The main characteristic feature of non-state, independent research and analytical centres, which are referred to as think tanks world-wide, which differs them from traditional university and academic agencies, is their mission: to impact public policy, develop and advocate technologies, which facilitate social progress and make the process of decision-making in authorities and structures of the civil society more competent and responsible. The results of such activities are varied – conferences, seminars, policy papers, media reports, books, different public initiatives etc. – and they attract the growing attention of public and government in many countries across the world.

Leading politicians and public policy makers – members of government, parliamentarians, influential businessmen and journalists – co-operate with well-known think tanks, like The Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institute in the USA, Frazer Institute in Canada or Adam Smith’s Institute in the UK. Their participation in research and analysis gives it importance and urgency and improves the impact of social science. The staff of the Institute for East-West Studies in New York City, which I have been working with over the last six months, boasts such important members as the former minister of the government of Connecticut, US, high-ranking officials from the Department of State and Swedish Foreign Ministry, a successful American millionaire and former Ambassador. On the other hand, many people who hold high positions at such centres, go to work in government or parliaments and become well-respected and influential politicians, especially during the changes in politics or ruling teams. Their participation in decision-making gives final resolutions a sense of competence and improves the authority and wide recognition of the powers. For instance, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to be the head of such a centre in Washington, D.C. before being called to power. Small wonder, such centres are now called “the fifth estate” rather than “think tanks” (Reference: Craufurd Goodwin. The Fifth Estate: Research for Informed Debate in Democratic Society, from Think Tanks in a Democratic Society. An Alternative Voice, Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1996). The term “fourth estate”, which is used world-wide as a reference to the media, still sounds far-fetched. Meanwhile, the “fifth estate” is emerging, which complements and counter-balances the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They are neither businesses, nor trade unions, universities or numerous NGO’s, but independent research and analytical centres.

The US is across the Atlantic and as some readers might note, they have different ways there. However, our neighbours can offer lots of similar examples. Lesec Balzerovic, founder and head of the Centre for Social and Economic Research, is Poland’s current vice prime-minister. Georgy Satarov, known to Russian independent analysts as the head of the Centre INDEM, became one of the influential persons in the reformist team and President Yeltsin’s aide for relations with political parties and public associations. The president of the Lithuanian Institute of Free Market, Yelena Leontieva, with whom IISEPS has had a long record of successful cooperation, was recently invited by President Adamkus to take the post of an economics counsel.

Unfortunately, independent social research has so far had very little impact on public policy underway in Belarus, primarily because of the approach assumed by the authorities. During an August 1998 meeting with members of the Belarusian Writers’ Union, President Lukashenko was reported as saying, that “the niche is vacant, you can occupy it”, implying the possibility for intellectuals with independent views to impact public policy. In reality, there is no such niche at all: neither writers or independent scholars, nor just information not filtrated by power authorities can affect decision-making in public policy. Moreover, the output of think tanks, like of most other non-government institutions – political parties, youth or women associations, mass media, trade unions etc. – is completely ignored by the state, while think tanks themselves are seen as hostile elements, full of Western spies, and so forth. In this respect, the somewhat scandalous stories of the expulsion of the Belarusian Soros Foundation from the country, repressions against the fund “Children of Chernobyl” and the National Centre for Strategic Initiatives “East-West” come to mind.

Earlier this year, IISEPS was accused of joining the political opposition in a “conspiracy against the legitimately elected power”, and in spring 1998 some newspapers called the Belarusian Association of Think Tanks “the fifth column of the West”.

There is an even more recent, and even more appalling example. Fifteen heads of and experts from the leading research and analytical centres of Minsk, Gomel, Mogilev and Brest, as well as leading journalists from influential government and non-state printed media recently went to Grodno. Their aim was to introduce the Belarusian Association of Think Tanks to local public policy makers and scholars, to discuss recent research and stage a presentation of a new issue of BATT analytical bulletin. A few hours before the departure time, the leadership of the association received mayor of Grodno’s official reply to an invitation to participate in the briefing of the BATT. The document is unmatched in essence, therefore its full text is printed here.

To the Chairman
of the Belarusian Association
of Think Tanks,
Manaev O.T.
220030, Minsk

This is to inform you that your application to organise a briefing in the hotel “Turist” can’t considered, because it does not correspond to article 6 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Meetings, Rallies, Marches, Demonstrations and Picketing”. Additionally, we recommend you to organise such events where your public association is located.

Head of Grodno City Executive Committee
A.M. Pashkevich

Almost every single word in this document arouses the feeling, for which “bewilderment” is a mild, neutral term. Why does the document say, that the application can’t considered, if there is an official answer to it? How can a briefing, organised by research analytical centres, “not correspond to article 6 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Meetings, Rallies, Marches, Demonstrations and Picketing”? Where is the location, that Mr. Pashkevich recommends a national public association, registered with the Ministry of Justice a year and a half ago as provided by the Belarusian law, to organise “such events”? It seems quite pointless to look for answers to these questions, because this document does not have anything to do with human logic, reflecting just the authorities’ attitudes.

The outcomes of such approaches are well-known. Policies, which ignore real life, as well as information which reflects it and analysis that explains it have caused a permanent economic and political crisis, international isolation and a threat to Belarus’ independence, social split and poverty.

Unfortunately, I must admit that the relations of independent scholars with the opposition are far from being satisfactory as well. Any research and recommendations, which are in line with of the opposition’ policy – like the slump of the president’s rating, or diminishing trust in basic government institutions – are welcomed and actively used. However, once the results of our work or our recommendations contradict the programmes of the opposition parties – like the president’s rating is growing, and the rating of political parties is nose-diving, and therefore it is necessary to purposefully and patiently work with some electorate groups – they receive a cold shoulder from the opposition. This is why it has still not developed an efficient strategy of public policy impact.

What can independent scholars and analysts do in this country then? There are two solutions. First, go the West, to contact with international structures and public opinion. Belarusian independent analysts participate in most of major international conferences and seminars, from Warsaw to Washington D.C. these days. Their opinions are taken quite seriously there. Second, analysts can try to gain direct access to the Belarusian public through media publications, distribution of analytical papers and organisation of conferences and seminars. Only IISEPS has published over 800 articles in the media since spring 1992 (simple calculations yield a result of 2 articles per week), and has organised 30 seminars, mostly on a local level in which over 500 public policy makers and leading experts have participated.

Hundreds of young people from across the country study at the “popular university” of the social scientific and analytical centre “Belarusian perspective”. Such analytical publications as “IISEPS News”, “Belarus Monitor” by NCSI “East-West”, “Vector” by IIPS, “Analytical bulletin BATT” etc. gain wider recognition amongst different social groups. Of course, it is difficult to assess the influence of independent research on society. A slow but tangible shift of the public attitudes towards such fundamental values as democracy market economy, independence, human rights etc. (there are specific data on that in this issue of our bulletin) can serve as an indirect indicator of that. There are also some more vivid indicators of the growing influence of independent analytical centres on the public. The questionnaire for a national opinion poll, carried out by IISEPS in September and October 1998, had a traditional question about the trust in important public institutions. This time we added independent research centres on the common list (Table 1).

Table 1. Do you trust the listed public institutions? (%)

* The index of trust is a correlation between product the sum of positive (“trust”=+1), negative (“do not trust”=-1), and neutral answers (“NA”=0), and all the respondents (1486)

The meaning of these figures should not be overestimated, of course: it is understood that the institutions which are listed above have a far wider influence on society, than all think tanks put together. But the sad truth is that most of those institutions have a basic negative image in society, while few people know that think tanks actually exist. However, most of people who are aware of the results of the activities of think tanks trust them. The trust might have been even higher, if the Belarusian public was more familiar with their activity. However, an important fact is that non-biased information and professional analysis of social problems, trends and prospects, offered by think tanks (which is utterly rejected by the authorities and often questioned by the opposition) meets a better understanding and a higher demand in society. It is not known whether independent research centres will ever become “the fifth estate” in Belarus. However they can, and they must be thought of as trustworthy and influential. We have a goal to work for, colleagues!

Prof. O. Manaev, Director of IISEPS