Yana Zabanova – Russia (2009-2014, Berlin)

Maximilien Lambertson

It was 1 June 2009 and my first day as a junior fellow at ESI's office located in Berlin's colourful Kreuzberg district, on a street just off the Landwehr Canal. Only three days earlier, I had graduated with a Master's degree in public policy from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Joining an independent think tank on a three-month fellowship to do research on the South Caucasus sounded like a good way to spend the summer and figure out what I wanted to do next.

I did not know yet that these three months would be followed by five unforgettable years spent researching, debating, traveling and growing professionally as an ESI analyst.

The research project that I joined focused on studying Georgia's political transformation and reforms since the Rose Revolution of 2003. The project was already in full swing, and I was impressed - but also slightly intimidated - by the sheer number of interviews conducted, material collections compiled and drafts written by my incredibly motivated colleagues. It was a steep learning curve, with the first few weeks spent absorbing huge amounts of new information. In addition to monitoring the coverage of Georgia in the German media, my task was also to look closer at Kakha Bendukidze, a Russian-Georgian oligarch who became one of the masterminds of Georgia's libertarian reforms starting in 2004.

Coming to ESI as a junior fellow fresh out of graduate school was a great learning experience. There was something new to learn every day, and having a good background in economics and public policy made it easier. As a junior fellow at ESI, you never feel that you are delegated minor or unimportant tasks. On the contrary, you are treated as a full member of the team from day one and are expected to conduct high-quality research. At the same time, there is regular feedback from experienced colleagues and a lot of guidance and support. This is an environment in which young researchers can thrive. In the years that followed, I have worked with several junior fellows in the Berlin office, all of them very motivated and capable, and I can honestly say that each of them made a very tangible contribution to ESI's work.

It was also in those first months that I experienced ESI's special working style first-hand. All ESI analysts are expected to be meticulous with facts, figures, and quotes, checking sources time and again. There is a constant challenge to develop strong and convincing arguments and continue testing them for weaknesses and inconsistencies with the help of your colleagues. Feedback is both sought after and taken seriously, even by the most experienced analysts. Most importantly, ESI places a strong emphasis on writing well, in a style that is accessible, precise and gripping. In practical terms, this often means being frustrated as you re-write a draft (which would probably be declared perfectly fine in another organization) for what feels like the hundredth time.

One of the highlights of my junior fellowship was attending ESI's 10th anniversary meeting in Istanbul in July 2009. This was a great chance to meet all ESI analysts from around Europe, as well as many friends of ESI who had been involved with the organization in the past. It was my first time in Istanbul, and the beauty and vitality of this amazing city provided a perfect backdrop for lively political discussions, taking scoop of the past 10 years and discussing new projects.

ESI analysts and friends at ESI's 10th anniversary. July 2009, Istanbul
ESI analysts and friends at ESI's 10 anniversary. July 2009, Istanbul

Something else happened then that would later become the focus of my work at ESI. As we all sat down to dinner in a fancy restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, our Azerbaijani analyst Arzu looked worried. She just learned that two friends of hers, Azerbaijani youth activists and bloggers Emin and Adnan had been attacked by thugs in a café in Baku, placed under arrest and falsely charged with hooliganism. The two young men were subsequently sentenced to 2.5 and 2 years in prison but released earlier due to intense international pressure, with Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and Catherine Ashton all pleading their case with the Azerbaijani leadership.  

Adnan and Emin's case led ESI to pay closer attention to the new generation of young dissidents and political prisoners in Azerbaijan. This laid the foundation for long-term research and advocacy efforts which I soon joined as a full-time analyst. For our report Generation Facebook in Baku, we interviewed dozens of Azerbaijan's political activists in their 20s and early 30s, most of them highly educated and media-savvy. Their enthusiasm and drive were inspiring, but the space for any dissent in Azerbaijan continued shrinking.

