Dr. 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, Dr. Helf 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.”

Dr. Helf 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.

Dr. Helf 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

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By:Garrett Nada;Donald N. Jensen, Ph.D. ;Gavin Helf, Ph.D.;Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.;Tamanna Salikuddin

While the Taliban’s swift advance into Kabul over the weekend has left much of the West reeling, Afghans themselves will bear the brunt of the militant group’s rule. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will feel the most immediate impact. Earlier this year, Russia, China and Pakistan affirmed that the future of Afghanistan should be decided through dialogue and political negotiations. How will they engage with the Taliban now?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Central Asia Prepares for Taliban Takeover

Central Asia Prepares for Taliban Takeover

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

By:Gavin Helf, Ph.D.;Barmak Pazhwak

Last week’s conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan was originally supposed to focus on regional connectivity in South and Central Asia. But the Taliban’s surge in recent weeks consumed the regional conference and has many in the region wary of what’s next. As U.S. and NATO forces draw down their military presence in Afghanistan, the country’s northern neighbors have witnessed Taliban fighters swiftly overrun most of the rural parts of northern Afghanistan, establishing control over nearly all of the 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By all indications, Central Asian states are preparing for a new reality in Afghanistan, one where the Taliban control most, if not all, of the country.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention;Global Policy

Border Clash Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Risks Spinning Out of Control

Border Clash Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Risks Spinning Out of Control

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

By:Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

A dispute over irrigation water triggered a clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last week that quickly spread along the border, resulting in the death of more than 40 people and displacing 30,000 on the Kyrgyz side — the worst such incident in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While such flare-ups, albeit less deadly, are a regular occurrence in the region, this time the situation could get out of hand as the leaders of both countries are incentivized to stoke a crisis that distracts from the domestic unrest caused by their mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

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

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