The think tank explosion is a remarkable feature of the reform decade in Central and Eastern Europe. The birth rate of independent policy research institutes in the post-communist countries is higher than in most other places in the world. Their media visibility is impressive. Their charm is irresistible. The number of studies on their ideas and influence is growing (Quigley 1997; Struyk 1999). There is a general feeling that post-communist think tanks are a powerful illustration of the critical link between democracy and development. A journey through the web pages of Central and Eastern European public policy institutes gives the impression that papers and conference reports produced by independent researchers are valuable fragments of the inside story of the transformation of the communist system. In the virtual reality of the web, think tanks appear serious, influential and knowledgeable. But are post-communist think tanks influential in the non-virtual world? Who are they, and what are the sources and limits of their influence?
In its second edition of Think Tanks in Central and Eastern Europe: A Comprehensive Directory, Freedom House (1999) lists 101 independent public policy research institutes that are non-profit, independent or autonomous with respect to governments and political parties and visible in the policy process. 1 Not all of the organisations included in the directory are 'real' policy institutes. Some would feel more at home in a directory of NGOs or advocacy groups, 2 others are part of the Academy of Sciences in their countries, 3 while one inclusion, Hungarian GKI, is a consultant company.
In post-communist societies, a think tank is something everybody hears about but nobody actually knows much about. In the academic literature, most experts agree that notion is a slippery term. Diane Stone (1996) has called 'think tank' an 'umbrella term that means different things to different people'. It is precisely the vagueness of the definition that makes think tanks a 'fashion' in the post-communist policy environment. In Eastern European dictionaries there is no word for 'think tank'. The introduction of the phrase 'think tank' into the vocabulary of policy makers is the one indisputable achievement of independent post-communist public policy institutes.