The Role of Think Tanks in Russia

“Factories of Unwanted Thought. Intellectual Product Proves Superfluous to the Adoption of Strategic Decisions by the State”

The Belarusian crisis has shown once more that Russia has no clear strategy for collaboration with its key partners. Yet again, the country has paid a huge price: Again reacting after the event, it is trying in vain to counteract the disastrous damage done to its image in the West.

Meanwhile political scientists and experts in the sphere of foreign policy are saying with one voice that the intellectual product that they produce is not being taken up by the authorities. Who is to blame for this? The authorities themselves, who rely on their own internal analysts? Or the analytical community, which is incapable of offering a serious product? And in general, what are these Russian “thought factories” that lay claim to the task of formulating strategies in the sphere of domestic and foreign policy? A Little History

The term “think tank” (term published in English), meaning “thought factory” or “intellectual center,” emerged in the United States after World War II. Today thousands of “thought factories” exist in the States, the biggest of them supplying the American establishment with intellectual products in the most diverse spheres — from recommendations in the foreign and defense policy sphere to the development of cities’ economies. Well-known American politicians have come to power after emerging from leading American intellectual centers. In 1968 Harvard University Professor Henry Kissinger became, first, national security adviser, and later secretary of state of the United States. And the track record of Francis Fukuyama, a former expert at one of America’s most prestigious “thought factories” — the Rand Corporation — includes work in the policy planning department at the US State Department.

“In Russia no stable system or tradition of interaction between the authorities and policy formulation centers exists as of today, nor is there any lengthy history of such centers,” Effective Policy Foundation head Gleb Pavlovskiy claims. The biggest think tanks in the USSR (not counting the KGB) either existed within the party system, or else they belonged to the academic milieu. The best known of the Soviet think tanks were: the Academy of Social Sciences, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and the Institute of the United States and Canada (ISKRAN). “In Soviet times, academic institutes were swamped with commissions from the leadership bodies,” Vyacheslav Nikonov, leader of the Politika Foundation, notes. It is symbolic that ISKRAN, which is still financed from the budget, has received only two commissions from the state in the past 15 years.

In the late 1980s independent expert centers and institutes began to spring up like mushrooms. The new authorities needed intellectual support, and they enlisted for this work the leading specialists at the new think tanks. In 1990 the Higher Coordination and Consultation Council was set up, subsequently becoming part of Boris Yeltsin’s administration, followed by the Presidential Council, to which well-known scientists were recruited. By the mid-1990s, Yeltsin’s interest in analysts had faded. The authorities needed the intellectuals’ help again in the period of the 1996 election campaign. It was then that the Effective Policy Foundation and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) established close relations with the Kremlin.

The Putin era made changes of its own to the relationship between the Russian think tanks and the Kremlin. In the view of Nikolay Petrov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, both the old system and the new model that had begun to take shape, whereby the Kremlin did not simply focus on a few advisers but, through them, drew on a wider circle of professional experts, have now been destroyed. In fact, the very concept of “presidential adviser” has basically become a fiction: As a rule they have no influence on all on the decisions that are made. “The institution of advisers did not work out,” a high-ranking Kremlin official admits.

By way of a small digression, let me note that the decision-making system in the sphere of domestic and foreign policy makes almost no provision for involving third parties in this process. Domestic policy is the zone of responsibility of the Domestic Policy Administration, which is run by Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff Vladislav Surkov. Here there is a certain element of, if not collegiality in making the decisions, then at least expert discussion of them: The leaders of intellectual centers that are close to the Kremlin are invited to conferences with Surkov. As far as foreign policy is concerned, this sphere is closed to the gaze of outsiders. In the words of a high-ranking Kremlin official, many decisions in this sphere are made at the Saturday conferences between the president and members of the Security Council, the format for which was dreamed up by Vladimir Putin personally. It was at conferences like this that far from uncomplicated decisions like the start of the anti-Georgian campaign and the refusal to ratify the 40th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights were made. “They Take Papers of Some Kind”

In Russia there are dozens of analytical centers working under the banner of various foundations and institutes and wishing to offer their products to the authorities. In reality the vast majority of them are basically PR firms, and only a few are capable of offering high-quality analysis, to say nothing of formulating global policy strategies.

