Do Think Tanks in Georgia Lobby for Foreign Powers?
By Till Bruckner
Below, just for the heck of it, I’ll make the counterargument. Here’s the rival hypothesis:
These revelations were enough to spark a protracted and sometimes paranoia-tinged debate on how foreign funding of think tanks might actually be foreign lobbying in disguise, and how such sinister practices threaten to distort American democracy and exert undue influence on foreign policy formulation in D.C.
Ironically, America was at the same time conducting sustained, highly orchestrated and lavishly funded foreign lobbying campaigns via think tanks to pry the countries of Eurasia away from Russia and to build elite and popular support for a rival pro-Western path consisting of NATO membership, EU accession, and free market reforms.
The thing is, nobody in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia called them lobbying campaigns. Instead, we called them “democracy promotion”. Or “civil society strengthening”. And American funding for local think tanks and local NGOs – the borders are blurred as both tend to tank far more than they think – was a key element of these lobbying attempts.
The following description of USAID’s More Transparent and Accountable Governance program in Georgia neatly illustrates how America’s foreign lobbying efforts work: pour money into think tanks, NGOs and the media – not to promote independent policy research and critical thinking, but to push pre-defined Western policy agendas:
Considering foreign actors’ role in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and USAID’s apparent willingness to use foreign aid as an inducement in explicitly quid pro quo foreign lobbying deals, this is surprising; even in bigger and more resilient Germany, some people are beginning to raise the alarm about possible democratic distortions as a result of American-funded non-profits’ maneuverings.
Efforts by governments abroad to boost non-profit oversight and regulation tend to be dismissed almost reflexively as ‘crackdowns’ by many Western donors and their chorus line of NGO grantees, even in the case of mature democracies such as India. These opponents of meaningful government oversight frequently forget – or choose to ignore – that even the world’s oldest democracy, the United Kingdom, places restrictions on the political activities of non-profits, including those that are entirely domestically funded.
If a foreign government designed and funded a similar programme in the U.S., the participating NGOs and think tanks would almost certainly need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, forcing them to document and subsequently disclose their financial dealings and interactions with officials in great detail.
Non-profit regulation is a minefield in every country, balancing the imperative to preserve freedom of speech (including donor-funded speech) on the one hand, and the desire to protect democratic debating space from excessive distortions by powerful and wealthy vested interests (specifically donor interests) on the other.
(See here for an especially good attempt to strike such a balance through dialogue.)
On the positive side, think tanks have largely delivered on their promise in terms of policy development: they have helped to build domestic research capacity and to improve policy formulation processes and public debates around specific policies, and they deserve a lot of credit for this.
On the negative side, I have witnessed how, over time, think tanks in Georgia have narrowed the field for democratic debate. There’s something impoverished about a political landscape in which every single think tank paper seems to be pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-E.U., pro-market, and even pro-gay rights, with the scope of inquiry reduced on to how best and fastest to join NATO, join the EU, open markets and privatize, and safeguard minority rights.
Meanwhile, alternative voices, choices and options have been pushed to the margins of media coverage, public debate, and eventually electoral politics, in the process politically marginalizing Georgian voters with different ideological leanings by robbing them of voice, choice and representation. NATO-or-Putin, privatization-or-communism, gays-or-gulags – only idiots and traitors would dissent.
Some observers lament America’s polarized think tank landscape with its endless dialectic clashes between Heritage, Cato, the Center for American Progress & Co., but they miss that each side in every debate should get a chance to articulate, refine and communicate its views through rival think tanks. In Georgia, there is no such democratic competition, as only one ideological side has all the think tanks, all of which financially depend on a cabal of Western donors with overlapping agendas.
What can Georgians do to reclaim and diversify their domestic political space? One option is the German model of funding for think tanks tied to political parties with public money. Another is for think tanks to mobilize more money from domestic donors. Either way, if Georgians want to have a healthy democracy, sooner or later they will have to start paying the bills.
Till Bruckner spent several years living in Georgia, where he witnessed the Rose Revolution while shilling for sinister foreign interests in a variety of roles, including think tank ventriloquist, NGO stooge, and journalistic parrot. He later wrote his PhD thesis on accountability in international aid in Georgia, focusing on the political economy of aid and non-profit accountability. His collection of hats currently includes freelance journalism, think tanking, and running advocacy efforts for Transparify, an initiative promoting greater think tank transparency worldwide. This article was researched and written in a private capacity. None of the views expressed here should in any way be taken to represent the views of Transparify or of any other organization.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors' alone and do not necessarily represent the views of CRRC.
By Zaur Shiriyev
By Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan
Interview by Dustin Gilbreath
By: Dustin Gilbreath
CRRC’s third annual Methodological Conference: Transformations in the South Caucasus and its Neighbourhood
[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the third blog post in the series. Click here to see the first and second blog posts in the series.]
[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the second blog post in the series. Click here to see the first blog post.]
CRRC’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) was launched in 2009 as a Carnegie Corporation initiative within the CRRC, with the goal of providing on-the-job training opportunities in applied research for young social scientists.
In August 2012 CRRC launched the study of Georgia’s Workforce Development system, commissioned by the World Bank. Document review and key informant interviews have been used as main research methods in this study. On 19th of December, the World Bank office in Tbilisi hosted a workshop which aimed at presenting and validating the preliminary finding...
As Georgians prepare for parliamentary elections set for October 1, 2012, political parties have entered the final stage of the pre-elections race. One of the important attributes of active citizenship and civic engagement is voting in elections. This blog explores Georgians’ attitudes toward voting in elections based on age group and gender differences. In this r...
