Russian Elite Creates Glut of Think Tanks

Economist Alexei Vedev saw disaster coming in 1991. The Soviet Union was crumbling. Foresight told him state subsidies would dry up - and with them his job.

So he decided to form his own think tank.

While many academics found themselves driving taxis or cleaning people's homes, others like Mr. Vedev have done well thanks to a touch of free-market chutzpah.

Vedev built up an influential client base of contacts he had cultivated at the state-run Academy of Sciences. In time, he developed his own unit of researchers and analysts specializing in the emerging capitalism. Now he runs a respected economic analysis center in Moscow linked to DialogBank, a commercial bank. "Creating my own think tank was the only way to survive," he says.

Vedev didn't know it, but he was in the vanguard of a new growth industry springing out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. Independent research institutes and think tanks have sprouted like mushrooms in the 1990s.

At least 300 political-science organizations are based in Moscow alone, many of them operating without state support. Some are headed by scientists turned financial analysts. Businessmen and politicians also have set up policy centers to influence public opinion. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has joined the bandwagon, setting up his Gorbachev Foundation in 1992 after his retirement.

Observers say such a phenomenon could only come in a country that boasts one of the world's highest standards of education. During Communist times, the government bankrolled thousands of academics, scientists, intellectuals, experts, and specialists in various fields. Once the Soviet state shriveled away, however, so did publicly funded research centers.

"A good institute gives intellectuals prestige, access to top levels of power, and the chance to be quoted and obtain funds," says analyst Alexei Mukhin of the independent information center known simply as "Center."

A glance at Moscow's telephone directory reveals a profusion of research groups so similar in name that the public often mixes them up. But political analyst Nikolai Petrov at the American-funded Carnegie Center says the fancy-sounding names can be tricky. "Now practically everyone says he is a director of an institute. But sometimes there is only one man and a secretary," he says.

This does not seem to detract from the influence many think tanks wield, particularly those with links to the government. Despite professed independence, many think-tank experts keep close relationships with top ministers.

A case in point is Alexei Ulyukayev, deputy director of the Gaidar Institute, run by former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Mr. Ulyukayev was recently summoned to advise the team of new Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko.

Russians might be forgiven for wondering whether there is too much hot air in Moscow. With the recent financial crisis, rampant unemployment, and millions of rubles in wages going unpaid for months, does Russia really need so much theorizing?

Yes, thinks Mr. Gorbachev.

"Our Russian policies need to have intellectual support," he told the Monitor. "What is happening is an embodiment of democracy. Only free thought can help us to understand what we are today."

Newcomers to the think-tank scene complain the market is saturated. Financing - usually from banks, politicians, private companies, or individuals - is ever more elusive. Mr. Mukhin says stiffer competition might not be bad. "Do you know why we have so many institutes?" he asks. "We have too many ex-officials. It's too much."

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