Reflections on my Summer Internship Experience at FPRI

By Alex Thomas, MALD 2023 Candidate, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

As I sat in the Zoom waiting room for the first meeting of my internship to begin, written across the screen in bold letters was the quote: “A Nation Must Think Before It Acts.” Against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of interning for the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). I felt confident that my background had prepared me to be an effective intern for the Eurasia Program; I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, took several classes at Fletcher that focused on the geopolitics of Eurasia, and even worked for a semester at Fletcher’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Despite my hesitancy, when I heard the “ding” and joined the Zoom room with my fellow interns, I instantly felt at home.  

Across the four regional area programs at FPRI, the summer 2022 Cohort consisted of roughly 30 students from around the world with a vast range of academic experiences, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. Many of them were just like me – graduate students in the field of international relations who had just completed the first year of their programs. Some of them were rising juniors and seniors in their undergraduate programs, and two were Ph.D. students conducting field research for their dissertations in the Caucasus. After our first round of introductions with the interns and some of FPRI’s scholars, it was clear that I was in a diverse group, full of the best and brightest thinkers that the field of international relations had to offer. 

After that first meeting, our cohort met once per week over Zoom to participate in one of two types of seminars for the rest of the summer. Of the 13 or so times we met, half of the seminars had a regional focus, while the rest were geared toward professional development training. On multiple occasions, we were joined by the program directors from each of the four regional area programs at FPRI as well as several other FPRI scholars. One week, Nikolas Gvosdev, a guest speaker for my Geopolitics of Eurasia course at Fletcher, joined us to lead a conversation on the return to geopolitics and the long-term security consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Throughout the professional development trainings, I gained valuable insights into resume-building, elevator pitches, interview tips, and how to fully capitalize on the vast networks within the think tank world. During one of these professional training sessions, FPRI president Rollie Flynn met with our group to connect with each of us and get to know our interests and aspirations; an experience I don’t expect many other think tanks would provide for their interns. 

In addition to these weekly development seminars, I also conducted a significant amount of research alongside Maia Otarashvili, a leading expert on Georgian politics and security in the Black Sea region. Together, we combed through several academic databases to uncover the role that international organizations play in the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. One particularly interesting research project I did was studying the rise and fall of Vlad Plahotniuc, one of Moldova’s most notorious and influential oligarchs. After removing Plahotniuc from power and undergoing significant democratic reforms, Moldova was offered candidacy status for EU membership on June 23, 2022. On that same day, the EU Commission established Georgia’s eligibility to become an EU member, but did not grant it candidacy status. Our research sought to reveal the parallels of oligarchical influence in Moldova and Georgia, and to understand if Georgia’s current political reforms are helpful or hurtful in its quest to join the EU in the future.

Outside of this independent research, I also attended several weekly seminars that were either coordinated or sponsored by FPRI. Several of these were with the Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI), a U.S. Department of Defense organization that works with think tanks around the world to develop a common understanding of Russian decision-making and the way of war. Others were FPRI-organized workshops where scholars and affiliates of FPRI gathered for a formal conversation on various topics. As an intern for the Eurasia Program, I was asked to attend and produce the official writeup for the Energy Transformation in Europe Conference. In it, I covered the various perspectives on the future of the EU’s energy relationship with Russia. 

Outside of these official research responsibilities, I also worked with Thomas Laffitte on FPRI’s recurring newsletter, The Bear Market Brief – Ukraine. With the nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine constantly changing, the BMB – Ukraine project provided me with a great avenue for understanding the different angles of the war. I directly contributed to five segments on the impact of the war in Ukraine on the education system, the response of the Central Asian Republics to the war, developments with Belarus regarding the war, Ukraine’s electrical grid, and Ukrainian grain exports.

All in all, I could not have asked for a better place to spend my summer interning. With my background and field experience primarily relating to Central Asia, expanding my horizons by focusing on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe with one of the leading experts on the region was truly invaluable. My experience this summer strengthened my professional development, but it also gave me my first glimpse at policy analysis and evaluation. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to my Fletcher professor and advisor, Chris Miller, for connecting me with the amazing researchers at FPRI, as well as to Maia for ensuring that I will carry this experience with me for years to come. After graduating from Fletcher this spring, this internship will have prepared me to both think and act. 

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