In 2016, the activities of research centers compared to the previous eight-year period became more professional and noticeable. One can even speak of a partial solution to the problem of the customer: political parties and movements, the media, and the state showed their interest in the expertise in a varying degree. However, the demand for expertise remains sporadic: sustainable relationships between customers and research centers do not evolve. Since the main condition of demand is the presentation of the results of expert work in the form of public goods, this demand cannot be called an ‘order’ yet: consumers do not see the need to pay for expert products.
In early 2017, the 2016 Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report of the University of Pennsylvania 1 was released. Global trends described there can be applied to Belarus as well:
- General increased uncertainty affects the sustainability of research centers, and (mis)trust of the results of their predictions;
- A small number of new organizations and existing centers aim to combine resources and infrastructure; network organizations that use the infrastructure of the working centers start to appear;
- Research centers can no longer work according to the principle of ‘make – upload – and they will find’, it is necessary to push the results actively to get noticed.
The development of expert networks in 2008–2015
Since the previous review of analytical centers was published as far back as in 2008, I will briefly describe the changes over the period from 2009 to 2015. The main trends were:
– The formation of new centers (Center for European Studies, BEROC, the Ostrogorski Centre, Strategic Thought, BIPART, IDSM, Belarus Security Blog, Center for European Transformation, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Bologna Committee, etc.);
– Specialization and ‘division of labor’ between centers (focus on efforts: economy, international relations, public administration, etc.; focus on ‘genres’: analytics for common readers, academic research, etc.);
– Professionalization and institutionalization: many centers found ways how to legalize their activities in Belarus;
– Coverage of new topics/areas that were previously touched upon sporadically or were not developed at all;
– Demand from oppositional political parties and movements: advice and assistance in the drafting of legislation, programs promoting interests of social groups, etc.;
– The demand for analytics by mass media, especially by the independent media: unlike in 2008–2009, now almost every newsworthy event is commented by independent analysts. The website of thinktanks.by has worked for several years now: it tries to aggregate information about documents, events, and the life of the research and analytical centers sector. There is also a website-aggregator of Belarusian studies Belarus Policy (this is a project of the Ostrogorski Centre and the Belarusian Research Council), but its work cannot be described as active in 2016: there are only 33 studies available, while there are much more of them.
Key players and research studies in 2016
In October 2016, the world saw the second ranking 2 of research centers of Belarus, issued by the Belarus Research Council (BRC) initiated by the international non-profit organization PACT. It analyzed the performance of fourteen Belarusian research and analytical organizations in 2015. In contrast to the Global Go-To Think Tank Index, where organizations are nominated by experts – the media and politicians – this ranking includes only those centers that express their desire to participate, and is based on their provided data. On generalized parameters that include the characteristics of organizational capacity, the capacity and coverage of analytical and research activities, the top ten looks as follows:
- Belarusian economic research and education center BEROC
- Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies BISS
- Expert community Our Opinion
- Research Center of the Institute of Privatization and Management (IPM)
- The Ostrogorski centre
- Research center CASE Belarus
- Educational-research project SYMPA/BIPART
- The Center for European Studies
- Belarus Security Blog
- Discussion and analytical community Liberal Club
BEROC, the leader of the rating, traditionally prepares economic analytics (main topics are macroeconomics, labor market, public enterprises, public debt, tax system, foreign investment, privatization, trade, social policy), it issues quarterly economic reviews (some materials are available in English only). The center conducts educational activity: PhD school, student school, other programs and public lectures. Together with the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW), BEROC published the book Belarusian Economy: The challenges of stalled reforms.
The main direction of BISS activity is the project Reforum, dedicated to elaboration of proposals to improve the ‘rules of the game’ in various spheres of public life. Within its framework there appeared works on the increase of efficiency of state property management, on improvement of antimonopoly legislation and legislation on competition, on legislation and practices in the field of the protection of private property, on legal regulation of non-profit organizations, etc. A significant amount of BISS research is dedicated to foreign policy issues – relations with Russia, Ukraine, the EU. Among the periodicals of the institution are BISS Foreign Policy Index and Eurasian Review.
The expert community and the web-site Our Opinion published about 250 analytical materials on various topics (political processes, public administration, economics, social, cultural, gender and other policies). The website released another Belarusian Yearbook with the analysis of the dynamics in key sectors of the socio-political life of the country in 2015.
