Belarusian independent think tanks: surviving despite the odds
Although people rightly regard the Belarusian political regime as authoritarian, several independent think tanks function in the country. In this article, Belarus Digest identifies some of the main players, drawing on data from the Belarus Policy database and a ranking prepared by the Belarusian Research Council in 2016.
Belarusian independent think tanks mostly specialise in economics, international relations, security, public administration, or education reforms. Very few attempts have been made to measure the performance of Belarusian think tanks. According to estimates by the Belarusian Research Council in 2016, BEROC, BISS, CASE Belarus, and the Ostrogorski Centre possess the highest organisational potential and widest information outreach. Despite their ostensibly limited influence on the state apparatus, Belarusian independent think tanks generate ideas, some of which actually do influence policy-making.
The organisational potential of Belarusian think tanks
In 2016, the Belarus Research Council ranked Belarusian independent think tanks according to their organisational potential, information outreach, and research activities. In terms of organisational potential, the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS), CASE-Belarus, and the Belarusian Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC) occupied the top three places. The Minsk-based BISS (Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies) conducts research in four target areas: human capital, social contract, modernisation and institutional change. Moreover, BISS works in the area of international relations, focusing its work in three directions: Belarus as a part of Eurasian integration, the Belarus-EU relationship, and Belarus’s relationship with developing nations.
The research database Belaruspolicy.com contains 50 research papers prepared by BISS experts from 2009 to 2018. The BISS experts researched issues of the social contract between the state and various groups of Belarusian society, Belarus’s isolation in Europe, and improving Belarusian competitiveness on a world stage. The BISS experts paid particular attention to the Belarusian national identity and Belarusian migration. The most popular research papers included the analysis of Belarusian views on immigration by Alexei Pikulik and the analysis of migration between Belarus and the EU by Andrei Yeliseyeu.
The Warsaw-based CASE Belarus (Center for Social and Economic Research Belarus) conducts broad socio-economic analysis and sectoral studies, providing data and policy recommendations. Helping Belarus to avoid the mistakes of other post-socialist countries remains the key mission of CASE Belarus.
Belaruspolicy.com contains 31 papers prepared by CASE Belarus experts from 2011 to 2018. The experts research covers the structural crisis of the Belarusian economy, the performance of Belarusian industries, and the potential for the development of market institutions in Belarus. Socio-economic problems also receive significant attention, in particular, environmental problems, poverty belts, the use of labour in the prison system, and reducing the role of orphanages.
The most popular research papers included an analysis of the unrealised potential of Belarus-EU economic cooperation edited by Dzmitry Babicki and a diagnosis of “poverty belt” in Belarus by Aliaksandr Radyna.
The Minsk-based BEROC (Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre) features among the leading economic academic think tanks in Belarus. The Centre started its work in 2008 as a joint project of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Economics Education and Research Consortium (EERC).
Belaruspolicy.com contains 82 papers prepared by BEROC’s experts from 2010 to 2018. The experts’ research encompasses foreign investments, inflation, macroeconomic trends, tax amnesties, liquidity and monetary policy in Belarus. Moreover, BEROC paid particular attention to the dollarisation of the Belarusian economy, the Belarusian pension system, and the role of private sector in Belarus. Among the most popular of BEROC’s papers – an analysis of self-employment in Belarus by Mariya Akulova and a study of depressed regions in Belarus by Aleh Mazol.
In terms of information outreach, the Belarusian Centre for European Studies, SYMPA/BIPART, the Ostrogorski Centre, and Liberal Club hold the leading positions. The Minsk-based Belarusian Centre for European Studies promotes closer relations between Belarus and the European Union and positions itself as an expert base for the European movement in Belarus. Apart from its research activities, the Centre administers an educational platform (ECLAB) and a discussion club “European Café”.
SYMPA (The School of Young Managers in Public Administration)/BIPART (Belarusian Institute for Public Administration Reform and Transformation) conduct educational projects in the field of public administration and conduct research activities. Over recent years, BIPART’s experts have researched public procurement, e-government, and public-private partnerships in Belarus.
