to collaborate with each other and to be human, to respect each other, and to continue with our great work that we started together.

NS: The falling of Berlin Wall was definitely a symbolic moment that brought, all across the Europe, kind of wind of change and in order to keep this wind of change, to keep our democracy, it is important to stop building walls and start building bridges. How I first, I got involved back in 2014 in some civic activities by organizing my community to fix a bridge which was broken in my city. Starting from that period I understood that I should do more of these things and I think EDYN is a good opportunity to build bridges across our countries, across the countries with which faces face challenges in order to keep or foster democracy.

VV: I got involved in politics really simple way. It was the Parliament election in the Homeland Union 2016 and there was this door-to-door campaign for one of the candidates and she got in the second round with a controversial candidate so that mobilized a lot of volunteers and that's how it all began. Later I joined the party, because party reflected my values and my view on the world and my country and that's the story how I got involved. About EDYN I have seen and I see today as an opportunity to get into a network of people from Eastern countries of Europe. Lithuania is one of those countries that are, that is already in EU and NATO, but, I mean, we kind of got lucky and I think Lithuania and countries like Lithuania should do- I think they can. So, our countries rom the East could join these organizations. All sides are beneficial from this- we are more secure when we were together.

Lithuania is actually doing a lot of work on lobbying about Ukraine's and Georgia's membership in these organizations but I think we're doing not enough with the Balkan countries and I think they are more realistic candidates for the membership at this point because they are already joining. So, EDYN is an opportunity for me to get, no matter, the political context all across the Eastern Europe and I'm grateful for that.

Sam Johannes: Natalia. I want to go back to something that you said. You mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall and building bridges. Our audience can't see it right now but we are just blocks away from the Brandenburg Gate recording this on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. None of you were the politically conscious, shall we say, when the Berlin Wall came down, it's more of a history lesson for you than a personal experience. So, my question would be is what, you know, you all know about the fall of the Berlin Wall, what are the lessons from that event that you take and apply to your life today, specifically when it comes to building bridges?

NS: I was born at the time. I was little girl, a little baby. I think just like me, my generation take the democracy as granted. We do not maybe fully understand what it is to live in an undemocratic state and under an undemocratic regime and I think this is the most important lesson that I learn. We, all of us, have to remember that there was time, there were times when the things weren't like they are now, and the things that we take now for granted should be always remembered. In some cases we should fight for them and we should definitely do more actions in order to keep what we have right now.

NM: Thanks, Natalia. Actually, that fits in very well with something that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said when she was visiting and meeting with you just a few days ago. Many people say today that democracy has stagnated, you know, that it's retreating in a lot of the countries and one of the things that Secretary Albright has said is that it's absolutely essential for young people to understand that they must participate and that they are the energy behind democracy. So you are the new wave of democratic changemakers. So can you tell us how you think you and your peers could re-energize democracy in your respective countries.

DB: For me and my countries, Madam Secretary Albright is living hero there for her words are saint words for us. So I totally agree with her and I agree we must emphasize that. That's not an easy mission to- active youth back in Balkans and especially in the countries that came back from war and war is not so far away, it's only 20 years ago. We must do great work and a lot of work to motivate young people in Kosovo and in the neighborhood of my country and Balkan. In every country that just came out from wars because they lost their hope in their country and they lost their hope in democratic process that the country must go through. I think that there are some examples that people from our countries should take as role models to know that meritocracy is starting to be implemented in our countries. When the young people see that meritocracy is the main value and the main way you can go to be a successful leader, or successful doctor, or successful businessman, then they will be more motivated and more- they will have much more energy to work, to believe in democracy, and to take part in electoral processes as voters or as candidates. When young people will be motivated to take part in electoral process then everything will change in our countries because the new generation is like iPhone. Every new iPhone is more updated and much better than the older one, so we have the same situation in our country as well. So I think the key of motivating young people is to create some role models and to know that even though you don't have your father as the Minister or General or very influential politician, you can go through some struggles but you can achieve something and make great changes in your country or your community.

NS: I totally agree what Donjet in this aspect and as we know we, Millennials, are the generation which doesn't want to live their life just like regularly. We want to have an impact on the history, to have a meaningful life and the best way to have this impact I think is to get involved and how do we encourage people to do it is by our own example, because it's well known that you should lead by example. So this is the best way to do it.