A vast number of foundations and institutes have, as a rule, no more than 10 people on their staff. Experts demand large fees that are measured in thousands of dollars a month, and as a rule they are invited to work on a specific project. According to the leader of one analysis center, the wage of an average analyst is $2,000-$3,000 a month. A high-class analyst can claim at least $5,000 a month. “And there is no upper limit to the pay of a specialist like that,” my interlocutor adds. In his opinion, 10-15% of the analysts at Russian intellectual centers sprang from the special services. But in general the centers’ personnel are made up of former employees (and often, employees who continue to work in their old jobs) of academic institutions and vuzes (higher educational establishments), as well as recent graduates.

Some Russian think tanks, like, for instance, the Center for Political Conditions in Russia and the Center for Political Technologies, specialize in disseminating analytical materials on a subscription basis. However, they, like many of the Russian “thought factories” operating in the sphere of real politics, are geared toward exclusive commissions, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For instance, the cost of a study on lobbying techniques and influence groups in Ukraine that was carried out by one Moscow analysis center came to around $80,000. The cost of an average opinion poll in a region, with a sample of 1,600 people, amounts to $10,000-$12,000. Anyone wanting to become mayor or get into a (regional) legislative assembly should be prepared to invest an average of $30,000 for his election campaign strategy. To define the election strategy for a party list for a legislative assembly, analysts will ask for $50,000-$60,000. In the opinion of Yevgeniy Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, the cost of work on formulating a strategy for a federal party could total approximately $100,000.

Almost every head of an intellectual center will inform you meaningfully that they work with the Kremlin. But such claims are often a bluff. “Around 70-80% of organizations that try to collaborate with the Kremlin are working, shall we say, not for money, but just for the opportunity of working with state structures. People take something along (to the Kremlin), and they say to them, well, give it to us, it’s interesting, we’ll take a look,” Minchenko says. Admittedly this kind of “collaboration” with the authorities, according to the head of one political science center, can be converted into dividends of a different kind. For instance, you say to a commercial client: You see, we work with the Kremlin, among others. For certain think tanks this becomes a kind of item of income. “They take papers of some kind to the Kremlin, and later they tell their clients: We wrote about you in an analysis report, that costs money, because this is analysis that people in the Kremlin read,” the head of one political science institute notes.

The absence of a strong financial base, in Pavlovskiy’s opinion, is one reason why Russia has yet to see the formation of something that exists in the United States, a “coherent architecture of ideas and personnel between independent political centers, the university world, and the authorities.” In the United States there are “strong institutes with huge budgets that no research center in our country has,” Nikonov adds. Let me note that according to a financial report published on its web site, in the period from September 2004 to September 2005 the Rand Corporation received grants and contracts for a total of more than $200 million. The Chosen Ones

When I asked whether there are structures in Russia’s similar to America’s Rand Corporation, a source in Vladislav Surkov’s entourage admitted that in our country structures like that are at the embryonic stage. Nonetheless several intellectual centers exist that receive commissions from the Kremlin on a more or less regular basis. These are the Effective Policy Foundation, the Institute of Social Planning (InOP), the Politika Foundation, the FOM (Public Opinion Foundation), VTsIOM (All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), and also the Institute of the CIS Countries, the Center for Political Conditions (in Russia) (TsPKR), and a number of other structures. Think tanks that are close to the Presidential Staff do not participate in the formulation of global policy strategies, but are more likely to carry out local instructions. In particular, InOP drew up the Law “On the Public Chamber.”