The Ostrogorski Centre analyses the problems Belarus faces in its transition to a market economy and the rule of law. The Centre experts transition processes in Belarus and provide policy solutions, often based on the best practices of other countries.
In addition, the Ostrogorski Centre regularly holds conferences on Belarusian education reforms and security issues. Since 2013, the Ostrogorski Centre has prepared 12 research papers on education reforms, national security and foreign policy. The most popular papers include “Who rules Belarus” by Siarhei Bohdan and “Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict” by Ryhor Astapenia and Dzmitry Balkuniec.
The Minsk-based Liberal Club focuses on research and dissemination of liberal paradigm in the context of the Belarusian socio-political, economic and cultural realities. Belarusprofile.com contains 14 papers written by the Liberal Club’s experts from 2010 to 2018. The experts have calculated an index of economic adequacy of Belarus, proposed ways to stimulate corporate social responsibility, and analysed Belarus’s relations with the EU and Russia in the discourse of print media.
Analytical and research activities
In terms of analytical and research activities, BEROC, NMNE, and IPM Research Centre occupied the first three places. NMNE (or the expert community “Nashe Mnenie”) has provided daily analytics of Belarusian politics, economy, governance, society, cultural and gender policies since 2003.
The Minsk-based IPM Research Centre (The Research Center of the Institute for Privatisation and Management) has monitored and forecast the economic situation in Belarus since 1999. The most popular research papers by IPM’s experts on Belaruspolicy.com included corruption studies on Belarusian SMEs, an analysis of Belarusian SMEs development, and the prospects of Belarusian business developments in 2017.
Cooperation between independent think tanks and the state?
From time to time Belarusian independent think tanks conduct joint events with representatives of the state. Originally started as a joint initiative of the Liberal Club and the Ostrogoski Centre, and now run by the Liberal Club “Minsk Dialogue” has become a platform for the exchange of ideas on issues of foreign policy. On 23-25 May, the “Minsk Dialogue” expert community arranged an international forum, “Eastern Europe: in search for security for all”, with President Alexander Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei among the speakers.
One of BEROC’s flagship events is the annual KEF conference which attracts top economists from the Belarusian government, such as the former first deputy prime minister Vasil Maciusheuski and top advisors from the National Bank of Belarus. The Ostrogorski Forum organises events in the area of education, attracting heads of faculties of Belarusian universities and high-level officials from the Ministry of Education.
In most cases, however, independent think tanks exert only very limited influence on Belarusian state policies. Government officials generally view think tanks with suspicion as many of them have to survive on funding from the West. The restrictive legal and political framework prevents think tanks from engaging properly with Belarusian businesses, apply for meaningful state funding or conduct large-scale joint projects with the government, particularly in areas viewed as politically sensitive.
Yarik Kryvoi & Olga Hryniuk
Belarus-Norway: Informal partnership through family ties
On 27 July biathlon legends Darya Domracheva and Ole Einar Bjørndalen test-drove the world’s biggest dump truck. Visiting BelAZ enterprise, the Belarusian manufacturer of haulage and earthmoving equipment, they took the company’s monster truck for a spin. The famous Belarusian-Norwegian biathlon couple has broken the ice in the complicated relations between the two states. They spend a significant amount of time in Belarus, sharing their pictures with numerous Instagram followers.
Political disagreements on issues of democracy and human rights in Belarus traditionally impede bilateral relations with Norway. Yet Norway has provided consistent and generous support to Belarusian NGOs and independent media outlets. Moreover, in the cultural sphere, the Belarusian-born singer Alexander Rybak won the Eurovision song contest for Norway in 2009.
Political relations frozen
At present, official inter-state relations between Belarus and Norway remain relatively weak. In particular, no high-profile visits have occurred between the two states over twenty-five-years of diplomatic relations. Norway consistently criticises the Belarusian regime for violations of human rights and has supported EU-imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenka.
