Russian Think-Tanks

By Jessica Tuchman Mathews

Originally published in Vedomosti, February 16, 2004.

At first blush, one might be tempted to conclude that the wind is finally at Russia’s back. The years of atrophy under former President Boris Yeltsin have given way to his disciplined and internationally-respected successor, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin’s stewardship, Russian foreign policy has regained its focus, and after years of economic decline, GDP growth has remained strong for half a decade. But long-term economic gains are rarely secured or sustained unless they are anchored in a discerning democratic polity. Ultimately, prosperity depends on a vibrant civil society that scrutinizes its political leaders and holds them to account.

The term civil society refers to the space where citizens come together to participate in activities outside the spheres of government or business. It includes private foundations, voluntary associations, non-profit and non-governmental organizations that take part in activities unassociated with the state. Commentators as early as Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1800s have noted civil society’s important contribution to the maintenance of freedom, pluralism and sustained economic growth. This is because organizations like these serve as vital counterweights to the potential excesses of governmental power.

One of the most significant developments in civil society over the past decade has been the global expansion of nonpartisan policy research institutes, popularly know as “think tanks.” Think tanks are best understood as a bridge between a country’s government and its educational system. Unlike academia, they do not carry out highly abstract or theoretical research. If a think tank is to be successful, it must produce material that is of immediate, practical use to policymakers. On the other hand, think tank scholars should not be confused with government officials. They are – or should be – fully independent and have the time and perspective to understand the flood of daily events in a broader context.

At its best, a think tank is a place where serious analyses of the most pressing issues are studied with rigorous objectivity. It is where researchers challenge traditional assumptions and frame new ideas and alternatives. Think tanks offer a neutral space where proponents of views across the political spectrum can meet to engage in constructive dialogue. Government officials, legislators, academics, journalists and other representatives of civil society depend on these institutions to help frame and inspire vibrant public debate. Especially in a country like Russia, where conditions are in such rapid flux, these are enormously important tasks.

The Russian policy research community has undergone a massive transformation since the mid-1980s. On the whole, these developments have been positive. Glasnost gave scholars the first opportunity to express themselves without deference to proscribed ideological doctrine. By the early 1990s, significant organizational changes were also apparent. Smaller and more efficient non-governmental research groups gradually replaced the once dominant National Academy of Sciences as the centers of high-quality public policy analysis. Although economic analysis is still much stronger than research on foreign policy or domestic political reform, the overall quality of Russian policy analysis is improving as researchers become more familiar with western/international research and policy analysis instruments.

But while there are clearly some bright spots, a number of constraints continue to hinder the development of the policy research sector. Financial support from the Russian government, business and independent philanthropists remains woefully inadequate. Equally troubling, one senses that those who are financing policy research are principally interested in results that justify a particular political course or serve the partisan needs of big business. Although Mikhail Khordorkovski is a controversial figure, he has understood the gravity of the current situation better than most. It is unclear now whether other Russian businessmen will be willing to fill this void. The temptation to focus entirely on apolitical forms of philanthropy may prove too appealing – but would be very costly for Russia.

There is also evidence that the triangular relationship between government, think tanks and the Russian educational system is not functioning properly. The academic community is not only under-financed, it also lacks new talent. For the younger generation, research is rarely viewed as a prestigious occupation. Since universities are the breeding grounds for the next generation of researchers, this development does not bode well for the future. But if the relationship between academia and think tanks is strained, the links between government and think tanks seem at times to be almost nonexistent. The present government invites very little outside consultation and interaction on policy matters. This is deeply regrettable. One of the greatest strengths of democracy is the way it encourages intellectual debates that permit each community to contribute its unique vantage point to today’s most difficult questions. This is particularly true for Russia, whose intellectual capital is undoubtedly one if its most precious assets. In the longer view, it is the achievements of Russia’s educational and scientific communities, rather than gas and oil, that hold out the promise of a more prosperous future.

As the number of informed participants in civil society grows, the margin for faulty or misguided decisions should diminish. Ultimately, however, the entire system is premised on press freedom and an attentive and discriminating audience. It is the wider public debate, enabled and informed by the media, that pushes the political process forward and keeps government accountable. Democracy is simply unfeasible without it. On this point the observations of the first practitioners of democracy, the ancient Greeks, can hardly be improved upon: “Here we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own affairs,” said Pericles of Athens. “We say he has no business here at all.”