There is a great unease among young people in Europe today. You can measure the dissatisfaction in a variety of ways. The protests that swept the continent over the last couple years – the indignados in Spain, the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, some scattered Occupy demonstrations – brought young people into the streets to voice their anger over their declining economic prospects. A new Gallup poll shows that an overwhelming number of young people around the continent believe that their lives will be worse off than their parents.
The impact on politics has been considerable. Fewer young people are voting in European parliament elections. Only 29 percent of eligible young people voted in 2009, down from 33 percent in 2005. At the same time, support has surged among young people for extremist politics on the Right, with Golden Dawn organizing in the public schools in Greece and Jobbik attracting considerable youth support in Hungary. A recent report on “subterranean politics” in Europe argues that young people are upset at their economic prospects but are really focusing their dissatisfaction at political elites, a case born out by the current protests in Istanbul against the authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan government.
Thibault Muzergues works with the International Republican Institute (IRI) out of their regional office in Bratislava. He has worked in French politics and is now involved in a range of trainings that IRI conducts throughout the region. Many of the trainings organized out of the Bratislava office focus on young people.
“In many countries, to a greater or lesser extent, the youth is still disenfranchised from political responsibilities,” he told me in an interview in the IRI office in Bratislava back in February. “We train youth who are politically conscious, politically active, but the problem in most of Europe is that youth in general is much more cynical than it used to be. There is less political participation in general, and much more cynicism about politics in general than there used to be, or compared to my contemporaries back in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The generation gap is not easy to bridge. “Frankly, Europe is getting old,” he continued. “Because Europe is getting old, the youth matter a lot less now than they used to. It becomes a vicious circle. Politicians consider youth to be less important, and therefore youth gets more cynical and don’t vote, which makes them even less important. It’s very difficult to break that cycle.”
But IRI has had some success in helping young people rise through the ranks of political parties in the region. “We try to form young leaders who can show to other youth that they can make a difference if they get involved in politics,” Thibault Muzergues concluded. “Again, it’s very difficult because the youth generally doesn’t have access to a lot of responsibilities: they are not getting enough seats in parliament or not getting enough influence. So, the best way is to educate them and make sure that they are able to show to their leadership that they know things, and that they can be useful. Sometimes when we have the possibility to advise more senior members of the party, we try to remind them that they were young at some point and that they need to give opportunities to promising youth.”
We talked about the different fundraising styles between the United States and Europe, the changing political dynamics in Slovakia, and how the world of political consultants has changed over the last couple decades.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
Before working for the International Republican Institute (IRI), I studied democratic transition. I hold a degree in Russian and post-Soviet studies from the London School of Economics, where the main topic of the time—in the early 2000s— was transition towards democracy. Obviously, we know now that it does not always go in one direction. So I always had this sort of background. When I moved back to France, I studied public administration and politics—Western politics—and I worked for five years in a communication consulting company in France. From there, I did fundraising, and I also had the opportunity to do some trainings with IRI. After a while, there was an opportunity to move here to Bratislava to work to promote democracy around the world, which is the best way to combine both my academic background, on Central and Eastern Europe and transition to democracy, and my work as a political consultant and communications specialist.
Had you been to Slovakia before?
My first time in Slovakia was in 2007. I came just to visit Bratislava as a tourist, and then I came back with IRI for different trainings.
Tell me a little about what you do here at IRI and what IRI does here in Slovakia.
The IRI program in Slovakia is actually a regional program. It’s something quite unique at IRI in the sense that we operate across the whole region of Central, Eastern, and mostly Southeastern Europe, where obviously the needs are the biggest at the moment. Although we are based in Bratislava, we operate all around the region, from Estonia to Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. We provide regular trainings, mostly to youth in the region. We have a pool of Central and Eastern Europe-wide (in complement to South Eastern European) trainings that combine trainees from these regions with trainers from all over Europe. We carefully select these trainers in terms of their background and pedagogical abilities, We train them and then send them over to Southeastern Europe, and now further down to Africa and the Middle East to do trainings for IRI. We also have a network of political foundations to encourage party foundations and more thinking about political life. We operate at those three levels — trainers, youth, and political foundations — in order to promote democracy, mostly at the party level.
Do you also work here in Slovakia, or you just happen to be based here in Bratislava?
