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#5 - JRL 2006-24- JRL Home
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2006
From: "Paul Saunders" <PSaunders@nixoncenter.org>
Subject: Russian funding summary

At a recent seminar at The Nixon Center, four top specialists expressed concern about Russian efforts to buy influence in Washington­but also noted that such attempts differ little from those of other international and domestic players in Washington’s policy process. However, they differed over the degree to which think tanks are in fact affected by their search for donors and over what level of public disclosure is appropriate for non-profits. Speakers included Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation; Blair Ruble, Director of the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Paul Saunders, Executive Director of the Nixon Center; and Steve Clemons, also a Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation and author of "Thought Control: Think Tanks for Sale." Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Editor of the National Interest, moderated the event.

Beginning the session, Gvosdev argued that discussions of money, politics, and policy often emerge in areas of intense disagreement and can become a substitute for genuine debate of the issues. Having an open and honest discussion of the role of money in the policy process therefore requires setting aside policy differences­and honest policy debates should likewise focus on the issues rather than efforts to discredit those holding a differing perspective.

Anatol Lieven highlighted the history of debate in Washington on the influence of foreign money. At different points in recent decades, he said, there has been concern over the influence Japanese, Saudi, Israeli and other foreign money. Today, the focus is often Russian money, he continued, though discussion of Russian money has taken on a unique character in part because its sources­often Russian “oligarchs”­seek not only commercial advantage but political influence within their country. Also, he added, many of the oligarchs made their money at the expense of the Russian government and people through Russia’s questionable privatization process during the 1990s, turning influence into money that then seeks greater influence. Interestingly, one participant argued that Russian efforts to buy influence differ most fundamentally from those of other foreign entities in their heavy-handed incompetence; this individual suggested that Russian players in the influence game typically seek an immediate and demonstrable return for their investment, whereas most others want to build enduring relationships.

Blair Ruble argues that while "dollars and scholars" do not go together well, scholars need dollars to research and write. Thus scholars have established systems to ensure as effectively as possible that money accepted by think tanks is not really used to buy lobbyists by another name. These standards apply to support from domestic companies and foundations as well as Russian and other foreign institutions, he said, and include transparency, accountability and community oversight. While no system is flawless, he acknowledged, any system that makes sense for other sources, should make sense for Russian donations as well.

More broadly, Ruble noted declining American interest in supporting work on foreign affairs and on Russia specifically. In his view, this inevitably turns institutions toward Russian sources of support­something that is happening and has happened in many other area studies fields. Thus the question of Russian support for academic and policy work is likely to be an enduring one.

Paul Saunders traced Russia’s post-Soviet attempts to influence policy in Washington to the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Boris Yeltsin aggressively sought support from Washington in his opposition to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. After Russian independence, Russia’s radical economic reformers­Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and others­justified their roles in the Russian government largely on the basis of their access in Washington, including at international financial institutions located there, and routinely sought to mobilize the Clinton Administration and U.S. elites against their political opponents (the opposition to the Kremlin). Saunders argued that privatization sharply intensified Russian efforts to win influence in Washington by providing vastly greater resources to the players and noted that one Russian oligarch­Vladimir Gusinsky­was able on that basis to go in to business with The Washington Post, one of the most influential institutions in the U.S. capital.

More broadly, Saunders urged that the discussion of the influence of money on think tanks consider a fundamental principle of fundraising: donors tend to approach institutions that they like and agree with, and institutions seeking funds tend to approach donors whom they believe are sympathetic to their positions. As a result, he said, most donors who give to non-profit policy institutes support work that the institutes already want to undertake and where the scholars involved broadly share their perspectives. He suggested that it would be very unlikely that an organization would solicit or receive funds for a project that its staff did not support intellectually.

Steve Clemons expressed considerable concern about the broader problem of think tanks and money, arguing that in Washington’s scandal-ridden environment, the think tank community is an explosion waiting for someone to light a match. In his view, restrictions on lobbying and campaign finance have driven advocacy money into the less-regulated think tank sector. He urged those in the think tank community today to reform the sector voluntarily and proactively, before embarrassing and high-profile problems provoke Congressional intervention.

Clemons especially stressed the importance of transparency, though he admitted that it creates dilemmas for think tanks. For example, he said, many of those who press for transparency simultaneous criticize public acknowledgement of corporate sponsors at major events or use that acknowledgement to discredit the work. Such a climate discourages rather than encourages openness by think tanks.