It's a sunny day in central Bishkek as instructor Natasha Yefimova greets her small group of summer-school students, all young journalists from across Central Asia.
With some gentle prodding, she manages to get them animatedly discussing the subject of conflict, an issue that has a special resonance throughout the region.
From land and water disputes to last year's ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan, many of the problems that plague Central Asia are the result of neighbors who see each other more as rivals than allies.
But institutions like the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, which co-funds the summer school along with German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, are trying to reverse that trend by providing rigorous educations for future politicians, entrepreneurs, and civil-society workers, while also encouraging them to think beyond their national borders by considering the Eurasian region in its entirety.
Yefimova's class are undergoing an intensive 10-week program in which they study the basics of TV, print, and radio journalism, together with meaty issues like consumer rights, health, and the importance of local media.
The idea is to help these working journalists examine their responsibilities and rights as the newest generation of Central Asian news-gatherers.
As a center for specialized post-graduate studies based in the Kyrgyz capital, the OSCE Academy is part of a growing group of programs and institutions -- including the University of Central Asia and the American University of Central Asia -- that some observers are hoping will build a new generation of bright, engaged, and regionally minded Central Asians at a time when the post-Soviet Eurasian neighborhood is increasingly plagued by rising nationalism and ethnic resentment.
The intensive journalism summer school in Bishkek aims to provide students with many of the tools needed for professional and balanced reporting.
Now in its second year, much of what the summer school offers is strictly tool-kit journalism, which helps students learn how to write a reader-grabbing lead, for example, or when to trust a source.
But, according to Yefimova, much of the class's value comes in the rare opportunity it offers Central Asians from across the disparate region to come together in a single room and begin looking beyond their usual borders.
"You had a girl from Tajikistan writing a story about the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and how it affects regular people," she says.
"A girl from Uzbekistan was writing about selective justice after the June events in Kyrgyzstan and how it was particularly hurtful for Uzbeks.
"Another Uzbek girl was writing about Uzbek-language schools in Kyrgyzstan. So there was this idea of trying to bring events in one of the Central Asian countries closer to your own home readership."
The Soviet Union, with its "friendship of nations" ideal, created innumerable opportunities for its nationalities to mix, using universities, sports schools, and even the army to diversify its ranks and tamp down any creeping nationalism in the process.
The breakup of the USSR -- which saw its genesis 20 years ago this week, with the failed coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- brought an abrupt end to the orchestrated cross-pollination.
In Central Asia, as elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, many countries have spent the past two decades eagerly rebuilding a notion of national identity.
The results haven't always been pretty. Border disputes and the uneven distribution of water and wealth have sabotaged ties between many of the neighbors, three of which -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- are still lorded over by Soviet-era rulers eager to keep a lock on power. (A fourth, Turkmenistan, received its first post-Soviet leader in 2006, but has lost none of its repressive zeal.)
And it is Kyrgyzstan, once seen as the region's sole emerging democracy, that in recent years has succumbed most dramatically to internal strife.
Last year's clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the country's south left more than 400 people dead and raised concerns about future violence in the restive Ferghana Valley, whose long-standing communities of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz do not always cleave to Soviet-drawn borders.
'A Very Turbulent Neighborhood'
Anna Matveeva, a visiting fellow with the Crisis States Research Center at the London School of Economics, recently worked as head researcher for the international inquiry commission investigating the Kyrgyz clashes. She describes Central Asia as a troubled region destabilized by even more troubled neighbors:
"It's a very turbulent neighborhood," she says. "Afghanistan, Iran on the southern borders of the region, of course, cause a lot of apprehension among the Central Asian states."
"Then there are historical claims to territory and identity, and new claims in terms of sharing resources. Everybody wants to have their share of the cake in terms of transit and transport fees.
"So that makes it very tense between the neighbors, especially the neighbors in the eastern part of Central Asia."
Upon graduating, nearly 90 percent of the Academy's students remain in Central Asia, with many going on to hold positions in government or NGOs.
But not everyone is feeling the tension. Savrinoz Fayzova, a 24-year-old native of Tajikistan, has traveled outside her native country for the first time to attend the summer school in Bishkek.