We are mostly just based in Slovakia. We do some trainings for some of the parties – the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, the Christian Democratic Movement for example — but this is not the core of our work. It used to be, obviously, but that was before I arrived at IRI Bratislava. But we have kept contact with the Slovaks. We try to help the parties to evolve with the country because transition is always a process, and in many ways it never ends. But the core of our work is regional rather than strictly national.
When I talk to different actors in the United States, including the National Endowment for Democracy, I’ve found that there has been a shift in emphasis over the last 20 years: a gradual withdrawal from Eastern Europe. Organizations have been instead devoting their resources to other parts of the world — the Arab World, for instance, or Southeast Asia, or Africa. But it sounds like IRI has maintained a presence in all of the countries in this region. Do you have a philosophy that it’s important to stay here even as other organizations are leaving?
I think yes. Obviously, we have closed many of our offices in Central and Eastern Europe. The remaining offices that we have are in Bratislava for the regional program, and then Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Turkey. These are the places that we still have national programs. The choice has been to stay in the countries in which the transition process is not yet complete, such as Serbia and Bosnia, and then to have this regional office. At the end of the day, this is something important, particularly now that we are in time of crisis, and that the crisis is starting to have consequences. Transition is a never-ending process, and it is always possible that there can be a significant move backward. Right now there are significant moves backward in Central and Eastern Europe, but also, and let’s be frank, clear risks in other countries from Southern Europe, where a very high proportion of the electorate in many of these countries is ready to vote for anti-system parties. That is a dangerous trend we see all around Southern Europe at the moment as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
Tell me about the kind of trainings you do with parties. What is the goal? What is the expectation? When you move a party from A to B, what does A look like and what does B look like?
We work with parties individually, and we provide them with what we call consultations, which are ad-hoc trainings on tailor-made topics that we discuss with them prior to that. That’s what we’ve been doing, for example, in Bulgaria with several parties that include, GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, and it looks like we’re going to do some trainings for the Bulgaria for Citizens Movement, Meglena Kuneva’s new party. These are more tailor-made programs to help the parties themselves evolve in an environment that is ever-changing. Democracy changes all the time. Think about how campaigns have been led in the United States, how they were led 20 years ago, how they were led 10 years ago when George W. Bush was elected twice, and then how they are led now with another revolution being accomplished in the two elections of Barack Obama. Obviously, there are changes in people’s expectations, changes of techniques, and changes in how to keep in touch with people. At the end of the day, campaigns are about making the link between the politicians—who sometimes after four or fives years in office have lost touch with the electorate – and the expectations of the people. That’s mostly what we’re trying to do with these parties.
When we’re talking about youth, it’s more about political education, how a party functions, how to create that global link. From what I remember from my apprenticeship in politics, getting to know people’s expectations, and the different categories of people’s expectations, is never an easy or a natural thing. People need to learn about it, so that’s what we try to do. We focus our trainings on understanding polls and creating a message that not only fits to the ideology or to the thinking of the leader, but that has a link between the expectations of the population and where good people want the country to go. We talk about communication, about how to deliver a message, and then how to campaign and how to listen to people during a political campaign in order to not only win the elections but to take the lessons from the campaign into government as well.
Without revealing any party confidences, can you give an example with a specific case of working with a party in this part of the world?
Let me give the example of GERB, with whom we’ve just finished a series of three trainings that I started. I myself did a training in Varna for GERB’s youth wing in September. We then had a training specifically on the Internet for GERB, because Bulgarian politicians aren’t generally on the Internet enough. The Internet can prove a dangerous tool, because it unleashes all the emotions and sometimes the extreme thoughts of some people and some minorities. But it is a great tool to communicate; it is a great tool to get feedback from ordinary people. So we had this training on the Internet with a specialist from France, with whom I actually campaigned in the 2007 presidential election. A few days ago we had another training on how to do a national campaign on the local level, which is obviously all about that link between the people on the local level who live the policy changes of the government day-by-day and the politicians themselves who always have a tendency to put themselves in their ivory tower and just discuss things between themselves.
Obviously each party has different needs. The societies have different expectations. For the moment, if you ask a Bulgarian about his expectations, he’ll probably say that corruption and the whole scandal surrounding the government are the main issues of the day. Maybe tomorrow it’s going to change, because the news cycle is so quick these days. So obviously we try to tailor our specific trainings.