The Research Center of the Institute of Privatization and Management (IPM) publishes research notes on various topics in economics (sometimes in collaboration with the German economic team): international relations and trade, WTO, government programs, foreign exchange risks, SEZ reform, support of small businesses, corruption, etc. The centre also conducted (to be more precise: it ordered in NOVAK axiometrical laboratory) a survey of small and medium businesses.
The Ostrogorski centre conducted the research on informal education, Belarusian-Russian relations, etc., and published a number of reviews on key events in the country on its website Belarus Digest in English and Russian. Also it published another issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies, and held several international conferences.
CASE Belarus (a member of the CASE research network) focused on the economy, labor and capital markets, vulnerable sectors of the economy, the participation of Belarus in the Global Competitiveness Index; it produced quarterly macroeconomic reports, industry reports, and overviews of economic trends in Belarus. All materials on the center’s website are in English. BIPART research center continued research in the field of public administration: on the motivation of officials, on various aspects of electronic government (the presentation of the study ‘Blockchain’ Technology for Electronic Government was held in the National Bank), it released a collection of articles On the Interaction of Citizens and the State, held public lectures and educational programs, started its participation in international research project EU-STRAT in the framework of EU HORIZON 2020 project. In December, the center held a conference In Search of a New Balance: How to correlate the public administration reform with challenges that Belarus faces.
The Centre for European Studies published a magazine called New Europe, it launched the first program of the Liberal Arts College ECLAB in Belarus where one can get informal education in five concentrations (directions): “Internet and Society”, “Modern Society, Ethics and Politics”, “Mass Culture and Media”, “Public History”, “Contemporary Art and Theatre”. In the framework of the European café a series of public lectures and discussions were held.
Belarus Security Blog focused on the study of security: military, humanitarian, public safety and civil defense. A study on the situation in the South-East of Mahiliou region about the history of the border guard, reviewing of the military-industrial complex, etc. were published; the first issue of the magazine VARTA was released.
The Liberal Club released the compilation of works Future of Belarus. The opinion of Young Experts and a textbook on civics for educational institutions, it also held round tables and discussions. The international relations and security issues were discussed at three conferences held by the expert initiative Minsk Dialogue. The sociological center SATIO (11th place), being a commercial company, in a situation of the disappearance of the independent sociology becomes almost the only contractor to conduct sociological research. In this regard, the most negative event of the year should be mentioned that is one more attempt to stop the activity of the sociological network of the Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Studies headed by Oleg Manaev. 3 The head of the sociological laboratory NOVAK is also abroad now. Social centers that want to study socio-political and electoral topics are in a more disadvantaged position, because for this they must obtain a license from the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.
Various activities and research were also conducted by the Center for European Transformation, the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, by the Institute of Political Studies Political Sphere, Research Center Strategy and the Mises Center.
State research sector, in addition to academic institutions, is represented first of all by the Information-analytical center (IAC) affiliated with the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Belarus. Analytics made by IAC (and by other state expert centers) is ordered by state bodies and shall be sent back to them. On the IAC website there are a few media publications, mainly devoted to the results of sociological surveys (on citizens’ attitude to online trade, religion, the all-Belarusian Assembly, denomination of the Belarusian ruble, etc.).
Research ‘supporting’ decision-making was carried out as well by state centers affiliated with various ministries. In 2016 the news section of the website of the Research Institute of Labor affiliated with the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection contained mainly information on past scientific and practical seminars, visits, and events in the framework of international projects. In the section Scientific Activity a list of study areas is presented but documents themselves and research results are not available.
A similar situation is observed at the website of the Scientific Research Economic Institute of the Ministry of Economy: for 2016 only the materials of the 17th International scientific conference Problems of Forecasting and State Regulation of Socio-Economic Development are available. Other state research institutes and research organizations affiliated with universities scarcely publish their materials. The strengthening of the voice of independent research centers with a Pro-governmental position (platform Imhoclub, project Citadel) should also be mentioned. The difference between them and other independent research organizations lies not only in the support of the current government, but also in the issue of Eurasian integration: if the latter in their majority share European values, Pro-governmental centers see Belarus only as a part of the Eurasian space (concerning values, mentality and history). Also noteworthy is the emergence of projects and resources which are not full-fledged research centers but which actively present a ‘light analytics’ with a focus on media policy, infographics, interactivity: ideaby.org. Reformation.