VV: Our generation of Millennials, they can be really proactive in political action, they can be activists and all, but it's a fact that a huge amount of them, the majority of them, are really passive. I think there's a lot of place here, not for the Millennials themselves, but for the political parties to solve this problem. This is a bit pragmatical, but it fits the general goal. The youth is like, the, one of the most passive categories, and election and parties, they could get the extra votes from them if they think strategically about this. They have to raise questions that are interesting to youth, they have to find candidates that could represent them and they can benefit from this greatly and it fits the general goal. The youth is going to be involved more. They may not vote for them but at least they are going to discuss with them, they're going to be provoked to have an opinion and all that.

NS: I would not put all these hopes in the political party because, for example in Moldova, our recent history showed that we should not hope that some party will solve our problems or will bring the change that we want. So, I think an important role is also to the civil society. Me, as representative of civil society, I think that we should continue to and encourage people to get more involved in this kind of things. It's surely important to be active political but not to forget and to be involved in the civic duty.

SJ: Sort of touching on something that all three of you spoke about, it strikes me that the youth, they haven't given up on politics in general, they've given up on the system that's currently in place. They're frustrated with the system that's currently in place and Natalia, you said something that I think is key to elevate that authenticity or examples that resonate with the youth, that's the key to getting people involved. That's certainly what we see in our work at IRI and NDI, so I'd be interested to hear from you, from all three of you, what can we do? What can, what sort of support can organizations like ours, or the international community in general, provide to folks like you to elevate those authentic voices to really tell the story that the youth haven't given up on politics. It's just they're fed up with the way things are right now. What are your thoughts?

NS: First of all, I think all the organizations are already doing a lot of things for us. That's how we got here and actually thanks to NDI Moldova, I got involved in civic life of my community. I think that, as we mentioned before, by giving the examples, the role models that Donjet mentioned, it is very important and the possibility of meeting such great personalities as we did this week and before that. It's a very good way to make young people understand. Like yesterday, I was sitting next to Madeleine Albright and I was think, like how it is possible? Me sitting next to the person who took so tough decisions in her life, and she did so many good things for all these people which are so grateful to her right now.  In Kosovo they have a statue of Madeleine Albright. There are these young girls which are named in her honor so I think we should continue - your organizations should continue doing it more often by connecting young people with good, great personalities which already have the experience and maybe it will help us just keep some steps, because I'm sure some of them didn't have the opportunity to have a good advice from someone who is already experienced. Now, as I said before, maybe we can skip some steps and do it in the right way more faster.

DB: I totally agree with my friend, Natalia. We are very grateful, back in Kosovo, for the hard work that your organization's are doing and the support that you are giving to us. Due to this support, me, as a youth activist and youth leader, had the opportunity to meet with my biggest role models. For example, President Obama, Secretary Albright, etc., etc. I would like that this opportunities to not be localized only with me or with Donjet or with two or three young people from Kosovo. I would like to give this opportunity to large amount of young people in Kosovo because they need it. We suffer from isolation. For example, three members of Eden couldn't come in this event because of the isolation that we suffer as Kosovars. So I would really suggest - I really, really suggest you to continue with your great work and advocate as much as possible to break this isolation that the young people from Kosovo are suffering.

VV: I'm also thankful for the opportunities you gave me and the bodies here. I heard that you expect a proposal from us about how could you help youth engage more in East Europe.

NS: Even if we understand that democracy, it's not an easy thing sometimes. You feel very tired of doing what you are doing back home and sometimes you feel alone when, in this fight. When we have such events, when we see a lot of people like us fighting for their own causes and back in their countries, it, I think it gives us a dose of motivation that will force us to go further and do more that sometimes is lacking in our countries.

NM: That's a really good point that both of you made, Vykintas and Natalia. When we conceived of what EDYN may look like, we didn't really quite know where it was going to go. But, the one thing that we knew for sure is we did want to have the doers, not just the sayers, for sure. I think all of you embody that to us and while EDYN is still fairly new. I mean, it's really only been around for a year and the larger group of the ambassadors that we have here has only known each other since April, what would you say you've learned through Eden thus far?

VV: It's not discussions and workshops for me, it's people that I met, and, you know, those things, activities that we’re doing together, they're important at the moment but they'll wash away in time. Well, what is important for me is that I networked a lot. I met great people here, I actually made friends with them. Later we're going to know each other, like, for decades from the day. That's the thing EDYN is all about for me... about networking and getting to know new people with their experiences, unique experiences from other countries that serves a purpose I have to know more about the world around me.

