The development of Azerbaijani think tanks and their role in public policy discourse
By Zaur Shiriyev
Barriers to development
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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