The recently published report by the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, Democracy Think Tanks in Action: Translating Research into Policy in Young and Emerging Democracies, is a great start for assessing the environment for think tanks in a number of relatively new or struggling democracies. The report analyzes think tanks in nine countries (Argentina, Ecuador, Georgia, Ghana, Lebanon, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea and Turkey), and it shows both similarities and differences in the context within which think tanks operate, their aims and objectives, the ways in which they overcome difficulties in their respective countries and best practices. This initiative should be expanded in the future to cover more countries, including Belarus, and should also identify clear indicators to have a comprehensive comparative picture of think tanks in the identified group of countries.
Below I will provide a succinct overview of the think tank scene in Belarus. To start with, the political situation in the country does not favor the work of independent think tanks. They have to operate in the context of restricted political and civil rights, which include limited freedom of speech and association. This leads to practical problems for the very existence of think tanks (in terms of registering the organizations in the country), as well as making it difficult to hold events, and impairs presence in the media. At the same time, the government generally does not trust the opinion of independent institutions, which diminishes the role of think tanks in society. Yet being one the least reformed countries in the post-Soviet space, Belarus vitally needs new ideas and policy proposals to address the various challenges the country faces.
Despite this situation, think tanks do exist and continue to develop in Belarus. The 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Index Report identified 12 think tanks in Belarus, which is a relatively small number. It is, however, outdated as new think tanks periodically emerge (such as the Belarusian Institute for Public Administration Reform and Transformation (BIPART), Centre for Transition Studies), and even include new types of institutions, such as the newest trend for political parties to create research departments.
Belarusian think tanks can be divided into several different categories. In terms of research areas, there are policy (such as the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and the Centre for European Transformation, Center for European Studies), economic (Research Center of the Institute for Privatization and Management (IPM), and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)) and sociology (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) and NOVAK Laboratory) think tanks.
In terms of geographic coverage, intuitions are divided into national (which are the majority of think tanks) and regional (Strategic Thought). In terms of affiliation, there are non- governmental (the majority of think tanks), governmental (Informational-Analytical Center under the Administration of President of the Republic of Belarus, Institute for Legal Research), university (Center for International Studies of Faculty of International Relations of Belarusian State University (CENTIS)), and political parties (e.g., Analytical Belarusian Center (ABC)). Think tanks also differ with regard to the way the research itself is organized: whether they cover their own agenda, do it at the request of private sector, government or international actors, or in a combination of them.
The primary challenge for independent think tanks is the policy environment. The nature of reform needed in Belarus differs from the majority of other countries. It is not necessarily about modifying existing policies and persuading decision makers on this or that option to achieve the goals, but fundamental reforms are required. The state however resists such kinds of reforms. Therefore independent think tanks face strong political resistance in their advocacy efforts. Moreover, the government is cautious of independent thought as such and is not ready to fully appreciate independent experts.
Independent think tanks conduct a variety of research topics. Often they focus on foreign policy issues and specific civic demands, but they also discuss domestic politics. While the government is unlikely to address or acknowledge opinions about domestic issues, nongovernmental researchers still cover domestic issues for external actors outside Belarus. In some instances independent research institutions and the government have successfully cooperated, but the topics are less politically sensitive or urgent (such as the economic crisis, certain social policy issues, corporate responsibility, and public councils).
It is however important to effectively communicate research and policy proposals to the broader audience. Uneven access to the media hinders emergence of an informed public debate about policy options. While the Internet and other digital media platforms are affording new opportunities to foster discussions and mobilize public support, the most popular news outlets and TV channels are state-owned and their accessibility for independent actors is highly restricted.
What will probably help Belarusian think tanks to have more impact is to join efforts in research, dissemination, and sharing of best practices. Think tanks in Belarus are relatively isolated and cooperation is not common. However, acting together will lead to an increased leverage in such a small community of think tanks in a problematic political situation the country faces. While there is currently a forum for Belarusian researchers to come together- International Congress of Belarusian Researchers – it has limitations in respect to practical cooperation. There is also a talk about institutionalizing the informal Belarusian Research Council, which will be a good way forward to increasing impact advantage.
Another challenge is the dependence of research institutions on foreign donor support. There are almost no prospects for domestic sources of support due to the political environment in the country. There is also the issue of how philanthropy is approached in Belarus. Because the general public does not understand what think tanks are and their added value, there is no incentive for the private sector to donate money and support independent thinking. On the other hand, while international support for think tanks in Belarus is important, it also runs the risk of restricting the organizations’ freedom to set independent research agendas.
The number of think tanks in Belarus has been growing regardless of the myriad problems they face. However, the increasing number of organizations does not necessarily bring about what Belarus needs. In order to have high and relevant impact, there is a need for more cooperation among think tanks. Independence is also important, which requires diversification of financial resources. As soon as these factors are ensured, the future of the think tanks in Belarus will look promising.