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Regular version of the site

Baltic Practice-2011: A New Level Of Research

On August 1st at the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, the XI International summer research school Baltic Practice began. This is an annual event organized by the HSE Department of Public Policy. Nina Belyaeva, Academic Supervisor of the school and Head of the Department of Public Policy, told us about the schedule of the practice and the new areas of research which are being carried out as part of it.

— Dr. Belyaeva, in the brochure published before the opening of the School, the first Practice which took place in 2001 and its today’s version were described as essentially two different schools. What are the differences?

— I would emphasize two processes. Firstly, the HSE is a research university, and this fact determines the new framework for our activity. The research part of each course, of each master’s programme offered by the university, is increasing. Our summer school is also part of the educational process: its participants get academic credits for their work here – three credits for a presentation at the school and six credits for the submission of a paper that can be published. Traditionally, we have been publishing collections of papers based on the results of our schools, and the last of them, after Baltic Practice-2010 in Oslo, was the largest so far: it included seven chapters, since seven research groups worked at the school. This means that we deliberately focus on academic activities and increasing the quality of research which is either carried out or planned as part of the school. Secondly, the level of the teachers and experts attracted to the school continues to grow. And finally, the experts like working here so much that they have started suggesting some topics for discussion at the school themselves.

— Does this mean that the format of the school has changed?

— Yes, definitely. The focus on research determines all aspects of our activity – from the search of partners to the selection of topics. Each working group in the school currently has at least two leaders, one from the HSE and the other an invited expert or a representative from the organizing partner university. If they unite, they can demonstrate the toolkit and talk about the trends in their field of research. This also provides the interdisciplinary character of the school. For example, this year the Networked Economy group is headed by Irina Semenenko, Head of Department at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, and Alexis Belyanin, who works on behavioural economics and economic networks at the HSE. It is traditional to think that political scientists and economists approach the concept of ‘networks’ from different sides and use different mechanisms for their analysis. But in reality it seems that many mechanisms are shared, and the main differences are in terminology.

— What other research groups have been formed at Baltic Practice-2011,

— The Local Governance group will continue its work. Last year in Oslo it focused on the comparison of processes of relation-building between citizens and municipalities in Norway and Russia. The contrast, of course, was huge. This time we want to go from contrast to the search for solutions, and in this sense the experience of Lithuania with its recent Soviet past and considerable mutual history with Russia can become very useful. On the first day, The Deputy Mayor of Kaunas, Povilas Maciulis, will speak at the school, and then the participants will visit some municipalities. The heads of the group are Oksana Chernenko, who studies the problems of Russian municipal law, and Gerhard Ermisher, a Council of Europe expert and leader of an international expert landscape design NGO with its headquarters in Austria. This might seem to be a very narrow specialization, but Gerhard Ermisher considers landscape design in the context of territorial cultural development, and we would like to overturn the traditional Russian understanding of local governance – to look at a municipality as a form of cultural interaction between different groups of citizens, not just as a governmental body.

This topic is fairly close to the work of another research group, European Cultural Landscape, which is lead by the renowned photographer and art critic Mindaugas Kavaliauskas and music expert, philosopher and political scientist Leonidas Donskis. In addition to this, Professor Donskis is one of the leading experts on European integration: he was elected to the European Parliament and today heads a human rights committee there. They will tell the participants how the Lithuanian cultural landscape developed and changed in pre-soviet, soviet, post-soviet and European periods. Probably, this group has the most varied participants this year: it includes researchers from the Faculty of Philosophy, Faculty of Politics and Faculty of Public Administration of the HSE, and a student from the master’s programme in Political Analysis and Public Policy who is a graduate of a conservatoire and will study the relationship between music and politics.

The Global Democracy group includes the core of the Mathematical Models of Democracy research group which has been supported by a NRU (National Research University) HSE research grant and has been taking part in the Baltic Practice for three years. This time together with Dmitry Zaitsev it will be co-headed by Simon Matthijssen, Deputy Ombudsman of Rotterdam. This group works in close cooperation with a parallel Human Rights Network group, where I work alongside Marco Balboni, professor at the University of Bologna. And finally, Yury Fogelson has brought together a very strong group on Soft Law: Regulation and Self-Regulation.

— What will the work process at the school look like?