The influence on policy making and relations with stakeholders
In 2016, a number of events took place, organized by independent research activity centers and attended by high-ranking officials. Some of these activities were organized in cooperation with state structures. The Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEF) 4 has been held annually since 2013 by the IPM research center in cooperation with BEROC and CASE Belarus research network. It is funded by the European Union. The last conference was opened by Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Nikolai Snopkov, Head of the EU Delegation in Belarus Andrea Victorine and Dr. Bas Bakker from the IMF European Department. KEF can be said to pave the way for public participation of senior state civil servants in independent forums of this kind, having made it not only safe but also ‘fashionable’, so to say.
The Belarusian Forum Broadening the Horizons. Investment. Finance. Development 5 for the first time was organized by BISS, the National Agency of Investment and Privatization and the UNITER investment company. The Forum was opened by Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov, more than 600 people from 30 countries participated in it. The Forum resulted in a road map containing recommendations on reforming various areas of the economy and government regulation. KEF ‘star’ of 2015 and 2016 Kiryl Rudy was the compiler, co-author and science editor of the book Financial Diet: the Reform of State Finance of Belarus, where along authors from the state agencies (the Belarusian State Economic University, Institute of Economics of National Academy of Sciences) there are authors from independent centers (the IPM research center, BEROC), as well as from foreign institutions and centers.
Yes it is impossible to talk about a full cooperation between the state and the independent expertise, but it is possible to fix the migration of ideas, originating mainly from the desire of individuals and institutions to cooperate. A certain ‘unfreezing’ began with the fact that the analytical documents produced by independent research centers were delivered by few ‘contactees’ to various government departments for review on the initiative of those independent centers or at the request of officials. Open feedback was rare. However, in recent years, the level of confidence has increased, which is reflected in the participation of officials in KEF and similar events. However, the examples of sequential implementation of the recommendations proposed by research centers have not been recorded.
Civil society organizations
The research 6 of the area of advocacy showed that the main factor in the success or failure of an advocacy campaign is seen in the degree of politicization of the problem: if it is perceived by officials at various levels as a political one, the chances of success are small. At the same time, campaigns that address issues that are not perceived as political can be very successful if their initiators have sufficient competence and vigor. Thus, there is a limited cooperation in the spheres of economy, finance and individual policies, and there is a lack of it the sphere of electoral law reform or public service.
A number of civil society organizations that are not ‘purely’ researchers from time to time carry out research and produce analytics or coordinate their activities and order analytics (International Educational Association “AKT”, Office for Democratic Belarus, Office for European Expertise and Communications). There are examples of more widespread use of analytics and data to justify one’s own positions in advocacy: Human Rights House, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, “Green Network”, etc.
The confidence of the Belarusian independent media to research centers and experts was evaluated for the first time in the already mentioned BRC. According to the results of the anonymous survey of journalists three institutions that are considered leaders of trust were named: the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), IPM research center, SYMPA/BIPART educational research institution.
The top three experts who are the most trusted among journalists are: Dzianis Melyantsou (BISS), Dzmitry Kruk (BEROC), Alexander Chubryk (IPM research center).
Political parties and movements
To some extent the work of the research centers is in demand of opposition political parties and movements when drawing up policy documents. Typically, this interaction occurs on a free basis, it is not systemic (starts ahead of elections or other important events of the political cycle) and is based on friendly relations rather than on institutional basis. Analytical activities on the research of parties are in demand for political actors. In particular, we are talking about the interest in the continuation of the release of BISS Political Media Barometer which did not come out in 2016. Thus by now a known problem of the customer has been partly solved: in one form or another everyone needs expertise – be it the government, politicians or the media. However, ‘consumers’ are interested in free provision of expertise and need it sporadically without establishing sustainable partnerships.
In the nearest future the deterioration in the financial condition of the majority of independent research centers is possible due to the reduction of donor funding on which research centers still heavily depend on. Due to the same reason the level of cooperation within the sector may increase (joint project funding, shared administrative resources, etc.). The emergence of new research centers is unlikely (with the exception of structures with a Pro-Eurasian and/or Pro-Russian position).
Further development will be gained by mediatized initiatives and stable large research centers able to conduct effective work on attraction of resources (human, financial). Communicative content will increase: articles, blogs, opinions, including social networks. The press will pay much attention to the independent expertise: the non-state press will pay the same amount of attention while the pro-governmental press will do it more often than it used to.
If the trend to partial liberalization remains it is possible to see a selective increase in the impact on decision-making processes and the deepening of trust and cooperation with those governmental agencies that are open to contact.