Gavin Helf is a senior expert on Central Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace where he works on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Before joining USIP, he worked as a senior democracy and governance advisor in the USAID Asia and Middle East bureaus, covering democracy promotion and countering violent extremism portfolios. From 2007-2009 he worked at USAID Iraq, managing and helping design much of the democracy and governance, community peace-building, and civilian assistance portfolios there during “the surge.”

He studied, lived, and worked in the USSR and its successor states from 1984-2007, mostly in Central Asia and the Caucuses, with nongovernmental organizations and USAID. From 2005-2007 he was a democracy and governance advisor at USAID Armenia. From 2003-2005 he worked as a consultant on Central Asia. From 2000-2002 he was director of grant programs for the Eurasia Foundation. From 1997-2000 he was Central Asia regional director for the International Research & Exchanges Board based in Almaty.

Gavin graduated with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in political science from University of California at Berkeley. He has taught Russian and Soviet foreign policy, comparative politics, and security studies at Notre Dame, Cornell, The George Washington University, and Moscow's International University. He was also a guest lecturer at the National War College, The U.S. Military Academy, and The Foreign Service Institute, among others.

Publications By Gavin

Looking for Trouble: Sources of Violent Conflict in Central Asia

Looking for Trouble: Sources of Violent Conflict in Central Asia

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

This report offers a road map for understanding the most likely sources of violent conflict in the post-Soviet nations of Central Asia—ethno-nationalism and nativism, Islam and secularism, water resources and climate change, and labor migration and economic conflict. The analysis draws from emerging trends in the region and identifies the ways in which Central Asia’s geography and cultural place in the world interact with those trends. It suggests that the policy goals of the United States, Russia, and China in the region may be more compatible than is often assumed.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

In Kyrgyzstan, It’s Easier to Start a Revolution than to Finish It

In Kyrgyzstan, It’s Easier to Start a Revolution than to Finish It

Thursday, October 8, 2020

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

For the third time in 15 years protesters in the Kyrgyz Republic capital of Bishkek have seized and set fire to the “White House,” the seat of parliament and presidential staff. The situation is chaotic with multiple political actors claiming to be in charge and the threat of chaos expanding to the provinces. It is a scene all too familiar to Kyrgyzstan in the last 15 years, leading to a cycle of protests and calls for advancing democracy followed by backsliding into authoritarianism. While working to stabilize the situation in the short term, the United States and regional actors should be cognizant of the country’s deep regional and ethnic fault lines and support actors in Kyrgyzstan who will address them so that this time the cycle does not repeat itself.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Central Asia and Coronavirus: When Being Nomadic Isn’t Enough

Central Asia and Coronavirus: When Being Nomadic Isn’t Enough

Friday, April 3, 2020

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

“Do you know how nomads prevent conflict?” a Kazakh friend once asked me. “I turn this way; you turn the other way. We start walking.” In ordinary times in Central Asia, this traditional “social distancing” may be enough to avert friction. But in a time of pandemic, it isn’t. Like elsewhere, the novel coronavirus is challenging Central Asian states and societies in new ways and revealing a great deal about the character of peoples and their governments. Here’s a look across the region at how the crisis has affected its states and how leaders have responded.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Global Health

Central Asia Leads the Way on Islamic State Returnees

Central Asia Leads the Way on Islamic State Returnees

Friday, September 13, 2019

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

Beginning in January of this year, Kazakhstan began repatriating its citizens from Syria on dedicated mass flights in what it calls “Operation Zhusan.” Zhusan literally means sagebrush, but significantly, it evokes the unique scent of the Kazakh steppe—something along the lines of “the green, green grass of home.” Within months, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan followed suit, and Kyrgyzstan is expected to soon begin facilitating the exodus of its citizens who were involved with the Islamic State.

Type: Blog

Fragility & Resilience; Reconciliation; Violent Extremism

View All