Discussions of Russia and Ukraine have filled political science classrooms across Georgetown University for over a year, but an April 14 conference hoped to shed light on the other problems and opportunities facing Central Asia.
The Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES), a branch in the School of Foreign Service, organized the one-day conference, entitled “Scenarios of Power in Central Asia.” The event brought together experts for a discussion regarding Central Asia’s role in the war in Ukraine and world affairs. The conference’s first panel, “Pipe Dreams and Energy Scenarios,” discussed the development of limited oil and gas resources, while the second, “Neighbors, Allies and Geopolitical Scenarios,” involved talks regarding trade sanctions, international alliances and other foreign policy issues.
Theresa Sabonis-Helf, a policy expert and professor who chairs the Science, Technology and International Affairs concentration in the School of Foreign Service Master’s degree program, spoke in the first panel.
Sabonis-Helf said she appreciates rising student interest in Central Asia especially given America’s historically low levels of analysis and research into the region.
“I would argue that, except as an appendage to Afghanistan, the level of U.S. interest in the region has never been as high as I think is warranted, but I think there’s a great new generation and it’s very exciting to sort of see that blossoming at Georgetown,” Sabonis-Helf told The Hoya.
Western countries and intergovernmental organizations, including the European Union, have increasingly sought to expand dialogue and diplomatic relations with Central Asian nations as the region grows in influence, in part due to conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, visited the region in March 2023 for meetings with foreign ministers in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Gavin Helf, a CERES adjunct professor and conference speaker, said he feels Central Asian studies have shifted away from a focus that formerly revolved around the Russian Federation.
“Any program in post-Soviet studies used to be a program about Russia, and, incidentally, the other stuff,” Helf said. “I think we’ve seen an evolution away from everything being Russia-centric and looking through the prism of Russia.”
Many of the Central Asian countries, including five of the seven ending in “stan”, were part of the Soviet Union and accordingly are often impacted by and connected to Russia and its foreign policy. Recently, however, western nations as well as China are vying for influence in the region.
Sabonis-Helf said that after living and working in seven countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, she has a particular appreciation for perspectives gained from the international diversity at Georgetown.
“I feel like the presence of students from the broader region in Georgetown’s program is really exciting, because they are folks who want to put their own country in context,” Sabonis-Helf said. “I’ve been really impressed with my students from Central Asia or from the Caucasus or from Ukraine.”
Brianne Todd, a professor of practice at the National Defense University and speaker on the second panel, said she enjoyed the event’s focus on power dynamics, many times understated or ignored, in analyses surrounding Central Asia.
“As several of the speakers highlighted, Central Asia is facing many challenges currently but there are also incredible opportunities,” Todd wrote to The Hoya. “It was refreshing to discuss Central Asia outside of the usual “great power competition” paradigm and to recognize that there are additional power scenarios (and related implications) to be explored.”
Looking beyond the typical focus on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the panel surveyed energy scenarios in Central Asia, an oil-rich region whose trade deals and partnerships have a ripple effect worldwide. Panelists also discussed geopolitics, including diplomatic allyship in a region increasingly subject to foreign influence as Russian leaders devote time and energy to Ukraine.
The great power competition refers to an ongoing contest between large nations like the United States and Russia to establish hegemony, or monopoly on global influence. As technology and trade relationships have evolved over the course of the twenty-first century, foreign policy practitioners view regions like Central Asia as key players in such power competitions.
Todd said students curious about Central Asia should pursue language and other professional opportunities both in the United States and in the region itself, in addition to exploring classes offered on the Hilltop.
“Beyond Georgetown, there are numerous opportunities to engage in language study, field research, and work experience (both remotely and in person) in and/or on Central Asia,” Todd wrote.
Sabonis-Helf said that Georgetown hosting the conference and its experts shows it is an influential institution for the study of Central Asia.
“The fact that Georgetown could round up that group of people shows that it is one of the programs in Washington that’s really doing great Central Asia, and more broadly post-Soviet, kind of work,” Sabonis-Helf said.
Leave a Reply