Post-Soviet TV Experts: How Unwary Journalists Help Dilettante Analysts Spoil Reforms In Former USSR – OpEd


Why has the economic and political modernization in the former Soviet republics more often than not gone wrong? Political scientists, sociologists, and economists, from around the world, have given a variety of more or less complicated answers to this question. Often these explanation combine in-depth observations and advanced theories from a variety of fields including political economy, cultural anthropology, comparative politics, or contemporary history.

The invasion of the smatterers

However, there may sometimes be a more simple explanation to the tenacity of certain socio-political defects in the post-Soviet world: The newly independent states may have failed in this or that reform, because of the bare dilettantism, yet sometimes significant influence of hundreds of post-communist pseudo-scholarly advisors and unequipped commentators. Some of those, in the post-Soviet world, who claim to be social scientists, legal specialists and political experts are not really so. A large number of them are nevertheless enjoying high prominence in East European, Caucasian and Central Asian public affairs.

Post-Soviet politicians, bureaucrats and activists trying to modernize their countries might have failed simply because they have too often been given amateurish advice, and listened to dabblers’ opinions. Not only did anti-rational myths, international and -ethnic conflicts, or deep structural defects, extensively analyzed in post-Soviet studies, impede successful transformation in the post-communist countries. Bad political expertise and extensive public smattering too have seemingly played their role in the failures to reform the former Soviet republics economically, socially and politically. How could that have happened? Arguably, dilettantism has had such success in the former USSR because of, above all, superficial journalism about scholarly opinion on, and experts assessments of, this or that socio-political problem and its solution.

Specialists vs. amateurs

Proper social scientists, especially those studying the post-communist transition states, at Western or Asian higher education or research institutions often know in person their colleagues, in the transition countries. Typically, they will have read these post-Soviet scholars’ international publications, and/or may have met them at relevant academic conventions. Sometimes, they know their post-Soviet colleagues from their post-graduate or post-doctoral studies, for instance, in Germany, France or Japan, or from their visiting fellowships at some research university or relevant think-tank in Boston, London or Singapore. In certain cases, they have developed long-term collegial relationships or even personal friendships, and are cooperating in joint research projects, with their counterparts in Moscow, Kyiv or Tbilisi.

However, when these Western scholars visit the post-Soviet countries, and switch on TV and read the press, they will only sometimes encounter their acquaintances among those providing social scientific expertise in mass media. If they watch an analytical televised or other public discussion in a post-Soviet country, the foreign visitors may, instead, encounter contributors whom they may have never come across in a reputed specialized journal, or at a major scientific conference. These internationally unknown “experts” are often “presidents,” “chairmen” (only few women among them), or “general directors” of some center, foundation or institute, with a more or less impressive name. Frequently, they have themselves founded these centers. Some are TV stars of sorts, in their home countries.

To be sure, certain such local matadors, say Russia’s well-known “political technologist” Gleb Pavlovsky, may still be invited to serious international expert meetings. However, this may have to do less with the cognitive value of their political interpretations. Instead, it might be due to the presumed insider knowledge of the pseudo-experts who may have better access to political elites than their properly academic colleagues. Bluntly, these publicists may be asked to speak at an expert meeting in their capacity as intriguing study objects, or as a sort of primary source, by themselves, rather than because somebody regarded them as interesting analysts.

The journalistic presentation of expert assessments

It is easy to attack the pseudo-experts and expose them as dilettantes, within the relevant specialist circles. The main problem, however, is not with the dabblers themselves, but with the extensive exposure in post-Soviet mass media, above all on television, that some of them receive. Their publicity leads to the spread of superficial diagnoses. It prevents substantive analysis and a productive search for correction of salient structural defects in the post-Soviet societies. Moreover, the pseudo-experts heavy presence in mass media crowds out serious analysts – whether local or international. The dilettantes’ media presence seems to also be a door-opener to decision-makers, and occasionally leads to the adoption of bogus responses to urgent political, economic and social challenges.

At hand here is primarily a flaw in journalistic reporting of expert opinion, and only secondarily pathologies in the epistemic communities of the post-Soviet world themselves. Were the pseudo-experts less present in mass media, there would be little with what they could impress the political elites, civil society or bureaucracies of their countries. Their presence on TV and in the national press by itself suggests to the public that they are competent – which is more often than not a wrong conclusion.

To be sure, there are, in countries like Ukraine, Russia or Georgia, also certain local experts who are well-regarded internationally while being frequent speakers on national TV, at the same time. In Ukraine, for instance, the IR specialists Olexander Sushko and Valery Chaly are known in international post-Soviet studies while also successfully performing in Ukrainian public debates on Kyiv’s foreign affairs, transatlantic relations, and pan-European politics. In Russia, Nikolai Zlobin and Aleksey Malashenko are reputed specialists in international and -ethnic relations while also occasionally present in mass media. However, most of the colleagues whom Sushko, Chaly, Zlobin or Malashenko encounter at Ukrainian and Russian political TV shows are only rarely, if at all also attending those international seminars or conferences to which Sushko, Chaly, Zlobin or Malashenko are invited. Instead, the majority of contributors to post-Soviet “expert” discussions are self-made man, judging from their academic and other credentials. Moreover, they often claim to be competent in a rather broad variety of fields ranging from world economic problems to sub-national governance issues.