Then, we came across something puzzling. The Azerbaijani government's tightening persecution of dissent and manipulation of elections (such refusing to register half of the opposition's candidates in the 2010 elections) did not go unnoticed by international human rights groups. Yet there was one organization that remained conspicuously silent – the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined in 2001. As we probed deeper, we saw strong evidence of intensive lobbying on the part of Azerbaijan, aimed at capturing one of Europe's oldest human rights institutions. This finding gave rise to one of ESI's most interesting research projects which later turned into a campaign.

We identified Azerbaijan's apologists in institutions like the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. We analyzed their statements and connections to Azerbaijan. We pored over debate transcripts and media reports. We compiled profiles of people who have consistently downplayed human rights problems in Azerbaijan. At times it felt like playing detective, when you feel excited about unearthing some little-known facts: the chairman of one of PACE's committees becomes a paid lobbyist for Azerbaijan upon leaving PACE; a Belgian senator and frequent visitor to Azerbaijan establishes an obscure election observation "academy" whose members travel to Baku and issue a statement praising Azerbaijan's democratic elections.

Based on this research, we have published three reports exposing Azerbaijan's attempts to lobby and neuter European institutions like the Council of Europe. The title of one of them – Caviar Diplomacy – was soon picked up by European journalists and activists as a term to describe Azerbaijan's strategy of lobbying for influence and prestige in Europe. One of my most rewarding experiences at ESI was to hear of our report actually impacting policy debates in Brussels and in European media. At the same time, it was disappointing to realize how many European MPs were willing to turn a blind eye to violations in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's caviar diplomacy in the Council of Europe had many successes to celebrate. Azerbaijan's apologists in the Council ensured that a critical draft resolution on political prisoners was voted down in the Assembly in January 2013, removing the issue of political prisoners from the Council's agenda. In October 2013, the Council's election observation mission praised Azerbaijan's presidential elections for being free and fair – a sharp contrast to the alarming finding of the OSCE ODIHR's professional election observers.

This is when an idea of "Towards a Europe without political prisoners" was born, a set of proposals to create awareness about political prisoners throughout Europe and push the Council of Europe and human rights NGOs to act. In June 2014, ESI, supported by the German Human Rights Commissioner and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, launched the campaign at a conference in Berlin followed by a brainstorming session with policymakers, journalists, Azerbaijani activists, and human rights NGO representatives. This will be the focus of ESI's work on Azerbaijan in 2014-2015.

As an ESI analyst, most of your day-to-day work is research and writing, much of it done sitting at your desk. Still, at any given moment of time you can find yourself conducting a workshop for young think tank analysts in Kyiv, interviewing Moldova's Communist ex-president in Chisinau, arguing with a film director about a shooting location while crossing the administrative border between Moldova and Transnistria, discussing the fine points of your paper's argument with a colleague in a café in Baku, or moderating a panel discussion on political prisoners in Stockholm.

Interviewing Moldova's former president and Communist Party Chairman Vladimir Voronin for an ESI documentary film
Interviewing Moldova's former president and Communist Party Chairman Vladimir Voronin
for an ESI documentary film "Moldova: Lost in Transition." Chisinau, July 2012

I also enjoyed the Berlin office's traditions, such as having dinners with current and former staff (whoever happens to be in Berlin) a few times a year or visiting one of the city's many Christmas markets and consuming copious amounts of Glühwein (mulled wine) every year in December. What made my time at ESI most special was working alongside some of the most intelligent, well-read and driven people that I had ever met.

After five wonderful years at ESI, I have decided to join the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, a large German think tank, to work on a research project exploring Turkey's role in the Caucasus. I would not be where I am today – both professionally and personally – without my ESI experience, which allowed me to grow and develop as a researcher, analyst and an expert on the South Caucasus. I will continue following ESI's exceptional work in the future and recommend ESI to anyone who is looking for an intellectual challenge, great colleagues and a unique working experience.


Some projects Yana was involved in:

ESI's Berlin office visits the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, December 2012
ESI's Berlin office visits the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, December 2012