First Regional Conference (FRC) of the
Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS)

Date: August 4-7, 2008
Place: Royal Beach Hotel, Choq Tal village, Issyk-Kol, Kyrgyzstan
Languages: English, Russian

The purpose of CESS Regional Conference is to promote high standards of research and teaching, and to foster communication among scholars through conference activities. CESS Regional Conferences will work to facilitate interaction among senior, established scholars, junior scholars, graduate students, and independent scholars in Central Eurasia and throughout the world.

This conference is a very important event not just in the growth of CESS as an international scholarly society, but also in the institutionalization of the field of Central Eurasian Studies. From its inception, CESS has been internationally oriented in both its topical focus and in its membership. Approximately forty percent of CESS’s members are from the Central Eurasian region, but this was the first time the organization has been able to hold an event like this in the region itself.

Scholars of Central Eurasia have long been struggling to overcome the gap that exists between the scholarship of “the West” and the scholarship of “the East.” This conference was a chance to bring scholars from “the West” back to the region, to share their work, and to face an audience intimately familiar with the topic of their research. For regional scholars, it was a chance to participate in an international conference, to hear some fresh points of view to which they might not otherwise be exposed, and to bring their own contributions to the broader, and increasingly interactive, community of scholars. The conference was also a great professional socialization opportunity for the many younger scholars who were involved with the conference both as presenters and as moderators.

The first Regional Conference held on August 4-8, 2008 in Kyrgyzstan, justified all these expectations. The large number of proposals we received demonstrates the tremendous interest in a CESS conference being held in the region. The selection committee had to employ high standards in order to make the program’s selection from more than 100 individual papers applications and 35 panel applications. As a result there were 29 panels on the program and according to most of the feedback we received, participants felt that the quality of the papers was high. Dr. Laura Adams, Past-President of CESS felt that the quality of presentations at the regional conference was stronger overall than those at the annual conference, and Dr. Peter Finke, President-Elect of CESS, also commented that he had not expected such a high level of quality at the conference. There were 120 paper presentations, of which 89 were presenters from the Central Eurasian region. The total number of people who participated in the conference was 146, including 100 scholars from the region. These numbers proved the original hope that the CESS Regional conference will give a real opportunity for regional scholars to present their work at the international level.

The success of this year’s regional conference demonstrates the potential for the conference becoming a self-contained event that can be repeated in the future perhaps as often as every 2 years. Ironically, the success of the First Regional Conference creates some dilemmas for CESS. Might future regional conference become a competitor for the annual conference, with each conference drawing only participants from their respective geographical areas? These concerns naturally arise when taking into account practical issues such as travel expenses. In this regard, the Board might want to discuss the suggestion of Dr. Madeleine Reeves to organize CESS conferences in turn, one year in America, another year in the region.
The selection committee tried to organize panels according to the aspiration of representing the “west” and “east” as among the panels titles and within each panel as well. With this we hoped to have a widely presented principles and approaches to the same academic themes, areas. But this first time the majority of applications represented mainly the Central Asia, with very little work on the rest of Central Eurasia being represented. We do hope next application process will receive more submissions from the whole region including Caucasus, Eastern and Southern Russia etc. At the same time we were glad to see participants from countries which are not listed in the “Eurasian” region, such as Australia and Japan, showing that the regional conference can attract interest from around the globe.

The idea of carrying out such an academic event in a non-academic environment had its advantages and disadvantages. A relatively small space limited the possible number of papers to be included into the program. But this, as it was mentioned, gave us the advantage of selectivity, which resulted in such strong panels. Also, the small space caused some problems with organizational and logistical points, such as the necessity for participants to share rooms with one or more colleagues, who may or may not have known each other beforehand. Also, the food at the resort was not as diverse as some participants would have liked. But we hoped for the understanding of our guests based on the belief that the main goal of the scholars was to meet and discuss academic and research issues, and since this goal was met, most people were willing to endure deficiencies in their living conditions. We do hope next regional conference will be held at more convenient place and we recommend that housing be negotiated directly between conference participants and the provider of lodging, rather than forcing the host organization to take the responsibility of such complex logistics.