Only a couple of years ago, one of the Kremlin’s main contractors was the Effective Policy Foundation. The foundation, headed by Pavlovskiy, carried out monitoring in regions where the governor’s term in office had expired or where elections to local parliaments were due to take place. “Analytical reports were written on such regions on a weekly basis,” a former staffer of the Effective Policy Foundation explains. “The main objective interest was the behavior of the key players. It was important to understand the situation in the elites, who had done a deal with whom, who had quarreled with whom, which of the candidates should be excluded.” The Nashi (youth) movement is also the Effective Policy Foundation’s brainchild. “The people who looked after this project formed an individual group inside the Effective Policy Foundation. This was a different corporate entity, but the staff were based in the same building, only on a different floor,” one of Pavlovskiy’s former subordinates says.

People in the Kremlin assert that under the new chief of the Presidential Staff Pavlovskiy’s influence has lessened. Nonetheless, it remains part of the authorities’ intellectual reserves. In particular, the analysis of the implementation of the national projects in the regions and the monitoring of the regional press is an Effective Policy Foundation project that is being carried out on commission from the Kremlin. The Effective Policy Foundation, according to Pavlovskiy, continues to prepare analytical materials for conferences on domestic policy and analytical reports on the regions.

The Kremlin collaborates closely with the major Russian opinion poll services. FOM chief Aleksandr Olson has been working with the Kremlin for more than 10 years. VTsIOM chief Valeriy Fedorov does not have such long experience of collaboration with the authorities, but that is hardly a serious obstacle — he became head of VTsIOM under the patronage of Aleksey Chesnakov, deputy chief of the Presidential Staff Domestic Policy Administration, after the center came under state control in 2003. Electoral popularity ratings and confidence ratings, as well as polls on current events, are the best-known projects of VTsIOM and the FOM; the figures from these are posted on their web sites weekly and, in parallel, conveyed to the Domestic Policy Administration.

However, the activities of the major polling services are not limited to this. According to FOM chief Aleksandr Olson, the foundation regularly conducts polls in regions where election campaigns are under way — four months, two months, two weeks, and one week before the elections. Regularly measuring the confidence ratings of key figures on the political Olympus — the head of government, the leaders of the two chambers of parliament, the vice premiers, and the chief of the Presidential Staff — is also one of the FOM’s jobs, carried out on the instructions of the Presidential Staff. The results of such polls by no means always appear on the foundation’s official web site. The FOM is currently holding focus groups with a view to analyzing the implementation of the national projects, and reports on these go to the Kremlin.

Valeriy Fedorov claims that VTsIOM rarely carries out polls ahead of a particular state decision. One of the few exceptions was the monetization of benefits. But the social departments (in the government), as the VTsIOM chief comments, paid no particular heed to the pollsters’ recommendations at that time. Most often, the center has to carry out polls after the event — when a given decision has already been made. VTsIOM not infrequently studies public opinion after high-profile events. According to Fedorov, such studies were carried out recently after the events (disturbances) in Kondopoga and after the Russian president’s phone-in. As a source at United Russia told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the No. 1 party of power is also one of VTsIOM’s clients.

The heads of analysis structures that are close to the Kremlin are reluctant to talk about their financial relationship with the client. It is obvious, however, that the pro-Kremlin think tanks are not only sponsored by the state budget. Pavlovskiy made it clear that Effective Policy Foundation studies, the results of which are received by the Presidential Staff among others, are not infrequently financed by large corporations. According to (InOP chief) Fadeyev, big companies financed the InOP study of the social stratification of society, the cost of which amounted to about half a million dollars. Fadeyev declined to name the companies that participated in the investment pool.

The activities being carried out by the Effective Policy Foundation in the monitoring and analysis of the implementation of the national projects at local level are included in the funding estimates for information backup for the national projects, for which about $20 million has been appropriated. “A state contract has been concluded for information support for the national projects, and that includes sums for opinion polls,” Fedorov explains. According to him, when it comes to the ministries, lines covering research work are included in their budgets. The contractor is chosen on the basis of the results of tenders. “The Presidential Staff also holds tenders, but less frequently than the pollsters themselves would like,” Fyodorov admits.