In the Bulgarian context, one of the features of politics over the last 20 years is a rather swift rotation of parties. I don’t think any party has gotten a second chance, consecutively. That might change with the upcoming elections, but does that factor into the training at all?
That’s the way it looks in Bulgaria and in most of the region, frankly. It looks like in Romania the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) is probably not going to survive the rupture it had last year. If you think about the center Right in Slovakia, it is in total disarray. The Left has been able to organize itself more — certainly not in Hungary, certainly not in Poland — but in countries like Bulgaria because the Left has taken its inheritance of the Communist Party and evolved from a one-state party in a democratic direction to a more modern Social Democratic Party. So the Left has less of a problem of continuity than the Right. Also, in Bulgaria, the story of Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and Ivan Kostov is quite sad, when you think that he’s likely to get a very small percentage of votes even though he was an example of a transformative prime minister during a very turbulent time for Bulgaria.
So this is something for politicians, and politicians who want to mount a new party, to keep in mind. We’ve seen parties get into power, be in power for a certain amount of time, and then stop — whether they are stopped by the voters or whether they leave power before the voters tell them to do so. In order to consolidate true democracy in all these countries, a certain stabilization of the party system, and in most countries this is particularly true for the center Right, is needed. Unfortunately for Bulgaria, the economic crisis has hit hard all over Europe and further destabilized an already unstable party system. But that is something that we keep in mind when we do our trainings. Trying to think in the long term is something that we try to help politicians do, although most European politicians, including in Western Europe, do not think in the long-term. Their preoccupations obviously are short term.
It used to be that electioneering was very different on the different sides of the Atlantic. American-style politics and, say, German-style politics were once very different. It seems that now they are becoming more similar. You’ve worked in the French system, and now you’re working with IRI, which is of course an American-based organization. Is there still sufficient difference between the way politics is done in America and the way politics is done in Western Europe that when you do trainings in this part of the world, you have these two different approaches in your head to choose from?
Both are true. There are certainly cultural differences. For example, I started out as a fundraiser. It is true that in Europe, but particularly in the former Soviet bloc and in Catholic and Orthodox countries, there is a taboo about money. And that taboo needs to be taken into account when you are doing a training about fundraising, or when you are trying to do some fundraising in one of these countries. In Central Europe, which is mostly Catholic or Orthodox, that taboo has been reinforced by the 40 years or more of Communist rule. What you see, however, is that by adapting techniques from America, you can definitely get things done. The fundraising that I did was not reinventing the wheel, but just implementing and adapting American techniques to a country that is supposedly harshly anti-American, and it worked. We did some very good political fundraising there, and now all parties do that.
When you think about the political cycle and the way things are evolving, America is way ahead, probably by five to 10 years, including ideological perspectives. But the European countries are following in a quite symmetrical way. That’s one of the things I’ve realized over the past year and a half. Consider, for example, the swing toward more liberal politics in America since 2008, and the dilemmas that the center-right has had to confront in order to get reelected, such as maintaining ideological purity versus going more to left. That’s the dilemma that the French Right is confronting right now. Actually many countries in Southern Europe, countries like Italy and Spain that have totally different political situations, are dealing with these same problems. So there’s a five-year difference.
I’m talking about general ideological questions, but I could just as well talk about the emergence of money in politics. That’s happening now in Western Europe, and it will probably happen in Central Europe in the next five to 10 years. We’re seeing for the first time in Europe direct contact with the voters through get-out-the-vote campaigns and grassroots organization. Those techniques are usually starting in Britain and then spreading to France and Germany, and then to the rest of Europe, and we try to encourage that evolution through our trainings across Central and Eastern Europe, so that this region can continue to catch up.
If you do a training for one party and it turns out to be successful, however that success is measured, I would imagine that other parties begin to copy those techniques.
Oh yes, definitely. I think that’s the way it should be. When we do a training, it’s not just for a particular party but the idea is that it makes the whole political system better and saner. This is something you measure over a full political cycle, if not two or three.
Are there any examples that you can cite?
