Kazakhstani Student Brings a Global Perspective to PhD Research

16 September 2010

Taking a personal approach to research is essential, according to Yelena Nikolayevna Zabortseva, an international PhD student at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

international PhD student Yelena Zabortseva
international PhD student Yelena Zabortseva

"Sometimes it's impossible to research just in a library. You have to contribute something personal to your research so that it can be considered valuable to your field," she said.

Work on Yelena's thesis, entitled "Kazakhstan's-Russian Relations (1991-2008)", has received more than a little personal inflection through her Kazakhstani upbringing.

Yelena Nikolayevna was raised and educated in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Union republic, and achieved her Master of Arts in International Relations from Moscow State Institute of International Affairs. She also studied in the USA and Europe to improve her English and academic skills.

Growing up amongst this intriguing political milieu instilled in Yelena a sustained interest in the new era of developments and relations between the former Soviet countries, Russia and the wider world.

"Relationships between Russia and Kazakhstan are perceived as both complex and important," she said.

Yelena currently holds the University of Sydney International Research Scholarship (USydIS) and arrived at the Department of Government and International Relations in March 2009. This competitive scholarship aims to attract top quality international postgraduate students to undertake research projects at the University for up to three years.

The USydIS criteria consider the academic background of the candidate, their contributions to scholarly literature in the chosen field of study, and the potential to conduct research that contributes to the overall intellectual environment of the University.

Her study considers the intersection of political, economic and social issues in the multifaceted connections of Russia and Kazakhstan, two nations with an at times fraught political history. Strategically important at the epicenter of Eurasia and resource-rich, Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet Republics to declare its independence in December 1991.

Yelena's research also looks specifically at Russia as an important actor in the region, whether as part of the former Soviet Union or through the new integration organisations.

A personal interest in this subject of inquiry saw Yelena venture across the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan on a research field trip in April and May this year.

In the UK she presented a paper at Cambridge University, and met research specialists on post-Soviet studies from the leading UK International Relations think tank, Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs). Her paper was also presented at the Moscow State University and the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Research.

Yelena's interview with the Minister-Counselor of Kazakhstan to Russia, M.K. Litvinov, on the newly created customs union and issues in bilateral relations between the two nations has already been published in a Kazakhstani newspaper.

Now in the second year of her PhD, Yelena's previous work has been published in 34 journals and newspapers, including two articles in international peer-reviewed journals.

Yelena relishes the chance to gain an international and independent perspective on her PhD thesis topic. She believes that the region's challenging developments and increased global influence make her work pertinent not only in Kazakhstan and Russia, but also on a broader international scale.

Assisting with Yelena's postgraduate research at the University of Sydney is her research supervisor, Professor Graeme Gill. Professor Gill's respected international reputation as a "well known expert on post-Soviet studies" was a contributing factor in Yelena's decision to undertake study at the University of Sydney, she said.

"When you're supposed to spend three years of your life in a foreign country, you want to do something productive and effective," said Yelena. "I'm really happy and very lucky. Professor Gill gives me intellectual freedom, necessary advice and supervision."

Yelena believes the intellectual and academic life at the Department and the University in general is a stimulating factor in strengthening her research and analytical skills.

She hopes to put these global academic skills to functional use in the future by working for an international organisation such as the United Nations, or in private business consulting and diplomacy. "I am very enthusiastic about doing something practical in addition to academia," she said.

Article by Emily Jones.