Are think tanks in the Western Balkans state-captured?

27 November 2023

For more than two decades, the term “state capture” has been used to explain the abuse of good governance and power in both policy-making and implementation through the exertion of undue influence. This was first done for the personal gain of businesses and later for that of political parties, and always to the detriment of the broader public interest. Think tanks in the Balkans were among the first national actors to detect state capture.

But if a state is captured, what happens to think tanks? Do they benefit from this power constellation, or do they become captured themselves?

In an analysis that was published recently in a special issue of the Policy and Society journal, Diane Stone and I investigated how, why and to what extent think tanks are used in the captured states of the Western Balkans.

If we start by considering the examples of Hungary and Poland – two de-democratising EU countries, in which think tanks must deal with significant obstacles to inform policy-making – it’s easy to assume that think tanks in the Balkans must function in a similar way. Namely that, through their efforts to participate in policy-making, they become captured themselves.

But before jumping to conclusions whether this is the case or not, some background information about state capture in the region is necessary.

State capture in the Western Balkans

The background

Tracing the roots of state capture in the Balkans brings us to the violent conflicts back in the 1990s. The elites who gained power during these conflicts took control of the new state structures.

But the new millennium brought hope that things would change in the region, especially with the beginning of the European Union (EU) accession process.

However, after almost two decades of EU support and assistance in building democracies, the region has not achieved much progress. Instead, Balkan countries have shifted from consolidated democracies towards hybrid regimes. The explanation for this paradox lies in state capture.

Impact on policy-making and think tanks

State capture in the Balkans has impacted policy-making in various ways, such as the following:

  • Although mechanisms are set to ensure that evidence-based policies are implemented by governments, they’re primarily adopted to “tick the boxes” for the EU accession process rather than to ensure high-quality policies.
  • The analytical capacity of policy-makers is undermined because there is party member recruitment instead of merit-based recruitment.
  • State captors only select advice that is harmonised with and supports their party’s interests, which utterly degrades the principle of evidence-based policy-making.

In such power constellations, think tanks are used and abused by state captors. They’re used to demonstrate the so-called inclusiveness of government deliberation processes, while, in reality, their advice is essentially ignored.

While the obligation to conduct regulatory assessments of the legislation and public consultations could provide opportunities for proactive think tanks to inform policy-making, a lack of trust among state captors and think tanks often prevents this from happening. Ministries usually only invite the advisors who share their views and goals for the outcomes of reforms.

Think tanks’ analyses provide an easy way for public servants to fulfil their obligation to develop evidence-based policies because they have no internal capacity, time or funds to conduct these complex analytical tasks themselves.

Are think tanks in the region state-captured?

So, have the think tanks in these captured states also been captured? The findings of our analysis suggested not. The think tankers that we interviewed said that they’re not familiar with cases of state-captured think tanks in the region.

Rather, it appears that the think tanks are ready to enter a conflictual partnership and collaborate with captured institutions to make any possible change. The compromise they make is to be perceived as privileged actors, but they are not state-captured.

However, there are cases of state-captured non-governmental organisations: government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs).

These GONGOs function as satellites of ruling political parties and are funded by them. They’re usually low-profile organisations that operate differently to think tanks, for example as veterans’ associations or activist organisations, which are tasked with legitimising and praising the decisions of the elites.

One reason why think tanks in these states may not have become captured (yet) could be funding-related, because it’s important that their donors perceive them as credible, expert organisations, which conduct rigorous and independent analyses.

Although funding makes think tanks in the region vulnerable, perhaps it’s fortunate that governments in the Balkans provide smaller grants than foreign donors (between €5000 and €10,000); this means that maintaining their independence from state captors is an affordable cost for most think tanks in the region.

Furthermore, many of them are recognised as democracy-defenders, who were among the first to report state capture in the region.

Also, analytical products are not easy to produce, therefore, it’s much easier for GONGOs to operate in an activist form.

How do think tanks survive state capture?

Despite state capture, think tanks in the region do not give up. They’ve developed creative mechanisms that enable them to survive and to foster advice uptake within captured institutions. Some of these are outlined below.

  • Specialising in a specific policy area allows think tanks to nurture relationships with policy-makers in the field, improving their chances of being invited to participate in policy discussions.
  • Utilising donor support as a source of legitimacy and a guarantee of quality. Policy-makers tend to be more open towards including think tanks when they’re supported by foreign donors.
  • Using bypass addresses or interlocutors, such as international organisations or embassies, to reach national decision-makers when they are not open to cooperation.
  • Using the media to warn the public about the negative implications of captors’ decisions. By doing this, they enter the battle of narratives in coalition with independent media outlets.
  • Shifting towards a watchdog function in addition to monitoring public policies.
  • Building advocacy coalitions with other civil society counterparts (for example, grass root and activist organisations) or connecting directly with citizens, meaning that they must rely more on an activist approach.
  • Emphasising the principles and values of good governance, which have universal meaning and are harder to misuse than data. In fact, insisting on data might actually be counter-productive, contributing to the establishment of alternative narratives.