[Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts co-published with On Think Tanks. The views expressed within this blog series are the authors alone, and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia.]
By Zaur Shiriyev
Barriers to development
During the latter years of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani social science research institutions educated the public and raised awareness about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Armenia as well as national history. They did so by publishing books and making media appearances, which had previously been subject to censorship and/or propaganda under the Soviet regime.
Members of academies and universities played a role in popular uprisings against the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, and held government positions immediately after independence. However, after a change in government in 1993, most of these people entered opposition politics rather than returning to academia or setting up research institutions that could promote new ideas or policy recommendations for the government.
Without a doubt, research capacity was also weak. Academics were unable to integrate Western social science methodologies into their discourses, and instead, old Marxist dogmas mixed with nationalist rhetoric prevailed. Therefore, despite their early role in public enlightenment, the research institutions did not develop.
Thus, the National Academy of Science – which encompassed over thirty scientific institutions and organizations – remained locked in Soviet tradition, whereby they served the state without any aim of playing a constructive role in stimulating or shaping public discourse. This was the main difference between Azerbaijan and its neighbors, and from the outset weakened the role of research institutions in shaping the political agenda and public opinion.
These two factors – the lack of post-independence capacity building for old research institutions and a political environment that resisted the establishment of Western-style research organizations – were the main barriers to the development of the think tank sector during the first decade of independence. But a number of other factors also contributed.
In the early 1990s, Western funds were used to increase civil society capacity through the creation of NGOs, aimed at supporting democratic development. In pursuit of funding, NGOs called themselves “research institutions” or “think tanks” to increase their chances of securing funds. This led to the creation of increasing numbers of so-called think tanks in Azerbaijan. All that was required by foreign donors from these self-declared think tanks though was official NGO registration status. But, with a tiny number of employees and limited, grant-based funding, these NGOs struggled to fulfill their promises. The pursuit of funding also led to the “one man think tank” phenomenon, and in 2014, there were more than 3000 NGOs in Azerbaijan, and roughly 70-120 of them used ‘think tank’ or ‘research institution’ in their name.
This quasi-think tank community lacked Western-trained academics and experienced scholars, and the standard of work tended to be relatively low. Adding impetus to the problem, rapidly changing donor preferences in regard to subject matter meant that no one had a chance to develop real expertise in any one area (This also took place in Georgia, as observed by Ghia Nodia).
The factors outlined above posed significant institutional challenges, but perhaps even more important was the extent to which think tanks were prevented from participating in public discourse.
Until the end of the 1990s, media censorship limited the public appearances of researchers. Compounding matters, researchers were often working on topics that did not attract public interest. Moreover, funding often came with the stipulation that reports be produced in English, which seriously limited organizations’ audiences to a more educated and informed public.
When experts did appear in the media to discuss political issues, they tended to display partisanship, rather than presenting objective analysis. Weak analytical research skills and the absence of any real policy dialogue with the government undermined this community in the eyes of the public. Clearly, think tanks needed to cooperate and engage with political elites, but the poor relationship between the two sectors prevented this from happening. Moreover, the government did not seek the advice of research institutions, as they lacked the capacity to provide input on, for instance, the development of the economy and energy sectors. Instead, it turned to international expertise. Thus it was international experience that supported the creation of key national institutions like the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan. The government also needed to increase its influence in Western capitals, especially in the US. While policy research institutes could have played a valuable role here, the government, seeking what it saw as an easier and cheaper alternative, invested in lobbyists.
The development of the expert community’s capacity began in the mid-2000s and stemmed from government initiative and greater human capital. On the governmental side, this process was initiated due to its greater financial resources, its need for institutions to advise it, and the desire to build and integrate a pro-government research community into its overseas lobbying strategy.
In 2007, the establishment of a government funded think tank (the Center for Strategic Studies, or SAM) marked the start of this process. In the same year, Parliament approved the concept of state support to NGOs, establishing the Council on State Support to Non-Governmental Organizations under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The first NGO Support Fund, which gave small research grants to NGOs, required that grant recipients disseminate their research via media appearances. The establishment of the Science Development Foundation in 2009 increased funding opportunities for academic research. In prioritizing research activities, the government sought to improve its national and international image.