CRRC Methodological Conference on Measuring Social Inequality in the South Caucasus and its Neighborhood
The recent history of the South Caucasus as seen by the world’s media – Part 1, Armenia and Azerbaijan
By Dustin Gilbreath
By Nino Zubashvili
By Dustin Gilbreath
In terms of the business findings, CRRC's Media Survey (undertaken in September/October 2009) generated extensive data that is available to help media make good business decisions. One recent presentation, summarized here, focused on showing the diversity of data that is available.
Food Safety in Georgia: views from retailers, producers and consumers in Tbilisi and Samtskhe-Javakheti
Book Review | The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict and Nationhood in the Caucasus | Christoph Zürcher
Brookings Index of Regime Weakness | State Rebuilding or State Collapse in the Caucasus | The Annals of Data
Here are some basic tips and tricks we found useful.
Book Review: Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus | Thomas Goltz
Visa liberalization: How much do people in Georgia know about the conditions of visa-free travel to the EU?CRRC’s previous blog posts have shown that the population of Georgia had rather moderate expectations of the recent visa liberalization with the Schengen zone countries, especially when it comes to the question of how much ordinary people will benefit from it. Europe Foundation’s latest survey on Knowledge of and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia, conducted in May 2017, provides a more nuanced understanding on how people in Georgia feel about this process and to what extent they are familiar with the conditions of visa liberalization.
Taking partly free voters seriously: autocratic response to voter preferences in Armenia and GeorgiaDo voters in less than democratic contexts matter or are elections simply facades used to create a veneer of democratic accountability for domestic and international actors? Within the Autocratic Response to Voter Preferences in Armenia and Georgia project, funded by Academic Swiss Caucasus Net, CRRC-Georgia and CRRC-Armenia aimed to help answer this question, at least for Georgia and Armenia. On October 27, Caucasus Survey published the results of the project in a special issue, available here.
On December 1-13, 2016, CRRC-Georgia asked the population of Georgia about their New Year’s plans. Unsurprisingly, people mostly follow established traditions. A large majority (73%) plan to ring in the New Year at home. Nine per cent will meet it in a friend’s or a relative’s home. Meeting the New Year in the street or in a restaurant or a café is not yet common, and only one per cent of people in Georgia plan to do so. Another 15% had not decided in the first half of December where they would celebrate the New Year.
What are young people’s values and how are these different from older generations’ values in Georgia?As Georgian society is going through social and cultural changes, it is important to understand people’s beliefs and values. Comparing the values of young people to those of the older generations is also important. This blog post summarizes the findings of a study that examined the values of young people aged 18 to 25, and analysed how these values are different from the values of older people in Georgia, based on both quantitative (World Values Survey, 2014) and qualitative data (40 in-depth interviews conducted in 2016). The study looked at values, perceptions, attitudes and tolerance towards different minority groups in Georgia. It concludes that in many cases, the younger generation shares more modern views and values, while the older generations are more inclined to support traditional values and hold conservative points of view.
In the December 2017 CRRC/NDI survey, pollution was the second most commonly named “infrastructural” issue, with 23% of the population choosing it in the respective show card. Only roads were named more often, by 33%. Approximately equal shares of men and women named pollution: 25% of women and 20% of men; similarly, there was no difference in the frequency of naming this issue by age.
The Caucasus Barometer survey regularly asks people, “Which of the following statements do you agree with: “‘People are like children; the government should take care of them like a parent’ or ‘Government is like an employee; the people should be the bosses who control the government.’” Approximately half of the population of Georgia (52%) agreed in 2017 with the former statement and 40% with the latter. Responses to this question have fluctuated to some extent over time, but overall, attitudes are nearly equally split.
In early December 2017, two schoolchildren were killed on Khorava Street in Tbilisi. On May 31st, 2018, Tbilisi City Court announced the decision on the Khorava Street murder case. The announcement caused mass demonstrations led by Zaza Saralidze, a father of one of the murdered children.On June 19-26, 2018, within the EU-funded project “Facilitating Implementation of Reforms in the Judiciary (FAIR)”, CRRC-Georgia conducted a phone survey on people’s knowledge about the Court decision and their evaluation. The survey resulted in 1005 completed interviews, and is representative of the adult Georgian-speaking population of the country. The average margin of error of the survey is 2.8%.
Livestock care and livestock-related decision making in rural Georgia: Are there any gender differences?CRRC-Georgia’s survey conducted in August 2017 for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) asked about livestock owned by rural households in Georgia, including cows, bulls, buffalo, pigs, sheep, and goats. Cows and bulls were reported to be owned most commonly. Some of the questions the project addressed the division of tasks between men and women in taking care of livestock, while other questions tried to find out whether there were gender differences in making major decisions related to livestock and livestock products.
The 2018 presidential elections, and particularly, the events surrounding the second round, have come to be considered a setback for Georgia’s democratic trajectory. Between the first and second round, it was announced that 600,000 voters would have debt relief immediately following the elections, leading some to suggest this was a form of vote buying. A number of instances of electoral fraud were also alleged. The use of party coordinators around election precincts was also widely condemned.
But what do people want?
Georgians are enthusiastic in supporting the country’s accession to the European Union. Since 2012, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC-Georgia started tracking attitudes, three quarters of Georgians approved of the government’s goal of joining the EU, on average. What motivates Georgians to support the Union, or alternatively, to abandon support? A survey experiment included in the latest CRRC/NDI poll suggests potential economic burdens have a modest yet significant effect on support for membership. Results do not support the common belief that a potential military threat from Russia dampens Georgians’ support for the EU.
While many things could divide the public, what do the people think and which groups report more and fewer sources of division? The April 2019 NDI-CRRC poll suggests that there are fewer perceived reasons for division in rural areas and among ethnic minorities.
The 2019 survey on Knowledge and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia which CRRC Georgia carried out for Europe Foundation suggests that this trend is continuing in Georgia.