Think tank survival guide: How to keep on working in the authoritarian countries of the Former Soviet Union?

17 January 2017

Despite the apparent easiness of the task, it is rather hard to translate the term “think tank” into Russian. The most frequent translation is “analitecheskiy center” or analytical center. However, the variations you might find also include: “komissiya expertov” (expert commission), “fabrika mysley” (factory of thoughts) and even “mozgovoy center” (brain center). This short linguistic introduction is here to illustrate the existing ambiguity in the Russian understanding of what a think tank is and what it does.

Read the series- Think tanks: Definition and Terminology

This ambiguity has its roots in the variability of think tanks in Russia. For example, in the think tank index report 2015 +, we can find some very different organizations: Carnegie Moscow Center (National subsidiary of a foreign NGO), Institute of World Economy and International Relations (research institute of Russian Academy of Sciences), Moscow State Institute of International Relations (an actual university), Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation (a government agency), etc. Also, one of the biggest Russian self-proclaimed analytical centers “Valdai” is actually an international discussion club – a Kremlin associated platform where Russian and foreign political and economic experts meet, and where president Putin tends to give his speeches at least once a year.

The four landmarks of the Russian think tank community

I argue that there are four landmarks defining the modern think tank industry in Russia. First, the so called “Perestroika” of the end of 1980s – the attempt of reforming the Soviet political system by Mikhail Gorbachev. That was the first time the Russian national government relied on the advice of the academic expert community. Many of these experts (such as Zaslavskaya, Primakov or Abalkin) became prominent thinktankers and even top-tier government officials later in the 1990s.

Second, the 1990s – the golden age of Russian think tanks.

Read Think Tanks in China: A Golden Age?

The national market reforms and huge regional elections gave an opportunity for many political and economic experts to establish their own institutions. The atmosphere of change and transition facilitated by the federal authorities allowed many foreign NGOs (such as Carnegie Center or Open Society Foundations) to come to Russia. Besides, the recently created business structures proved to be independent actors that needed political representation and expert advice on the matter of achieving power and adaptation to the rapidly changing free market.

Third, the color revolutions of the beginning of 2000s (The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan in 2005). At the start of the millennia, the Russian government, under Putin, recognized a new threat: a series of peaceful protests in post-soviet countries, which led to the overthrow of authoritarian political regimes in those countries. Therefore, the Russian government started to tighten its grip on the media and the NGO sector. With the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantling of “Open Russia”,+ the seizure of NTV, + legal problems for the Soros Foundation in Russia +, etc., the Russian government drew a line between economics and politics- a line it didn’t want anyone to cross. For think tanks, it meant that as far as they limited their advice solely to economic matters, they were safe from government harassment and were even listened to occasionally. This is when the number of economic think tanks rose. They successfully adapted to this new reality and built the necessary working relations with the government, such as the Economic Expert Group (EEG) or the Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR).

Finally, the Russian “foreign agent” law of 2012. This law started a new chapter for the relationship between the Russian government and think tanks. The foreign agent law obliges all NGOs that are involved in politics and accept foreign donations to register themselves as “foreign agents,” understood as organizations which allegedly promote the interests of foreign powers in Russia (the reference to the Soviet anti-capitalist propaganda). However, this law quickly went beyond its initially declared purposes and began labeling as foreign agents not just independent think tanks, like Levada Center, but also large NGOs, such as the MacArthur Foundation and the “Dynasty” educational foundation, even though the political engagement of the latter was limited to several Social Science lectures.+ Thus, the status-quo of the relationship between the government and think tanks received a legal shape, and at the same time became more arbitrary, as even the fact that you stay out of politics does not guarantee your safety.

The six types of think tanks in Modern Russia

So, what are the think tanks that manage to work under the current conditions?

The first group that we can identify is the economic think tanks associated with the Higher School of Economics and ARETT (Association of Russian Economic Think Tanks). Most of them appeared in 1990s and ascended to dominance in 2000s as independent organizations consulting the federal authorities on the matters of economic and financial policy. Since then, they remain prominent players, but their relevance has decreased recently because their primary client – the federal government- significantly cut their financing.

The second group is the think tanks with a PR and political focus. Some members of this group are polling organizations such as VCIOM, FOM or the aforementioned Levada Center. The others present themselves as communication agencies: Center of Political Technologies, Minchenko Consulting, Nikkolo M., Civil Society Development Foundation, etc. In order to advertise their services to federal and regional authorities they regularly publish their special reports and indexes. Example of these are: a rating of the efficiency of Russian governors, Politburo 2.0 (a report on the balance of power around Putin), and the survival index of Russian governors. As this type of think tanks is especially vulnerable to the foreign agent law, most of the ones that have not already been branded as foreign agents like, Levada center, distance themselves from objective analysis and shift towards rather explicit loyalty to the Russian government.+
The third group includes think tanks based around the old generation of politicians, coming from late 1980s- beginning of 1990s. These think tanks have a direct affiliation with the former top-tier government officials, for example: Yeltsin center, Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, Expert Institute (Exin), Center Strategy, The Gorbachev foundation, etc. Due to the perceived high social status of the founders of these think tanks, they enjoy relative independence, which is based on their economic, sometimes historical, focus, and a rather careful criticism of current affairs.

The fourth group are think tanks whose focus is not limited to but includes the issue of Human Rights in Russia. Some of them are focused on advocacy, for example: Moscow Helsinki Group, Amnesty International Russia, Open Russia, Lebed and Astreya. Others, like Transparency International or FBK investigate the corruption practices of Russian authorities. The rest, as for example, Carnegie Moscow Center, are more traditional and primarily produce analytical materials, which concern national and International affairs. All of these NGOs can also be classified as think tanks disliked by the Russian authorities and known to be attacked in the pro-Kremlin media.+

The fifth group of think tanks are the ones engaged in the everyday decision-making of the Russian government. The most notable example is the Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation. Aside of providing advice to the Russian government on economic matters, it also claims to act as a platform of contact between federal government and regional authorities, businesses and NGOs.+

The sixth and last kind of think tanks seen in modern Russia are research institutes. Their analytical products have a less applied and more academic nature. For example: Institute of World Economy and International Relations, INDEM, ROPC foundation, Reforma Foundation, etc. All of these centers have close ties with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and until recently rather safely relied on foreign donations, because their projects could be considered as academic. However, even though the situation seems stable for this group of think tanks, it can change in the very near future. For example, for several years the primary contributory of INDEM has been the MacArthur Foundation, which as it was mentioned in the previous section, stopped its activities in Russia after being pronounced a foreign agent. +(At the moment of publication, INDEM’s website stopped being available).


Today, the Russian think tank community is rather large and developed. Most of the existing organizations have found their niche and successfully occupied it being that economic, political, PR analysis, Human Rights, corruption investigations, etc. However, Kremlin’s growing authoritarian tendencies seriously hurt the internal client base of think tanks, made the international cooperation almost impossible and guarantee no personal security to thinktankers unless they send clear signals about their loyalty to the current political regime.

The existing threat to fall under the foreign agent law leaves an average Russian think tank only with three options. First, to erase almost all of the national political issues from one’s agenda, and concentrate on national economy, elections in other countries, or historical issues. Second, to lower one’s objectivity standards and try to profit from the image of a Kremlin’s insider. Third, to turn down all of one’s international donors and rely financially on the internal clients (who might also have legal troubles supporting a truly independent NGO) or fundraising. Overall, the future perspectives of the think tank community in Russia are unfavorable, and it is not going to change any time soon.