Where new ideas are born – ESI Anniversary Conference Story

Saturday 11 July 2009 is a special day in the life of this particular European think tank …


In summer 1999 a group of friends gathered in Sarajevo and decided to set up a new institution to analyse international policy in the Balkans. Thus ESI is born.

Ten years later a much larger group of friends, from across a much larger Europe, comes together in Istanbul to discuss the lessons of the past decade (1999-2009) and how new ideas might shape the next decade of Europe’s evolution (2009-2019).


We come together in a colourful building full of modern art, which reflects both the diverse composition of our staff and our eclectic approach to research methodologies, but built solidly on Byzantine foundations, in the heart of the old town.


Our first debate is, not surprisingly, on Turkey: how much have things really changed in the largest EU candidate country during the past decade? And what is likely to happen in the coming years?

Nigar Goksel (Turkey), ESI senior analyst for Turkey and the Caucasus, moderates and watches as Amberin Zaman (Turkey), correspondent of the Economist and columnist in Taraf, explains what it was like to work in Turkey’s South East as a journalist in the mid 1990s … and how much has changed since then. In fact, dramatic change is continuing as we meet, she notes, refering to the most recent legal changes affecting military and civilian courts


Barcin Yinanc (Turkey), editor in chief of Hurriyet Daily News (previously Turkish Daily News) explains why she, too, is an optimist concerning developments in her country … and why she is both a strong believer in EU soft power and in the power of Turkish civil society, including women’s organisations.


Our next debate is on the new contested neigbourhood and the Southern Caucasus. What is the likely future of EU – Russia rivalry and/or cooperation in this region? Does the EU have any soft power here?

Ivane Chkhikvadze (Georgia) and Arzu Geybullayeva (Azerbaijan), ESI analyst and author of Flying Carpets and broken Pipelines, an excellent English-language blog on Azerbaijan, explain how things look from Tbilisi and Baku (where some bloggers have just been arrested on trumped up charges)


… while the co-author of one of the most interesting recent texts on the EU and its neighbourhood, Nicu Popescu (Moldova), explains the dangers should Europe continue to pay too little attention to its Eastern neighbourhood. Keti Tsikhelashvili (Georgia), presenting ESI’s ongoing research in Georgia, agrees. There and then the idea is also born for ESI to establish a program looking at Moldova sometime in 2010. Of course, first funding must be found, but such details cannot spoil the visionary mood …


Hungry for new ideas the group moves a few steps down the road to have lunch, overlooking Topkapi Palace and the Golden Horn: here you see your Rumeli Observer (Austria), Rakel Dink (Turkey), Minna Jarvenpaa (Finland), Eggert Hardten (Germany), Marcus Cox (Australia) and Emanuela del Re (Italy) discussing the future of the world over Kebab.


After lunch Verena Knaus (Austria), ESI senior analyst based in Kosovo, talks about the EU and Kosovo, a topic of inexhaustible complexity, while ….


… ESI friend Arbi Mazniku (Albania) listens and recovers from an intense national election campaign in Albania.


Here Kristof Bender (Austria) and Alex Stiglmayer (Germany) listen carefully as Besa Shahini (Kosovo/Canada) explains the European future of the Balkans and what ESI should do about it …


The last discussion is about the future and impact of think tanks. Jordi Vaquer (Spain), director of Cidob in Barcelona, explains the plans of the Spanish EU presidency, the outlook of the policy elite in Madrid, and the possible role of think tanks in influencing the Spanish policy debate.

Kristof (Austria), Goran Buldioski (Macedonia), director of the OSI Think Tank Fund based in Budapest, and your Rumeli Observer listen, wondering why Spanish foreign policy is so peculiar.


When all is said about Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the role of think tanks participants gather for a group picture in the garden of the conference venue, next to a sculpture which expresses well the complex nature of EU foreign policy ….


At this stage a happy Rumeli Observer realises that with the ideas generated by this one day of brainstorming another two dozen ESI reports could be written. At least …!


The next agenda item is continued debate, now focusing on the Istanbul urban experience, and furious networking, this time on a boat: here Alida Vracic (Bosnia), Marcus Cox (Australia), Kristof Bender, Piotr Zalewski (Poland), Yana Zabanova (Russia), Engjellushe Morina (Kosovo) and Gerda Vogl (Austria) contemplate an uncertain future.

Once these new questions have been exhaustively discussed, some can no longer sit still …


… and start moving uncontrollably to the rythm of Turkish music…


This continues until the CD-player breaks down and serious conversation about the state of Europe becomes possible again, this time in Rumeli Hisari


… overlooking the narrowest point of the Bosporus. Over some food, raki and wine new plans are hatched, networks are woven and conspiracies developed which future historians of ideas will find hard to disentangle …


… until, at the end of the day, even the most energetic members of the ESI family are exhausted, including Yana Zabanova (Russia) …


… Robin Gosejohann (Germany), who used to run ESI’s administration from Istanbul and is now project manager at Erste Stiftung in Vienna, Besa Shahini (Kosovo) and the youngest ESI analyst of them all, all dreaming of an even more democratic and self-confident Europe in 2019.

All photographs: Jonathan Lewis, www.jonathanlewisphoto.com

3 Replies to “Where new ideas are born – ESI Anniversary Conference Story”

  1. Hello there.
    Seems to be a very interesting Congerence though I find it strange that you didn’t have a participant from Armenia while talking on South Caucasus and Turkey!

  2. Dear Ani,

    we did have a participant (analyst) from Armenia, even speaking at the event. In addition, we had experts on Armenia and Istanbul Armenian participants.

    Best wishes,


  3. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it
    was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for newbie blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *