Michal Tanáč, 21, is like many young people in Slovakia. A student at the University of Economics in Bratislava, Tanáč voted in Slovakia’s recent presidential elections as well as in the election for mayor of his local village. But he skipped this May’s elections for the European Parliament.

“The people who will be in charge won’t have (that much of an)] impact on me,” he said, explaining his thinking at the time.

Just 10.4% of Slovaks aged 18-24 voted in the EU’s parliamentary elections this year, a quarter of the EU average and the second-lowest of all 28 countries in the bloc. Slovakia’s overall turnout rate was 23%, more than twice as high (although still not high enough to lift it out of last place overall).

Numbers like those have forced many older Slovaks to ask themselves what happened to the smoldering desire for democracy that brought an end to Communism 30 years ago.

In November 1989, students and young people were at the forefront of the Velvet Revolution uprising that paved the way for Slovakia to join the European Union in 2004, which it did resoundingly, with some 90% in favour. Does widespread apathy now threaten to erode that progress? 

It is not as though young people in Slovakia don’t support democracy or democratic values. In fact, their support is quite strong. Only 39% of 18- to 34-year-old Slovaks believe that the changes since the end of Communism failed to benefit ordinary people, compared with 70% of people aged 70 and older, according to a Pew Research survey in October. Older Slovaks are often nostalgic for the days when jobs were guaranteed and a strong sense of national solidarity forged automatic social bonds. Slovakia’s young people, however, have never known anything else but a free, capitalist society.

If there is a clear-cut explanation for young people’s lack of engagement with EU politics, experts haven’t found it yet. To some extent, the problems plaguing Slovakia are inseparable from those of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, which has similarly suffered from low and declining voter turnout. These countries are not founding members of the EU, nor do they wield great influence in it. This leaves many ordinary perople with the impression that their votes in the bloc do not matter.

What can explain why Slovakia’s young voter turnout is so dismal even compared with neighours like the Czech Republic or Hungary? A 2018 paper by two professors at Bratislava’s Comenius University argued that there is a misalignment between Slovak political parties’ national and EU-level policies. That misalignment, the paper suggests, leads to confusion and “cognitive dissonance” that mucks up would-be voters’ views of how their ballots would translate into EU policies. As a result, many don’t show up.

“The positions of parties on many issues are fuzzy both in reality and in the perception of voters,” authors Olga Gyarfasova and Karen Henderson wrote.

Aside from navigating a confusing policy landscape, new voters need to come to grips with a legacy of corruption.

“People feel traumatised,” said Anton Popovič, a composer and former leader of the November 1989 protests in Bratislava. After the transition to democracy, he said, political leaders such as former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar undermined independent institutions and prioritised personal gain. The trust in the government and media buckled, leaving voters feeling shocked and mistrustful. Young voters have never known anything else.

Some young people say that, ironically, there is so much corruption that to vote would be pointless. “I feel like there’s so much corruption…that it doesn’t really matter which party I’m voting for,” said Natália Štefancová, who recently moved from Slovakia to London for work and does not vote in either the national or EU elections.

Still, there is evidence that young people are finally converting their pro-democracy views into action. In February last year, an investigative journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancé, on the orders of a businessman, Marián Kočner, who had sought to stop Kuciak from continuing to report stories he found damaging. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands poured onto the streets of Bratislava in the largest public protests since November 1989 and the public outcry continues to define the tone of the country’s politics.

“Our country experienced some kind of an awakening when many of us realised that democracy here is threatened,” said Veronika Bérešová, who is living in Bratislava.

Magdaléna Vášáryová, an organiser of the November 1989 protests, and later a Czechoslovak and then Slovak ambassador for many years, says she is not worried that young people today are growing apathetic about politics. In an interview this month, she recalled how she knew little about the watershed protests of her parents’ generation — the Prague Spring of 1968 — and yet how that hardly stopped her from joining and leading the Velvet Revolution protests in Slovakia three decades ago.

“It’s normal,” she said. Young people would eventually be drawn in and participate more, especially by voting. Still, in order to do that, she said, it is important to tell stories. “What we desperately need is to create some fairytale, some new story, because only through stories…will people really understand.”

As for Michal Tanáč, the 21-year-old student, he may have chosen not to participate in this year’s European Union elections, but he has vowed not to miss the next round. “Being part of the EU is really important for such a small country, as Slovakia definitely is,” he said.