I can cite an example that I’ve lived, myself, in France, about money in politics. Until the early 1990s, France had a very nontransparent system, very opaque, in which there was officially very little state money. It was the law of the jungle when it came to private funding. Which meant a lot of scandals. At a certain point, civil society said, “Enough! We want a transparent way of working politics.” The choice that France made was to have much more state funding for the parties, depending on election results, which is the norm in most of Europe. But the system left room for private fundraising with very tight and transparent rules. For example, you could not give more than 7,500 euros per year, per person, per party in France. No corporations or organizations can give money, only actual persons. In many ways the rules are actually very good. They make fundraising in France more transparent than even in the United States.
Definitely more than the United States!
The interesting thing is that, with these new sets of rules, many people said that fundraising a la Americaine would never be possible in France. But little by little that changed. I came in around 2005, when fundraising was really starting, and we used it for Nicolas Sarkozy and for the French Right. At the time, the Left was totally against it. During the 2007 campaign, the Left scornfully rejected that way of financing campaigns as not being part of their political cultural DNA. What has made it a big success, however, is that in this particular cycle in 2012, Francois Hollande actually resorted to fundraising through private donations, mostly small private donations, just like the Union for a Popular Movement and Sarkozy did in 2007. That has helped the political climate in France become saner, at least when it comes to money, although a lot of things remain to be done, as the recent events over the Cahuzac scandal are unfolding. Politicians, in order to finance their campaigns, had to resort to transparent ways, rather than going through this dodgy lending of money, or carrying suitcases full of cash.
In terms of the youth training, to what extent are young people different, politically, from the older generations? I don’t mean so much just the political positions they take, but their whole political perspective. Is there a significant generation gap in that regard?
There is a generation gap in the sense that the youth is less cynical, obviously more idealistic. They want to make a difference. The other difference is that still in many countries, to a greater or lesser extent, the youth is still disenfranchised from political responsibilities. We train youth who are politically conscious, politically active, but the problem in most of Europe is that youth in general is much more cynical than it used to be. There is less political participation in general, and much more cynicism about politics in general than there used to be, or compared to my contemporaries back in the 1980s and 1990s. But that’s a more global thing, or more European thing, and it has to do with the end of ideology—at least in Europe.
Also, frankly, Europe is getting old. Because Europe is getting old, the youth matter a lot less now than they used to. It becomes a vicious circle. Politicians consider youth to be less important, and therefore youth gets more cynical and don’t vote, which makes them even less important. It’s very difficult to break that cycle. When we get to countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the unemployment for youth is skyrocketing, that makes the problem even worse.
How do you counter both the cynicism and the diminishing influence of young people in politics?
We try to form young leaders who can show to other youth that they can make a difference if they get involved in politics. Again, it’s very difficult because the youth generally doesn’t have access to a lot of responsibilities: they are not getting enough seats in parliament or not getting enough influence. So, the best way is to educate them and make sure that they are able to show to their leadership that they know things, and that they can be useful. Sometimes when we have the possibility to advise more senior members of the party, we try to remind them that they were young at some point and that they need to give opportunities to promising youth.
We can clearly give some examples of people we have trained. Over the past four years, we have trained young people who have risen up to become members of national parliaments and the European parliament. Just to give you three recent examples. Monika Panayotova, who was a member of the youth of GERB at the time, is now a member of the European parliament, after having been a member of parliament for GERB in Bulgaria. We have Agnieszka Pomaska, who is now a member of parliament for Civic Platform in Poland. And I think we have two MPs, one young liberal and one from the party of the Hungarian Minority UDMR, who have just been elected in Romania as well.
So, we can make a difference, but obviously it’s a lot of effort. When it comes to local politics, we are also trying to make a difference. I was in Bulgaria last week and I was conducting a couple of interviews with people who have gone through our trainings, and who are now mayors in their districts of Sofia, deputy mayors of Sofia, local councilors. This makes a difference not only on a national level, but at local level, where all politics starts actually.
I’m curious what your impression of the political scene is here in Slovakia. Obviously, there’s a social democrat who is in charge. The Right side of the spectrum seems to have disappeared.
What would be your assessment of the maturity of the political institutions and the political process here?