DB: I agree with Vykintas, we are all grown up in different countries and with different conditions of life, work, and different experiences. When we have a chance to exchange those experiences we complement each other and make each other better, and understand each other better, and make a new path of collaboration, and working together in a new Europe, in a better Europe, and a better world.

So, that's the main lesson and the main good thing I took from EDYN and I I took some lessons from NDI as well and from IRI as well. For example, how to make a good campaign, how to almost win a good campaign, and so on, and so on, yeah.

NS: I totally agree with my colleagues. There is a lot of things that we learn from each other and one of things that I learned from one of our colleagues is that we should focus on important things. We were outside, outside and we were talking like small talk, you know, she was listening to us all over. We were like four in the group, I should mention she cannot see and we were talking but at the same time we were scrolling our phones, Facebook feed, and at one point she said, like, “oh this rooster crowed, it's so loud I didn't know that they have these birds here,” and they said well “what are you saying?” and she said, like, “do you hear that?’. I just stopped scrolling my phone and waited for a moment. I heard that. it was so beautiful in front of this big lake and I said, “oh really”, and it's much, much better to hear that than just doing some automatic things and that's, I think, what I think is that we have a lot of things to share with each other, all of us in front of different fight, which are doing, and it's important to take the good thing that we see in each other and to support because it's a very good motivation when you have the support of such a big network.

SJ: That's an excellent anecdote and I think illustrates a very important point. Just a small note, I think it was a peacock, even. But that’s - either way, it's tremendous. You mentioned relationships. The relationships that you've built in EDYN and those are the things that last and and I agree with you. I mean, trainings and activities, those are moments in time, right, but relationships last. So, to sort of wrap up this conversation a little bit, you signed a declaration today. The Berlin Declaration. The Berlin Declaration enshrines principles that you all have through building relationships, realize that you agree on together. My question to you as we look forward, as we look to to what EDYN is going to do in the future, how are you going to translate those principles that you've arrived at together into results?

DB: That's a good question, Sam. I'm being a typical politician. It's not so difficult because the principles that we agreed on they are all the basics of human being - respect, solidarity, and so on, and so on. We just need to be human. We just need to, don't forget that first of all we are human, and we are here for an, for a goal, and the goal is a better world, the goal is a better future, and it's not easy to achieve this goal but we, as young leaders, we don't want to go to easy ways. We want to get some difficulties in order for other generations to have, to don't, they don't need to go through all our difficulties. So that's how I think we are going to achieve. We are going to fulfill our goal and our mission because it's a mission. EDYN has a mission, and the mission of EDYN is a better future for everyone, everywhere we go, and everywhere we can put our hand of solidarity. 

VV: So the bullet points that were written into the declaration, they basically represent the democratic free liberal world of West, and the best way to keep this world and this value secure is to getting EU and NATO stronger. So I think the main point for now, for the nearest, closest decades is to get our partners in the east to these organizations. So, my party and my youth organization they were always pro-EU and pro-NATO and they are lobbying for Ukraine’s and Georgia's membership in these organizations for decades. Also, I think that Balkans should find a place in these lobbyings as well. Yeah, so I think because of EDYN and of this declaration and because of this conference, I'll pose for my community to pay more attention to more countries than Ukraine and Georgia.

NS: I totally agree that it would, will not be hard for us to stick with these principles and values because we already, in the work we were doing till this moment and the moment we joined EDYN, we have already used and implemented these principles in our work. I will continue, I will definitely continue to be in a very close communication with all our members and I would also like to see and to learn about the experience of our current members, but also the other people because at one moment, at one point, we will grow our network and I encourage the young people who listen to us to go out there on the internet and find out more about our network. Keep the eye on us and when we'll have open calls to join us. I'll be very happy to meet them and share with them my experience and to listen what they are doing and how they improve our democracy.

NM: Thank you so much to all three of you for doing this with us. We are delighted to have you here to talk about EDYN and we're excited to see what the future holds in the coming years. 

Thank you to all the listeners who have joined us today. I'd like to invite you to visit our podcasts for NDI and IRI. NDI’s podcast is called Demworks

SJ: IRI’s is Global.

NM: This was Nadia.

SJ: This is Sam.

NM: - And we’ll see you again next time.

SJ: Bye-bye.