Sixteenth Annual REECAS NW Conference Held at Western Washington University
by Steve Effron
On Saturday, April 17, academics, students and residents of the greater Seattle area with an interest in the affairs of the former communist sphere convened on the misty, scenic campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham for the Sixteenth Annual Northwest Regional Conference for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies. The event, entitled “Time and Transition: Reflecting on the Past 20 Years in Russia, East Europe and Central Asia,” was presented by the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University. Twenty scholars presented papers on mostly contemporary and recent issues in the realms of foreign relations, literature, the arts, identity and nationalism in Russia, East Europe and Central Asia since the Iron Curtain came down two decades ago. What follows is just a small taste of some of those 20 papers.
The conference was spread out over two small auditorium-style rooms, with simultaneous presentations. Among the morning session speakers, Julia Hon presented “Looking Westward? Attitudes in the Caucasus toward the US, NATO and Europe,” based on a paper she co-authored that was published in Caucasus Analytical Digest. Hon, an MA candidate in International Studies at the University of Washington, compared the attitudes of the populations in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia toward the West and concluded that while most people in all three countries were favorably inclined toward the West, they were also mindful about maintaining their own countries' cultural identities.
Jeanene Mitchell, a PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington, also spoke on the reorientation of foreign affairs involving post-Soviet states. Mitchell's paper, “Turkish Foreign Policy towards Central Asia: A New Era in Sight under the AK Parti?” analyzes Turkey's relationship with the countries of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In her presentation, Mitchell explained how the Turkish AK Parti's European Union-oriented policy from 2002-2007 constrained its ability to strengthen relations with a set of post-Soviet states with which Turkey shares linguistic and cultural roots.
Conference speakers and attendees convened for a lunchtime plenary panel discussion. Chairing the plenary panel, James Augerot, professor and Director of the Ellison Center at the University of Washington, introduced speakers Edward Vajda, Robert Huber, and Przemek Chojnowski. Although the theme of the plenary was the region's transition over the past 20 years, the speakers covered a great deal of ground, touching on diverse regions, time periods and disciplines. Vajda, professor and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University, spoke about his experience researching the Ket language in a remote region of Siberia in the 1990s and 2000s. Huber, president of the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, presented on Russia’s development from the 17th century onwards and the various pitfalls it has experienced inits post-Soviet transition. Finally, Chojnowski, visiting Fulbright Scholar from Poland at the University of Washington, gave an emotional presentation about the shifting historical memory of the massacre at Katyn in post-1989 Poland.
The afternoon included two sessions of speakers. Marty Manor, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington writing her dissertation on Slovak history, looked back a half a century in her paper, "From Liberator to Oppressor: The 1968 Soviet Invasion of Košice, Czechoslovakia Examined through the Lens of Public Squares." Manor discussed how the events of the Prague Spring of 1968 as they occurred in Czechoslovakia's easternmost city, Košice, focusing on the underlying themes behind the later dedication of Liberator Square, where most of the events took place, and the role of Slovak civil society in the liberalization movement that was stamped out by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces.
The concluding session involved panels on Mongolian and Turkic literature and identity and nationalism in education and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Natalia Martinez-Paz, a Master of Arts candidate in International Studies at the University of Washington, and her classmate Natalia Wobst, provided case studies of education systems in post-socialist states that have been heavily influenced by ethnic conflict or tension. Martinez-Paz discussed her paper, “Ethnic Self-Identification and Education in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” on the disparate education systems in Muslim and Croat areas and the influence that the international community, including American, European and Middle Eastern organizations, has had on education in highly decentralized post-conflict Bosnia. In presenting her paper, “Kyrgyz Secondary Educational System since the Disintegration of the Soviet Union,” Wobst spoke about current difficulties encountered in education in Kyrgyzstan. She outlined the general issues confronting education in Kyrgyzstan before focusing on the particular problems faced by the country's Uzbek minority in receiving adequate education.
After the panels finished their presentations, everyone in attendance convened for a reception and reflected on the diverse topics discussed over the course of the day. Although it is a broad geographical region with myriad issues of the past 20 years to consider, the panelists at the Northwest Regional Conference for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies managed to capture some of the more salient matters of the area since the end of the Cold War. No doubt much will continue to change in a wide region still experiencing transition before scholars on Russia, East Europe and Central Asia come together again for next year's conference.
Steve Effron is a first-year MA student in the REECAS program at UW. For more details on the REECAS NW Conference, including the other papers presented at the event, please visit http://jsis.washington.edu/ellison/reecasnw_2010.shtml.