Although diplomatic relations exist, partnership between the two states remains insufficient. Neither Belarus nor Norway possesses proper mutual diplomatic representatives. The Norwegian Embassy in Kyiv deals with Belarusian issues, including long-term stay visas, while the Belarusian Embassy in Stockholm covers Norwegian affairs.
The Belarusian-Norwegian trade partnership looks slightly better. In 2017 Belarus became the second biggest consumer of Norwegian salmon after Japan. Moreover, since 2014, Belarus has de-facto assisted Norway in exporting fish to the Russian Federation after the food embargo imposed in 2014 and Norway imports potash fertilizers and metal products from Belarus.
At the same time, Norway has traditionally provided generous support for Belarusian NGOs, independent media, and pro-democracy movements. In 2012 Ales Bialiatski, a Belarusian political activist known for his work with Viasna Human Rights Centre, received the Freedom of Speech Award of the Norwegian Writers Association. Also, the Norwegian government has provided financial support to the Polish-based satellite television channel Belsat, which aims its broadcasts at Belarusians.
The biathlon super-couple
Domracheva and Bjørndalen hold biathlon records. Bjørndalen, dubbed the “King of Biathlon”, has won 13 medals in the Winter Olympics — more than any man in history. Domracheva lists as the most decorated female biathlete in the world with four Olympic gold medals. In 2014 she received the Hero of Belarus medal, the highest honour in Belarus. Domracheva and Bjørndalen first met during the 2010 Winter Olympics and married in 2016. The couple raise their daughter, Xenia, as a dual citizen of Belarus and Norway.
Despite complicated political relations between Belarus and Norway, the Domracheva-Bjørndalen family alliance has successfully raised cultural and media awareness in both countries. The couple spends a significant amount of time in Belarus and frequently shares photos of their pastime activities with Instagram followers. Recently the couple has embarked on a road trip across Belarus with the hashtag #Norwegian in Belarus.
The Norwegian Bjørndalen has praised Minsk:
I like the fact that Minsk is the second cleanest city I’ve ever been in. The city is incredibly neat, with beautiful parks.
Bjørndalen also appreciates the quality of Belarusian food:
I can eat practically anything from your [Belarusian] cuisine. It reminds me a bit of the Scandinavian cuisine, the one I’m used to. I also like Belarusian milk.
When Bjørndalen failed to qualify for Norway’s biathlon team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, the Belarusian Biathlon Federation requested his inclusion in the Belarusian Olympic biathlon delegation. Bjørndalen coached and supported Domracheva and other members of the Belarusian team during the 2018 Olympics. On 25 June Domracheva announced her decision to quit a professional career in biathlon, citing the desire to spend more time with the daughter.
A fairytale violin
Alexander Rybak, the winner of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, represents another successful Belarusian-Norwegian integration experience. The Minsk-born Rybak emigrated to Norway with his parents at the age of four. Rybak’s parents, both professional musicians, continued their music careers in Norway and encouraged Alexander in his own musical pursuits. Rybak actively studied music and worked with a range of Norwegian musicians.
In 2009 Rybak won the Eurovision Song Contest with his own song titled “Fairytale”, earning a record 387 points. Since then, Rybak has actively toured the countries of the former Soviet Union. Rybak has also participated in several Belarusian music competitions as a jury member. Rybak, a Norwegian citizen, cited warm feelings towards Belarus and Minsk, where his grandmothers live. This year Rybak represented Norway at Eurovision for the second time, although he failed to repeat his initial success.
Despite the lifting the sanctions against the Belarusian officials, the probability of a reset in Belarusian-Norwegian inter-state relations remains very low. Only ground-breaking changes in the Belarusian state’s attitude towards democracy and human rights might trigger positive changes. As for economic cooperation, only serious changes in the situation with the rule of law in Belarus might bring significant investment from Norway into the Belarusian economy.
So far, the Domracheva- Bjørndalen family alliance and Rybak’s success story serve as the reminder of a tremendous potential that Belarusian-Norwegian partnership holds.