Tag: Eastern Europe

Yongjia Luís Du: Kyrgyzstan

41784482_339258666818467_2800469194120888320_n.jpgThere is a tradition in Kyrgyzstan. When families have guests, they make a big meal no matter the time of day. Yongjia Luís Du experienced this firsthand this summer while working—usually on a full stomach—for a consulting firm in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. After studying international law at SAIS Bologna, he returned for his second year with compelling stories and a glowing sense of optimism about the future of China’s relationship with Central Asia.

Where were you working and what was your official position?

I worked for an export-import consulting firm in Kyrgyzstan that imports tea from Fujian, China, called the New Horizon Consulting and Investment Corporation. As a manager’s assistant for this Kyrgyz firm, I was the liaison between the Chinese partners and our office in Bishkek.

I worked with 10 people—all of them Kyrgyz—and my manager, who was a friend from college. When I was in Bologna, I spent so much time searching for jobs that eventually I just decided to call my friend and ask if he had any opportunities for me. He was working for this firm in Bishkek but was having difficulty attracting young Chinese workers to Central Asia, and he said that my native proficiency in Chinese would be very valuable.

What were you doing on a day-to-day basis?  

I was in charge of taking meeting notes and writing daily reports for our Chinese partners. Most of my job was participating in negotiations, but I also had to sift through economic data and do research on current events in Kyrgyzstan, our Chinese partners and new policies to follow up on.

There were a lot of interesting issues that came up while working in Kyrgyzstan. For example, the country is very divided between the north and the south, where the country’s Muslim culture is much stronger. They don’t drink alcohol in the south and a lot of shops and restaurants refuse to sell it or tobacco products. We worked with a company whose main products were alcohol and tobacco, so in order to reach markets in the south, this company wanted to start importing Chinese tea. In Kyrgyzstan, families drink tea four times a day, but there is still very little tea from China coming into the country. This is one of the ways that Kyrgyzstan, one of the first countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is growing much closer to China.

What was one of the most difficult challenges you experienced?

One was economic. Because Kyrgyzstan is still not very developed, the infrastructure is still poor. The roads are very bad, so it’s difficult for other countries to invest in the country. Infrastructure is one of reasons why Kyrgyzstan is a much less attractive investment environment compared to neighboring countries. The other problem was political. Until recently, the country has not been very stable. Since electing a new president two years ago, it has become more stable, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Foreign investors still think that the future is too risky.

Is there a story that stood out during your time there?

Once, when I was travelling to Uzbekistan from Bishkek, I got on a bus that I thought would take eight hours, but two hours into the ride everybody got off to cross a border. When soldiers checked my visa, I showed them my visa for Uzbekistan and they replied, “Yes, but where is your Kazakhstan visa?” At that moment I realized where I was! I thought the bus would go directly to Uzbekistan, but it passed through Kazakhstan. Keep in mind, Central Asians can go freely throughout the region without a visa because all the former Soviet Union countries share a visa-free policy.

The soldiers asked me if I could call my Kyrgyz friends and discuss it. In the end I had to go back to Bishkek, so I paid for a taxi and a bus back. I stayed there for another five days and then eventually flew to Uzbekistan.

Is Central Asia a region that you want to continue to focus on?

I am very interested in the region because I think that it has a lot of development potential. Historically, this region has done quite well, but it was one of the most affected victims of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Central Asian economies lost one of their biggest trading partners, and they were too far away from European markets to recover. They were also still using the ruble, so when the ruble collapsed, Central Asian countries were hit very hard, and their economy struggled for the next 20 years. Some people say time stopped there after the 1990s.

But these countries now have their own industries as well as so many educated people, so I see a lot of potential for future growth. China is investing money abroad and Central Asia has been a primary recipient of the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia also has interests in developing the region. Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product, for example, has grown seven percent each year for the last two years. Growth is already happening and I forecast that it will continue, and that means more opportunities for Chinese people in the future.

Maria Gershuni: Russia

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Maria Gershuni, class of 2019, spent her summer working for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow as an intern for the Euro-Atlantic program. She is a European and Eurasian concentrator at SAIS and found the internship through her department, which sent out a list of available opportunities in Europe. Upon receiving an offer, she replied with a definitive “Absolutely.”

A native of New York, Maria grew up speaking Russian with her parents and was thrilled to share her experiences living and working in Moscow.

Could you briefly describe what the RIAC does?

It is a Russian international affairs think tank that was set up in 2010. They’re a little different than the way Americans think of think tanks because they don’t have a lot of their own scholars. I think in Russia the concept of a think tank is relatively new. The way they’ve adopted that model is by prescribing a platform for established scholars, writers and academics to post their work and give lectures. The majority of their work is project-based; they have scholars write about Arctic issues for the Arctic project, but don’t necessarily have in-house scholars in the way that Americans generally imagine a think tank environment.

They also set up a lot of events with other organizations abroad. In my time, we set up an event with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), and the European Union Experts network. It’s really interesting that the RIAC doesn’t have its own scholars that can only publish if they represent the organization.

What were some of your daily tasks and responsibilities?

As the Euro-Atlantic project intern, I dealt with Europe, the United States and Canada. My daily tasks were a wide range of things the project needed. For example, a lot of it was editing and translating—standard intern stuff. Some of the cooler things I got to do was to participate in the events that they hosted. I met the former Secretary of Energy in the United States, Ernst Moniz, through the NTI, and got to go to press conferences after the Trump-Putin summit this summer, for which I had to do a lot of research. I was basically their research person for that because I could read English and Russian language news sources.

What do you think was the most difficult challenge working at RIAC?

With any organization you are going to work at, especially abroad, you have to adjust your way of thinking so that the U.S. isn’t the center of the world. A lot of things that get published, a lot of things that they organize and a lot of the speakers they invite have perspectives you’ve really never heard before. You have to adjust really quickly to that. You don’t think “That’s not right!” You just have to learn to understand the way these people think, the way people interpret events, and you have to put it in the context of a larger global network.

What was your living situation like?

I loved living in Moscow. I speak Russian so I think that helped, but the public transportation there was wonderful—really quick and so much better than the metro. One of the highlights for me was being able to get to where I needed to go quickly in a huge city.

I was there during the FIFA World Cup for a month which was one of the best months of my life. It became a very international city, but not in the sense of New York. There were a lot of people from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Peru and a lot of other places who were all very excited to be there. The city was a huge party. People were walking around with beers and music was playing all the time. Whenever Russia won a game we would walk around and cars would be beeping at each other, honking their horns. The atmosphere was really wonderful.

Were you living in an apartment? How did you find housing?

I have family that’s Russian, so I lived in an apartment that was a little bit far from the city center, but like I said the public transport was great. It was a very old, Soviet-era apartment with lots of homeless cats in the basement and there was an older lady, who was basically a concierge, but she just sat in the front of the building making sure no one sketchy came in. We became friends because we both love cats.

Too many cats does not sound like a problem at all.

Absolutely not.

During your internship, did you draw from any SAIS classes in particular?

I did. I took a class called “Nuclear Nonproliferation in the 21st Century” in spring 2018, which was a really fascinating class. The final paper that I wrote was about post-Soviet denuclearization, and one of the articles that I wrote [during my internship]—the first one in my cohort to get published—was on how Kazakhstan could act as a model for North Korean denuclearization. That came right at the time of the Trump-Kim summit, so it got a lot of traction. It got retweeted by the Russian mission to the U.N. and was published in two languages. I want to credit that class because without it I wouldn’t have the technical knowledge or the background. I wouldn’t even have thought of that topic, but it became really popular and I’m proud of that one.

The second article I wrote was about the way that memes have become political messages. I wrote about Brexit and about the 2016 election, comparing the two and how memes have evolved from rick-rolling to hate symbols. That wasn’t really a class, just my teenage years.

How did the internship change or confirm your goals after SAIS?

I really enjoyed my internship a lot. I love the idea of working at a think tank not being a scholar, but giving scholars a platform. But I think the biggest takeaway, for sure, is that I really want to spend significant time abroad. I like traveling. I managed to travel to Estonia when I was there, I managed to travel pretty much all around Russia. I like being in different environments. So I think it definitely confirmed my desire to get out of the United States. See as much of the world as you can while you’re still young and free.