But speaking on the positive sides of the place we would mention that there was a possibility to combine work with enjoyment of the lake’s beauty. The recreation provided by the resort did not distract from the scholarly event in the least: the turnout for most panels was quite good and there was a tremendous amount of scholarly interaction during the conference and good attendance at the cultural events organized by the host organization. We think that the relatively closed and limited space of the resort facilitated the intensive interaction that characterized the conference.

Another important issue of the FRC was the working languages. There were two “official” languages of the conference: English and Russian. We feel that including the Russian language was a big improvement over the English-only environment at the annual conference and was one of the big advantages of the regional conference. Those scholars who do not speak English but who have very interesting findings and theories were able to share their work with other scholars and to meet them personally to discuss their ideas. This was possible because the majority of “western” scholars at the conference spoke some Russian as result of their research in Eurasia. We do hope that this and future Regional conferences will stimulate the desire to learn or practice English for those who are not yet fluent, and those English-speaking scholars who are interested in work of regional colleagues may be energized to improve their Russian, as well.

Another indicator of the success of the conference is that we received suggestions from four institutions fromfour countries (Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Armenia and Tajikistan) to organize next conference. This means that there is going to be a competition for the privilege to host the second Regional conference. With the proper planning and organization that will be induced by this competition, the second regional conference promises to be even better than the first. It was our hope that this first Regional Conference will not be the last, that it will be a “moveable” conference, and that other educational institutions in the region will carry on the important work of building the institutions of Central Eurasian Studies in the region and in the world. Judging from the initial reaction at least, this hope will be realized.

The conference organizers were successful not just in putting together a program of panels, but also in enhancing the academic and cultural aspects of the program with a number of extra events that were well-received by the participants. For example, the Kyrgyzstani bookstore “Raritet” took up our call to organize a book fair during the conference. Furthermore “Raritet” presented a prize to randomly selected participant which became Daniyar Karabaev from Tajikistan. He received a collection of books published by “Raritet” from the series of Kyrgyz folktales.

The cultural program of FRC aimed to represent the variety of the Kyrgyz culture and the search of Kyrgyzstani artists to combine traditional and modern forms and content. The concert of Kyrgyz folk music by the Ordo-Sakhna Theatre showed not only the beauty of “pure” Kyrgyz folk songs but a perfect ability of Kyrgyz traditional musical instruments to perform classical and modern compositions. The play presented by the Sakhna Theatre was based on the Kyrgyz folk epic poem about the opposition of nature’s wisdom and human arrogance. The universal conflict which was told by Kyrgyz people many centuries ago was presented through interesting combination of Kyrgyz traditional forms of music, recitative and symbols with modern forms of artistic expressions.

We would like also express how pleased we are that five members of Aigine Research Center not only organized the conference but also presented their papers on their research from the last two years. Given that one of the goals of CESS is to further the institutionalization of Central Eurasian studies, the active involvement and capacity-building engaged in by Aigine Research Center is one of the many benefits of the FRC.

Finally and notably, we are grateful to the sponsors of the first CESS Regional Conference who make this event possible. Special appreciation is to the Christensen Fund and its former program officer on Central Asia and Turkey Dr. Rafuque Keshavjee who was the first who supported the idea of organizing the Regional conference. The Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Institute made the conference possible through the support of 35 scholars from the region to present their research within the framework of the ReSET and CARTI programs. The University of Central Asia made the two cultural performances possible. TheNorwegian Institute of International Affairs supported the keynote speaker of the conference. TheFrench Institute of Central Asia Studies brought three scholars from Uzbekistan to take part at the conference. Finally, we want to express our deep appreciation to all those who contributed their efforts in bringing this event into being.

Prepared by Aida Aaly Alymbaeva, Gulnara Aitpaeva, and Laura Adams
taking into account feedback of the conference’s participants