Blog: Youth participation in Moldovan democracy and its importance for EU accession
Youth participation is crucial for any healthy and vibrant democracy. As young people represent a significant proportion of the population, their voices and opinions should be included in the decision-making processes that shape their lives and the future of their communities. In Moldova, democratic youth participation is becoming increasingly important on account of the challenges that this Eastern European country is facing on its path towards democracy and European integration. We believe it is essential to understand more about both conventional and unconventional democratic participation, the barriers that prevent young people from greater involvement, and to identify ways of creating an environment that supports youth engagement in politics and civil society.
We – Alessandro and Gonçalo – are two Young European Ambassadors (YEAs) from the EU, coming from Italy and Portugal respectively. Gonçalo is a Master’s student in international relations, while Alessandro is an EU lawyer working in Brussels. In February, we both participated in ‘More EU in Moldova’, a one-week visit to the country. In this context, we visited several schools and universities, participated in large-scale events and activities with ambassadors and local politicians, and met many YEAs from Moldova. Our aim in this blog post is therefore to analyse the current situation regarding conventional democratic youth participation in Moldova and to share our own hands-on experience, and what we learned about unconventional democratic youth participation during our visit to the country.
Conventional democratic participation – the traditional process by which citizens of a democracy take part in the political system of their country – is normally considered the foundation of any democratic country. It involves voting, membership in a political party and running for office.
Voting is an essential aspect of any democratic society. It is the process by which citizens of a country express their preferences about how their government should be run. For young people in Moldova, who represent a significant portion of the population, voting is an important opportunity to participate in the decision-making process of their country. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, turnout among Moldovan youth was on a par with, if not higher than, some European Union countries: out of 884,329 voters under the age of 35, 31.3% exercised their right to vote. For context, in Moldova’s close neighbour Romania, 25.9% of young people from the same age group participated in the parliamentary elections in December 2020. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be complacent, as there is still room to grow when it comes to young voter turnout.
Membership in a political party can be important for young people who want to have a direct impact on the political process, participate in decision-making, and help shape the policies and platforms of the party. However in Moldova, according to a public opinion survey, only 4% of voters under 35 are members of a political party. This may be indicative of broader trends in youth political participation around the world, as many young people are disillusioned with traditional political structures and institutions, seeing them as corrupt, ineffective, or disconnected from the needs and concerns of ordinary citizens. The low membership of young people in political parties may also reflect the challenges that these parties face in attracting and retaining younger members, who see them as outdated and out of touch with the needs and aspirations of young people.
Running for office in Moldova can be an important way for young people to participate in the political process and to have a direct impact on the direction of the country. It enables them to bring their ideas and vision for the future to the public debate, advocate for the issues that matter to them, and work to create positive change in their communities. However, in the 2021 Moldovan parliamentary elections, only 17% of those running for office in the three biggest parties were under 35 years of age. Furthermore, out of the 53 young people who were running, only 11 were elected (and only three of those were under 30), filling around 10% of the total number of parliamentary seats.
Despite a voter turnout equivalent to that of some other European Union countries, the data above shows that the youth of Moldova have low-to-average interest in conventional democratic participation. This might be explained, partly, by the under-representation of young people in the office and the consequences that derive from this, as well as the fact that only 25% of young people show an interest in politics.
Unconventional democratic participation, on the other hand, refers to active citizenship and civic engagement, which contribute to shaping the public democratic debate. We will therefore share some stories that we learnt during our trip to Moldova, which is of high value for the country’s path towards EU accession.
The true value of Erasmus+
Moldovan youth has already turned towards the European project. Since the country joined the Erasmus+ family, many young Moldovans have had the opportunity to take part in exchange schemes, internships and training activities in other countries. Some argue that this is only about learning a new language or acquiring complementary skills. But Erasmus+ is much more than this. Once someone moves to an EU country, he or she automatically connects with our common shared values. Accordingly, working or studying in another state means having access to new sources of information, experiencing a different lifestyle, and being obliged to overcome cultural or mental barriers. Youth participation (and enthusiastic involvement) in Erasmus+ projects play a driving role in Moldova’s path towards EU accession
The power of a Young European Ambassador
During our trip, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, passion, commitment and determination of many young people. They impressed us with their knowledge of the European Union, the number of civic projects they are involved in, as well as their willingness to make their voices heard. In this context, the story of Anghelina deserves to be mentioned. Anghelina is a 16-year-old young woman, born into a Russian-speaking family, who is studying at a Russian-speaking school in Moldova. After becoming a YEA, she started advocating for EU values in her school. She has also been encouraging her schoolmates to become YEAs too and get involved in the project. Angelina’s story demonstrates that we can all be changemakers in our everyday life, make an impact on what we believe in, and encourage people around us to do the same.
Unconventional stories of youth activism
Another inspiring story of youth democratic participation comes from Mihail, the President of the Youth Platform for Interethnic Solidarity (also known as ‘Minority Youth Moldova’). This organisation promotes the human rights of minorities and underrepresented groups in Moldova. Every year, for example, these activists host a summer camp which includes work around the subject of European integration and highlights how the reforms that Moldova has implemented as part of its Association Agreement with the EU help to protect the cultural and political rights of the country’s minorities. Mihail explained that this was particularly important given that “human rights, inclusion and the protection of minorities are core values of the European project and an important part of the Copenhagen criteria to join the EU”. Nevertheless, EU values are not universally popular, particularly among Russian-speaking minorities who are often influenced by Russian propaganda. Yet, young people belonging to these minorities show an inversion of this paradigm, since they mostly support Moldova’s path towards the EU. Therefore, Minority Youth Moldova represents a safe place where these young people can make their voices heard, stand up for what they believe in and contribute to the future of their country.
Youth participation is essential in order to build solid and robust democracies based on pluralism, the rule of law and the protection of human rights. The role that young people can play is vast and heterogeneous, and the stories of unconventional activism described here are just some examples. Yet, despite the commitment of many activists, levels of democratic participation among the young in Moldova are still relatively low. In this context, some suggestions may be taken into consideration in order to better involve young Moldovans in the country’s democratic landscape. For instance, attention should be paid to laws which directly empower young people, along with ways of involving them further in decision-making processes and other political initiatives. Finally, public authorities need to advertise and promote youth centres, where young people can get involved in politics and make their voices heard. We consider this to be critical for Moldova’s path towards EU accession since respect for the EU’s shared values is an essential condition for joining the European Union and the commitment of the young to those values can act as a vital stepping stone in the country’s accession process.
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