— We shall expect from the participants something that we haven’t demanded from them before. The fact is that the HSE administration and colleagues from our university evaluated our project and said: ‘You have learned to make collections of papers based on the results of the school. Now, what about some articles for international peer-reviewed journals?’ The challenge was thrown down, and we couldn’t fail to accept it. And I honestly think that this will be a turning point in our school’s history. Of course, it is much easier to prepare a paper for our brochure, and we do not expect each group to prepare three articles which comply with the level of English-language peer-reviewed journals. But even if there will are two or three from the whole school, this will be a totally new level.

— How can this task be solved?

— A serious role will be played by group leaders: it will be their task to select promising topics and ‘prune’ the ones that are not developed enough. We do not want to produce too much paper: we have already passed this stage. We also do not want our research to be secondary to what already exists in world science. This does not mean that we will immediately become leaders – we are not arrogant – but it is pretty realistic to approach a certain international level of research. Our undergraduate and postgraduate students should, from the very beginning, start from frontline research.

— How ready are they, in your view, for such tasks?

— We always emphasize that Baltic Practice is not for simply studying but is a research school. The quality of its participants both in terms of their qualifications and their motivation has grown considerably. Undergraduates still come here, but, firstly, their number is low, and secondly, they have the full right to call themselves researchers, since they really carry out research, and we are not ashamed to open their work for discussion by our foreign colleagues. Most of the participants (a total of 28 people) are from the HSE, but there are also representatives from Belorussia and Poland, some students have come from the University of Bologna, and of course, each working group contains a participant from Lithuania. Generally, the number of participants for whom this school provides not just nice company in a nice place but the opportunity to develop research, get consultation and support from experts and cultivate a circle of international contacts which will further form their academic environment, has grown. And the demand for them is very relevant in the academic community.

— One of the new things at this years’ Baltic Practice is the evening Professor Club. What is this?

— The school has brought together so many professors that we decided that it would be unfair to  attract them only to working groups, plenary sessions and student discussion clubs. That’s why we decided to organize in the evening ‘The Professor Club’, it is like a ‘forum inside a forum’. We discussed in advance a list of the topics that would be interesting for our colleagues . One of them, for example, is related to the problems of how the state should be studied. There are lots of approaches to this issue, but there is no overall consensus, and we have to admit that no one teaches the students how to interact with the state, and as a result their knowledge upon the graduation is somewhat sketchy. Another problem is the concept of public policy, which, as it turned out, has been studied by almost all the experts at the Baltic Practice. This discovery made all of us very happy, so we even decided to create a compendium of terms which are more and more actively used in different social sciences and are gradually becoming interdisciplinary. When we started to discuss these things, we came to a conclusion, that we lack discussion platforms for professors, especially interdisciplinary ones. Everything is limited to meetings at conferences where time is always very tight. The Baltic Practice is responding to this challenge and is not only creating an academic platform, but an environment, a ‘spirit of the place’, where important social science problems can be discussed without fuss and hurry. At some point, the professors, who were ‘hungry’ for real debates, had the idea of making a summer school totally without students, but we rejected this as too extreme!

— Why did you choose Kaunas as the location for the 11th Baltic Practice? And are you planning to stay here for long?

— First of all, Lithuania attracted us with its culture and traditions: for example, since the Middle Ages, the thirst for reading, for knowledge, has been huge – there was even a special profession, ‘book-bringers’, who brought books to the villages and imparted reading and knowledge to the people – this is a very interesting phenomenon! And after all, we wanted to drop anchor after our long pilgrimages along the Baltic Sea: we started from the Curonian Spit in the Kaliningrad region, then moved through Latvia, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and even reached Belgium – but now the circle has closed, and we are again not far from the Curonian Spit, but from its Lithuanian side.

It is also important that over the period of our ‘Baltic travels’ Lithuania has become a full member of the European Union, it made the journey from communism to Europe that we dreamed of sometime ago, and at the same time it preserved its cultural identity and its traditions while staying open to its neighbor countries ‘from the East’. In Kaunas we found our remarkable partners from Vytautas Magnus University – a university with good traditions, strong staff, teaching in English, without Russophobia and with a big interest in Russia and Russian culture. Now we are in a process of discussing an agreement which would involve student exchange between our universities, and we are also considering further cooperation similar to that which we have with the University of Bologna. Generally, we hope that our Practice will again settle closer to the Baltic Sea and remain in Kaunas at least for the next two or three years. Negotiations with our partners from Vytautas Magnus University have allowed us to believe that a number of long-term research projects with researchers from other leading European universities can be organized on the basis of this cooperation, with probable investment in this consortium from the European Commission.

Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service

Photos by Shota Kakabadze

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