Interview – Ivan Krastev

Politics and social change are all about people and governments, aren’t they? So what role have the region’s think-tanks played in the transition of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe over the last 20 years? Why does it matter where their funding comes from? Given the likely dwindling of funds in the wake of the financial crisis, what lies in store for them? Alliance canvassed the views of Ivan Krastev of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Why has the work of think-tanks been so important in the region?

After 1989, think-tanks played a very important role as a bridge between the international expert community and local expert communities. They helped change the way issues were framed and they helped to form and shape advocacy coalitions. 

Out of all the policy actors, think-tanks are the most curious and the most flexible – and their staff tend to speak foreign languages. So when we’re talking about the transfer of knowledge and best practice, I believe they play an important role that cannot easily be played by anyone else – governments or political parties or international organizations. In policy-making sometimes small is beautiful, and this is exactly the case with think-tanks.

The strength of think-tanks in Central and Eastern Europe was, to a great extent, relative to the weakness of other actors. It is only in the last few years that political parties have built much capacity for policy analysis, so they were quite happy to outsource to think-tanks. There was also a demand from the public and from the media for independent policy expertise. So yes, I think they have managed to achieve a great deal in many countries in the region in the last 20 years.  

Are there any particular achievements you’d want to mention?

It’s very difficult to measure influence, but there are a few things that stand out. For example, in places like Bulgaria the think-tank community was probably the major promoter of currency discussions with the IMF, or more recently of changes in the tax system, where even the major calculations were done by a leading think-tank.

They have also played a crucial role in guaranteeing the policy stability and continuity that was important in the transition period. Think-tanks keep their independence: they don’t change their agenda election by election, and they are less pressed by populist demands.

It would be wrong to say they have been the major contributor in this respect. EU policies, for example, have been much more important when it comes to Central and Eastern Europe. But when you look at the dramatic political changes that, say, Russia has been through, it was very much the think-tank community that provided continuity, especially at the level of macroeconomic decisions. This made policy much more predictable and prevented painful breaks in the political process. In Poland, too, it was in think-tanks that institutional memory of economic reforms has been kept through changes of government.

The situation is very different from country to country. In some countries one or two very strong organizations are dominant; in others you have much more of a think-tank community, which is both competitive and cooperative – Bulgaria is like this.

Are think-tanks still funded mainly by Western funders?

No, it’s changing. The business community has increasingly become a contributor to the work of think-tanks because it has discovered the role they can play as builders of advocacy coalitions. But business funding can also have a negative side. If, for example, the public see research being funded by a special interest, they are going to view the results in a totally different way. Western funding was perceived as less rooted in a specific economic interest and much more in a general view of how society and the economy should work.

These days, many of our think-tanks have funding from the European Commission through some of the big framework programmes. These are well funded, two or three years long, and they are good from the point of view of fundamental research. But when you’re talking about research that tries to have a policy impact, timing is very important. Sometimes you have just two weeks to come up with an idea and to try to influence people with it, and it’s no good if the funding is going to come in six months. Funding for think-tanks is much more complicated than funding for other NGOs. Some Western donors, especially the private foundations, can be much quicker in decision-making and so can respond to this urgency.

What is the future for funding for think-tanks looking like? 

On one level, the financial crisis presents a great opportunity because now we have a new reality and people are more than ever asking for fresh ideas. On the other hand, there is going to be a decline in funding from private foundations and business. As a result governmental money and money from the EU are going to play a much bigger role than they used to. The good side of this is that government funding is often substantial and long term; the downside is that it makes it more difficult for think-tanks to criticize government policy.

As for European funding, it might be substantial, but it’s likely to transform think-tanks into semi-academic bodies with very long-term planning of their research and work. This type of long-term planning is good on paper but not if you want to influence the policy process.

So is funding from Western private foundations really fading out now?

Some of them have lost a lot of money, and some will have other priorities in other parts of the world, but I do believe some of them will continue to fund because I think they see the expertise coming from CEE think-tanks as having a relevance that goes beyond their region. I also believe that these days, because of the structure of the global economy, and global politics in general, there is more interest than ever in having different perspectives on certain issues. So I think there will be support from private Western foundations, especially for comparative projects, but there is going to be less and less money invested in think-tanks simply to allow them to decide what they want to research and what kinds of policy projects they want to undertake.

You’ve mentioned negative consequences of receiving funding from government and from the EU. Do you think receiving money from Western foundations has ever had a negative impact?

It depends very much on how it’s perceived. In some countries people are very sensitive to any kind of foreign funding when it comes to the policy process, especially in places like Russia where not only the government but public opinion in general has been very critical of Western money being invested in institutions that are coming up with policy ideas and basically advising the government.

Also, some Western donors have their own priorities and their own vision and organizations could slant their own priorities for the sake of funding. But at least in my experience – and the experience of many of the organizations I know – Western foundations have been benevolent donors, and very open to local priorities.

Is there anything donors can do to help think-tanks work in Russia and other countries where there is very little political space to operate in?

Think-tanks can play a hugely important role in preventing self-isolation in countries like Russia. What donors can do – and here I do believe the best of them are succeeding – is to allow their partners to be the ones that shape the agenda and the way research is undertaken. It also makes a lot of sense to try to mix Western funding with local business money. This will give some legitimacy to the project. Another thing Western donors can do is to create a pool of money that is dedicated to policy research and make it clear that no individual foundation can have control over the research.

I believe think-tanks really have a window of opportunity now, but there are dangers. Like many other policy players, we have been very dogmatic on certain issues. Now, in a much more uncertain environment, we must not be afraid to ask tricky questions and we must do more than come up with politically correct answers. Otherwise the legitimacy of think-tanks will be as much in crisis as that of other policy players – government, the business community and political parties. People are very distrustful of policymakers because they feel they weren’t warned in time of what was coming and because policymakers aren’t very clear about what went wrong.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. Email

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