In the beginning of this year, one of my favourite commentators, Timothy Garton Ash, was asked by Guardian weekly what he expected from 2009. In his opinion, this year Europe can expect the public emergence of a new youth leader, 'Red Lily', a female student who would become to the youth protests of 2009 the same that Red Danny, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, had been to the student protests of 1968.
Indeed, the examples of Greece and, since yesterday, Latvia, show that Europe is ripe for mass protests. And indeed, young people have less to lose and more to gain by protesting against a political and economic system where those with less access to the gears of power have to foot the bill of the economy in crisis, while those with private access to government ears and government funds run away unscathed. In Greece, young people who had little to expect from the existing order of things were called Generation 700 (according to the average monthly salary they get, about 700 EUR). In Latvia, one could recently call them Generation Ireland, as many chose the exit strategy of looking for a better life elsewhere. Now, however, there is no need for them even in Ireland. And they have had ample proof, in recent years, that the government at home has no need of them either.
And yet Red Lily is nowhere to be seen. Yesterday night on Latvian TV one could see young men (and sometimes young women) shouting rude slogans, throwing paving stones at policemen and attacking shops and cars (the same as in Paris 1968, I suppose), but nothing like a counter-culture intellectual leader emerging from the crowds. Possibly, the current political elite has long found a way to sidetrack protest from educated young people by co-opting them to try seemingly high-flying careers in party youth organisations (where they can start by venting all frustrations through anonymous Internet comments directed against the ruling coalition’s opponents). Or possibly, they know better than put their future career and personal security at stake by mixing with angry young representatives of the proletariat. One can congratulate them on their survival instinct, but not on their chances to become Europe’s leaders of the future. Because apart from throwing bricks and breaking shop windows, there are many less desctructive but fairly effective ways of saying “Enough” to the political elite. And so far, I have not seen a single creative initiative aimed at large-scale societal change that would come from Latvia’s students. With an extremely high proportion of students among the pupulation, it is rather a pity.