I met with Jennifer at the Harriman Institute on January 29, 2019. What follows is an edited and condensed transrcipt of our interview.
What’s your background?
I majored in Russian studies and politics as an undergrad at Brandeis University, and have always been interested in Russia, especially Cold War history and politics and the security challenges in the region. After college I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kosovo for two years and taught English in a Serbian village. I became interested in the Balkans, especially Serbia and Kosovo, in addition to Russia.
Why did you decide to come to the Harriman Institute?
I think regional and linguistic knowledge, and an understanding of the nuances of the region, is so important for the formulation of effective policy and effective responses to regional challenges. The Harriman Institute seemed like the best place for me to study the region.
What region are you focusing on?
I’m focusing on both former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, specifically on nationalism and ethnic politics. There are a lot of misconceptions about nationalism and identity and that can be very detrimental.
What are some of the misconceptions?
The idea that the Balkans are full of ancient hatreds, and that people are just waiting for the chance to start fighting again. From living and working and doing research in the region, I heard so many people say that they don’t have a problem with the other religious or ethnic groups, that the problems are caused by politicians and by politics. And I think there is truth to that.
What is your thesis about?
It’s a comparative analysis of nationalist rhetoric in Russia and Serbia and how politicians in these countries use the nationalist narratives about Kosovo and Crimea. My argument is that taking that rhetoric at face value, as people often do, doesn’t give the full picture about what goes into decision making. I don’t think it is nationalist belief that drives policy making, but the political and strategic interests of leaders.
What resources have you received from the Harriman?
I got the Pepsico Fellowship for research; I was able to go back to the Balkans over the summer, and Russia over winter break. It was an invaluable opportunity to talk to experts and people on the ground.
What do you hope to do next?
I want to stay connected to the region. I’ve applied to political science Ph.D. programs and I’m also applying to jobs focused to the region. We’ll see what happens.
What most surprised you about the Harriman Institute when you started here?
The sense of community.
What is your favorite aspect of the program?
I’ve had the chance to take really great classes and meet great people. Professor [Elise] Giuliano’s course on ethnic politics in the post-Soviet space was probably my favorite, especially because it provided an intellectual grounding to my time in Kosovo with Peace Corps.