Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beginning Graduate School

Comrades,

It has been over a month since I last posted and I sincerely apologize for the delay. It has been one crazy month! We ended up leaving Domodedovo airport on Monday morning, as our flight was cancelled on Sunday. I arrived to JFK airport Monday afternoon (NYC time) on August 20th. I moved into my place in Georgetown on Wednesday, August 22nd, and graduate school orientation began Thursday, August 23rd. Orientation basically lasted through the beginning of fall semester courses on August 29th, and since then it has been quite a marathon.

The good news is that I am busy with some really exciting projects and awesome courses. I am in Russian (thanks to CLS and my time in Vladimir this summer, I tested into third-year Russian, thereby jumping ahead one whole year of intensive language instruction at Georgetown -- woo-hoo!), in addition to three graduate seminars: Informal Institutions, Security, Islam and Politics in Central Asia, and Introduction to Area Studies.

In "Informal Institutions," we are exploring blat', guanxi, wasta and jeito, the underground economic systems that exist(ed) in the Former Soviet Union, China, Middle Eastern states and Brazil, respectively. While each informal structure possesses social, political and institutional characteristics unique to the culture, they are all based on social networks comprised of highly-concealable, low-level, high-trust relationships between individuals. Understanding the factors conducive to the development of an informal economic system, and the mechanisms through which such networks operate and alter formal government and business institutions, helps explain agent behavior and the (in)effectiveness of certain policies. So far, we have explored blat, but I will spare you from the details for now. For our final paper, we can select a "case study" of an informal economic system. I will probably research the shuttle trade in Central Asia ...any readers with ideas?

"Security, Islam and Politics in Central Asia," is right up my alley in terms of content! Naturally, I find the class fascinating. So far, most of our readings have focused on Islam in Russia. After spending the summer in Vladimir -- the "poster child" city for the Russian Orthodox Church -- it has been interesting to study the Russian Tsar's institutionalization of the Islamic faith, particularly under Catherine the Great with the Orenburg Assembly. Russia was founded as the "Third Rome," and while it has always been a multinational empire, the Emperor's exaltation of Eastern Orthodoxy in the predominantly Muslim lands of the Eurasian steppe has produced interesting political tensions that are still evident today. For my final paper, I am researching the role of inter-personal networks in social mobilization and recruitment during the Civil War in Tajikistan (1992-1997).

Finally, Introduction to Area Studies is a seminar for all of the CERES MA students. We are exploring different research methods in the area, so it has been nice to be exposed to various academic and methodological traditions. Given last December's events in Zhanaozen, the May 2012 labor issue in Kazakhmys copper mine in Central Kazakhstan, and labor issues in the Kumtor gold mines in Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to select a final paper topic that would enable me to gain a deeper understanding of the recent history of industrial labor relations in Central Asia. Are these recent episodes of labor unrest "new" or simply indications of continued structural problems typical of a transition economy? Thus, my final paper in that class will be on industrial labor relations in Kazakhstan since independence.

As you can see, I am pretty excited (yet extremely busy) with my schoolwork, as each class requires an extensive (30 page) final paper. But there is one additional project I am working on this year!

I am the Humes Junior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown researching "The Diplomatic Practice in the Denuclearization of Kazakhstan Between 1991 and 1995." Following independence, Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear arsenal to Russia, favoring a peaceful policy that remains the cornerstone of its multi-vector foreign policy to this day. With the diplomatic, scientific and financial support of the U.S. Government (thanks to the Nunn-Lugar Bill and a program called "Project Sapphire"), all nuclear weapons were removed from Kazakhstan by 1995. It was not until December 1991 that Kazakhstan became an independent state. The U.S. was the first country to formally recognize Kazakhstan's sovereignty. Yet, it is amazing to think how in the course of four years, U.S.-Kazakhstan relations went from non-existent to closely allied after completing the successful dismantlement and removal Kazakhstan's nuclear weapons arsenal, production and testing facilities, as well as the implementation of a capable monitoring and verification system. That is no simple task. I cannot wait to explore this more!

All in all, it has been, and will be, an exciting, academically enriching and busy semester starting graduate school. While in Washington, even though my stories and awkward cultural interactions are not as funny in DC as when I am out in the field, my passion for Central Asia thrives and so postings on "The Sholk Road Adventures" will continue...

Thanks for reading and take care!

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