The government’s motivation’s aside, there emerged a group of people who had gained experience working at think tanks abroad, primarily in Turkey. Many of them had been educated in prestigious US and European universities. This new human capital dramatically changed things, and the new generation opened up a way to avoid working for government-funded think tanks and research institutions by establishing independent organizations. But the early – unrealized – expectation was that this investment in human capital could lead to the establishment of a think-tank that could offer a model for others in future, as seen in Turkey. For instance, in Turkey, the 2000s saw the establishment of non-state think tanks- a key model in this regard was the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or ASAM (Avrasya Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi); after that other think tanks proliferated based on that example.
In turn, this prompted foreign donors to take a more selective approach to grant allocation. They began to select institutions with the resources and capabilities needed to produce quality research. In 2008, Open Society Institute launched the “Program for Assistance to Analytical Centers”, aimed at improving the quality of political research and ensuring the sustainable development of independent political research institutions. Additionally, increased research funds from the EU within the European Neighborhood Policy framework and requirements for sector-specific research – e.g. on conflict resolution – created a more competitive environment for research institutions, leading to higher quality outputs.
All of the above enabled Azerbaijani think tanks to begin playing a larger role, which is demonstrated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Go-Think tank Report – in 2014, there were fourteen Azerbaijani think tanks listed, up from twelve in 2010.
Notwithstanding the positive developments, there is still work to be done.
First, state funded think tanks and research centers have a strong tendency to orient their work towards international audiences, limiting local impact and capacity building, for instance, by improving access to policy research and debate by establishing high-quality policy publications in the Azerbaijani language.
Second, the parameters of enriching public discourse have shifted over the past decade. If in the 1990s, local media appearances were a priority for members of the expert community in stimulating public discourse, today, the combination of a proliferation of poor quality online media outlets together with increased informal state censorship of media has meant that most experts now prefer to publish in international media.
Television remains the main source of news for the majority of the population outside the capital, but expert participation is low. Particularly troublesome is the fact that there are no high-quality analytical programs that could serve as a bridge between the think tank community and the public which would broaden the scope of discourse and debate.
Third, legislative amendments to the Law on NGOs have placed serious limits on foreign funding, and most foreign funded NGOs operating as think tanks – regardless of the quality of their work – are struggling to survive. In general, the successful development of think tanks in international practice has relied heavily on philanthropy, which is absent in Azerbaijan. Thus in the absence of a competitive environment, which is further compounded by the lack of the financial resources, there has been a monopolization of the research market by a few experienced groups.
The development of think tanks in Azerbaijan has faced serious challenges since the 1990s, when Western funding for the development of research centers lacked clear criteria and led the creation of quasi research institutions and one-man think tanks. The distinction between an NGO and think tank remains blurred. In general, think tanks played a minimal role in the shaping of public discussion during the 1990s.
The 2000s saw the creation of some higher capacity think tanks, but as before, the scope of the research was geared towards international audiences rather than the local public. As a consequence, high-quality policy journals and media outlets operating in Azerbaijani never developed. The shift to digital media led to the deterioration of research quality, pushing many professionals to publish in international journals rather than local ones, with the ultimate consequence of limiting the role of think tanks in public discourse.
Overall, the experience of Azerbaijan differs from other post-Soviet countries, especially in the former Eastern Bloc countries, not only because the latter benefited from greater Western investment in institution building, but also because in most of these countries the integration of scientific research into decision-making supported a smooth political process.
Currently, after more than two decades of experience in this field, there are a few main concerns and challenges for the development of the think-tank community that can be identified. The first is financial; without independent financial support, how can non-state think-tanks be developed? Second, given the proliferation of quasi think-tanks, what model for development can be followed, and specifically, can the establishment of research institutions in universities offer a better model for future development? Last but not least, taking into account that the integration of the non-state think-tank community into the policy making process remains impossible, what kind of steps should be taken to improve long term public outreach? One thought is establishing a common online platform for high-quality Azerbaijani language analysis. Have others? Tweet at me here.