How do you know somebody is an expert?

The simple advice to post-Soviet TV hosts, press interviewers and round-table organizers, in light of this situation, is that they should observe some basic rules when choosing their guests for analytical debates and interviewees for expert statements. Like in competitive sports, high arts or natural sciences, the people publicly representing such fields as economics, political science or public administration, should be leaders within these scholarly domains, and have a high reputation among their colleagues. The putative authority invited to speak on TV or at public round-tables should be well-respected within the circle of specialists which she or he claims to stand for, i.e. be a highly regarded member of her or his epistemic sub-community. That means that an invited pundit’s previous performance in national mass media, and her or his links to local political elites by themselves provide little guidance for evaluating her or his real competence. Instead, substantive expertise will usually express itself through a mixture of certain academic and similar achievements which each serious analyst would usually be able to claim, to one degree or another.

A proper expert should:

– be regularly making contributions to specialized periodicals, including peer-reviewed, high-impact or, at least, recognized journals, as well as to collected volumes published within specialized book series, under the imprint of recognized academic presses, or/and by relevant think-tanks which, preferably, are not a creatures of the putative expert her- or himself;

– be – at least, occasionally – participating in important international symposia and conferences, including the regular conventions of the major scholarly societies in her/his field, like, in the case of political expertise, for example, the International Political Science Association or European Consortium for Political Research;

– have completed one or more doctoral and/or postdoctoral research visits to some reputed higher education or research institution which, if highly ranked, will be typically located outside the post-Soviet world;

– have been awarded, at least, one student-, scholar- or fellowship for realizing a study or investigative project from a reputed funding institution specializing in the support of social scientific education or/and research;

– have a full- or part-time position at some serious local university or think-tank, and, perhaps, a previous temporary teaching or research affiliation abroad – preferably at a recognized foreign research institution; and

– be able to claim membership in relevant scholarly advisory or editorial boards, and recognized academic associations or research networks.

Serious experts over the age of 35 may not have all of this on their CV. But, if real specialists in their field, they will usually meet, at least, some of these criteria more or less impressively.

From amateurism to professionalism

A lower presence of amateur pundits in post-Soviet mass media and public life may have three beneficial effects. First, it would decrease the impact of uninformed opinion on the public discourse in the societies of the post-communist states, and reduce the amount of simplistic, half-true or plainly wrong explanations of this or that pressing socio-political problem. Second, it should lower the political weight of dilettantes involved in decision-making processes within the state apparatuses of these countries, and could eventually lead to a normalization of political, economic and social consulting, in the transition countries. Third, it should increase the public and political space for serious experts – whether from local research institutions or from the respective nation’s foreign diasporas – with adequate credentials.

These effects should allow both governmental and non-governmental organizations in the post-Soviet world to base their decisions and policies on better diagnoses. That, in turn, should help the post-Soviet nations to eventually leave the societal and political deadlocks in which most of them today find themselves.

[Final personal note: As some readers of this article may know, I live in Kyiv and am thus myself a participant of the post-Soviet discourse I am criticizing here. My attack could thus be seen as a defamation of my local competitors in public political punditry. However, while I am frequently interviewed by Ukrainian mass media and sometimes invited to TV shows, my opinion is mostly sought because I am a German citizen, or (wrongly) seen as a representative of the EU. While I would regard myself as an expert on some selected political topics, my role on Ukrainian TV is rather that of providing an outsider’s, German or “European” view on this or that Ukrainian domestic matter. I am thus only sometimes directly competing with local real and pseudo-experts. Being funded, on a long-term basis, by a German government-supported scholarly organization, I am not competing with local pundits for Ukrainian research funding, consulting contracts, academic posts, etc. – none of which I need in order to sustain or advance myself.]

Andreas Umland is a DAAD Associate Professor of German and European Studies at the Department of Political Science of the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy,” member of the Valdai Discussion Club, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”

One thought on “Post-Soviet TV Experts: How Unwary Journalists Help Dilettante Analysts Spoil Reforms In Former USSR – OpEd

  • October 4, 2012 at 9:19 am

    A lovely fairy tale. Back in the real world, the function of mass media is to entertain, attract audience share, and provide a opportunity for advertisers to push their products. Propositions presented to a mass audience should be simple, easily understood (without advanced education or thought), and categorical. There is no place for a real expert in mass media. A real expert? Boring! Incomprehensible!

    This is not the fault of the journalists. It is the nature of the beast. And like the tiger and the leopard, mass media is not likely to change its stripes and spots anytime soon.

    Attention would be better directed to the question of how to increase the demand from the decision makers and political elites for genuine expert advice and counsel.


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