Considering that the country started late compared to the others, because of the Meciar era, it has grown remarkably successful and remarkably sane. For me, last year’s Gorilla scandal during the election is actually proof that things are saner and saner in the country. The culprits were not necessarily the most punished by the scandal, and there was a lot of emotion and crazy things going on when a scandal breaks out—as there always is in that circumstance. But it’s also a warning for the political class in general—and I’m not making any accusations against anybody—that it is more and more difficult to get away with corruption at a political level these days. Even when you yourself are not corrupt, but you have people around you that have some dodgy contacts with the criminal underworld, there is a civil society that does its job and makes sure that politicians are accountable.
Slovakia is still one of the poorest countries of the European Union, there is no doubt about it. But when you think about where it was 10 or 15 years ago and where it is now, the success story of Slovakia is remarkable, from a political, economic, and social point of view. There are some very interesting developments in the country. For instance, there is a liberal party that promotes free market values and at the same time gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. It’s what you would call in America a libertarian party. That suggests a certain evolution of the electorate that means it can catch up even more quickly than other countries.
So they can leapfrog over other countries.
To a certain extent and in certain domains, yes. On questions such as the financing of political life, this country is definitely a Central and Eastern European country, no doubt about that. But on other issues, there’s been quite a remarkable evolution in the past 10 years—frankly even in the past two or three years.
You mentioned you were at the London School of Economics studying post-Soviet developments. What has changed in your thinking from the time you were a student to now when you are involved in politics?
The situation has changed, obviously. When I was studying, we still had hopes that countries like Russia would not backslide to the extremes that we’ve seen. There was no economic crisis. At the time, we thought that countries such as Greece had sorted things out. I remember being warned by one of my professors that a transition to democracy is never complete and there can always be significant backsliding. But at the time, in the early 2000s, the question seemed totally irrelevant when it came to Central and Eastern Europe, which was at the door of the European Union. I left LSE in the year of the massive influx of Central European countries into the EU. So, the evolution of events in the world has been very interesting though not necessarily positive in all parts of the world. Countries like Slovakia seem much better off now. But other countries are still shaky, such as Bosnia or Serbia, and finally there is a clear backsliding in countries such as Russia and Belarus. There are still question marks even after more than 10 years of democracy.
The last question is about the role of consultants. When I was traveling in this region 23 years ago, there were of course lots of people like me—a lot of people from America, from Western Europe – who came here to consult. Twenty-three years later, what strikes me as the big difference is how many people from this region are now going to other parts of the world. I’ve talked to a number of Slovaks who have gone to other parts of the world to talk about their experience. So, is our era of coming to this region to consult coming to an end? At what point will it be Poles and Slovaks who come to Washington and Paris to advise us?
I think this is already happening to some extent. In 2007, when I worked on the Sarkozy campaign, that was the first time ever in European political consulting history that American consultants actually came to Paris to see how we were doing the campaign. They were very interested in the Web TV we’d developed for our candidate, which was at the time totally brand new (although six years later it is now considered totally normal by every party). That was mostly due to the fact that France had an election in 2007 while America was having its election in 2008. If it had been the other way around, we would have gone to Washington. The fact remains, though, that American politics are still way ahead of European politics, but now the relationship is more two-way than one way.
American politics are advanced because they are taking place on a continental level, rather than simply a national state level. European countries are the size of a U.S. state. And there is no Europe-wide campaign at the moment (although the next European elections in 2014 will introduce elements of a continental campaign). Also, the amount of money put into European politics is small compared to the United States, so for the foreseeable future American politics will still be the leading light that most European countries will follow.
That being said, we have developed out own team of European trainers that we’re sending out to Africa, to North Africa, and to the Middle East. There has been a new consciousness, not only within IRI but the whole democracy promotion world, that it is always interesting to have not only Americans coming into a country and giving their experience, but also having successful examples of European countries, Central European countries, politicians, consultants, coming in to say, “Okay, folks, these things work in America, but they also work in my country. I’ve implemented it in my country and it works, so now there is no reason why it shouldn’t work in your country.”
That’s the reason why I’m holding the job that I’m holding right now: being at IRI as a Frenchman. It’s important, in making the case for democracy, to say not only that democracy is not the sole prerogative of few white people in America and Western Europe, but it’s also something that can be built painfully, with a lot of work, over a lot of years in countries that didn’t have a so-called “democratic culture” before.
Bratislava, February 12, 2013