The authorities allocate grants to friendly analysis centers. For instance, the Institute of the Diaspora and Integration, formed within the framework of the Institute of the CIS Countries headed by Konstantin Zatulin, received 1.5 million rubles under a presidential directive. Autism in the Authorities

Proximity to the Kremlin does not, however, mean that the fruits of the brains’ efforts invariably form the basis of the decisions that are made. Even pro-Kremlin analysts are forced to admit that the authorities are generally unreceptive to intellectual products and that strategic research is not in much demand, if it is in demand at all. The author of these lines had a remarkable conversation with the head of the Effective Policy Foundation, who is to this day an adviser to the chief of the Presidential Staff. “In our country, there are very few people who can do such things,” Pavlovskiy says, talking about studies in the sphere of analysis and planning of the political space. “And if anyone does do them, he should be prepared to do so at his own risk. That is to say, he will not be given a commission. But the Russian political apparatus has a characteristic trait: Anything that it did not commission, it usually puts a low value on.” “Are you talking about the apparatus of the regime?” — I inquired, to clarify. “Yes. I must say that often it also puts a low value even on what it did commission. You will hear complaints about that from everyone on the job,” the Effective Policy Foundation head observed. Having already talked, before this, with a dozen leaders of major and not particularly major Russian think tanks, I admitted frankly that I had already heard a large number of them.

“The authorities are monocentric and sometimes even autistic,” Pavlovskiy adds. In his opinion, a “certain increase in autism” has recently “been taking place, without doubt.” “There is a tendency to delight in power and to glorify controllability. Officials rely on analysis carried out within the administration,” political expert Aleksandr Kynev agrees. “The need for independent analysts arises when there is either a crisis or a lack of confidence in a particular structure that supplies information.” In his view, under the new chief of the Presidential Staff these trends have intensified.

“The conclusions of internal analysts do not undergo wide professional expert scrutiny, and their quality is constantly declining,” Carnegie Moscow Center expert Nikolay Petrov adds. And, as in any other sphere, corruption becomes an inevitable component of the practice of closed contracts: “If a department commissions jobs for millions of dollars, and there is no external quality control for this work, the temptation arises to hand out these commissions either in return for kickbacks or to organizations that have direct links with those handing out the commissions.”

In the political expert’s opinion, all of these phenomena reflect the geenral situation of the absence of public politics and public debate of decisions being made. In the United States research is often commissioned by the Congress, and the results of this work become the subject of a broad debate. “This is done to a significant extent in order to: a) form public opinion, and b) push the authorities into making the right decision,” Petrov says. But Pavlovskiy reminds us that the US authorities did not conduct a broad debate before sending troops into Iraq. “The United States’ Iraq disaster is a serious warning to the Kremlin of what autism in politics can lead to. Serious problems must be discussed widely,” the Effective Policy Foundation head says.

In the view of TsPKR chief Konstantin Simonov, the expert community itself made a colossal mistake by positioning themselves as technologists in advancing the authorities’ public interests and offering their services at the stage of the implementation of decisions that the authorities have already made. In Petrov’s opinion, our analytical centers have worked and continue to work, to a significant extent, “like propaganda machines, which rules out any balanced, well-weighed, and multifaceted examination of the problems facing the country.” “Instead of producing sense, our expert community often produces verbiage,” Simonov smiles. This, in his opinion, largely explains why the authorities are reluctant to listen to the analysts’ advice.

However, there is also a more global factor preventing Russia’s think tanks from starting to formulate political strategies. “Putin has created a strategy of global disorientation, whereby nobody understands what is going to happen tomorrow. In that situation it is very difficult to engage in strategic planning at all,” Minchenko believes.

Natalya Melikova

Nezavisimaya Gazeta
January 23, 2007.

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