A freelancer back home for papers like "Vecherny Dushanbe" and "Digest Press," Fayzova believes her studies abroad have given her a professional step up as well as personal insight into an entire region populated by people whose concerns, it turns out, aren't all that different from her own:
"We have a lot in common," she says. "Each of the countries has the same problem -- access to information...[At the summer school] I could see that the laws and restrictions we have [in Tajikistan] were the same things they were facing in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan as well."
Nurturing Post-Soviet Elites
The Central Asian states may be slow to push through political reforms. But in many cases, they have been eager to nurture their first generation of post-Soviet elites. Very often, this means sending their best and brightest abroad.
Energy-rich Kazakhstan, in particular, has poured massive resources into scholarship programs, sending thousands of students to the United States and Europe for undergraduate and graduate-level studies.
Such moves are seen as shaping a new, contemporary leadership class -- something that may, through attrition, gently deliver reforms to Central Asia that its current rulers are reluctant to impose.
Such programs are designed to return students to their home countries armed with an internationally competitive skill set but nationally minded loyalties.
By contrast, institutions like the OSCE Academy -- which was founded in Bishkek in 2002 through an agreement between the Kyrgyz government and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- are hoping to instill their graduates with a commitment to democratic principles, which can be applied not only locally, but within the neighborhood as a whole.
Counterbalancing Nondemocratic Forces
Academy organizers say the school -- which offers a master's degree in political science, as well as professional training in areas like human rights and public policy -- is meant to feed the region's government and civil-society ranks.
In so doing, supporters say such centers may also act as a counterbalance to the rising influence of nondemocratic forces in Central Asia -- including radical Islam, China, and -- most worryingly, says Academy director Maxim Ryabkov -- deepening nationalism:
"The region is divided, not only by economic and inherited divisions, but also by the process of nation building over the last 20 years -- something that results in their simply not knowing each other and perceiving each other as unfair rivals," he says.
"So there's a lot of prejudice against your neighbor. I hope and believe that by having many students from different countries together, we're building an elite that doesn't have these prejudices, that is capable of overcoming them and somehow counteracting this trend."
The Academy is small, usually taking on just several dozen graduate students in any given year, some from as far away as Afghanistan and Poland. But it enjoys a high loyalty rate, with as many as 89 percent of its alumni remaining in Central Asia, many going on to hold positions in government or NGOs.
Some of the center's most successful graduates include Zahidullah Jalali, who has gone on to work in Afghanistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry; Atajan Yazmuradov, a native of Turkmenistan who now works in the UN's department of political affairs; and Dildora Hamidova, a project coordinator for a minority affairs NGO in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. (One Academy publication describes the center's goal as helping to create "highly competent, trans-regional, democratically oriented, and inter-ethnically friendly" networks of elites.)
Some instructors at centers like the OSCE Academy and the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), another Bishkek-based school, admit that many students are lured by the draw of a good education and the potential for a successful career, as much as by higher principles of regional good works.
Jon Mahoney, an associate professor of philosophy who spent a semester teaching at AUCA on a Fulbright grant, maintains that many of his students were distinctly apolitical -- a sign, he says, of the post-Soviet contempt for government that lingers in many Central Asian states.
But even as they balked at the notion of public service or a political career, Mahoney claims many of his students were troubled by increasing tensions between the states in the region, and the apparent unwillingness of their leaders to address it.
"I certainly get the impression that they have a sense that there's an option for dealing with problems in Central Asia that isn't being pursued," he says, adding that the students realize this alternative approach is "detached from squabbles about ethnic identity or squabbles about regionalism or going back to some kind of nationalistic forms of identity."
Many students, meanwhile, have found their own ways of addressing the social and economic problems they see mounting in Central Asia.
Nadezhda Pak, an AUCA student in business administration, in 2010 helped found the Unity Fund, a humanitarian group focusing on child-welfare issues in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Pak, an ethnic Korean born in Uzbekistan, resettled in Kyrgyzstan as a teen. But she says it was her experience as a high school student while on a foreign exchange in the United States that made her aware of the importance of ethnic tolerance and diversity.
Until then, she says, she was focused on a career in business. But after living in the U.S., with its enormous mix of nationalities, she says she was deeply affected by the ethnic clashes in her own country last year.
The fund, which provides material aid and support to orphanages and children's hospitals in the south, is almost entirely run by young volunteers from Central Asia, China, South Korea, Macedonia, Britain, and the United States.
Pak, who is currently completing a work-exchange program in the southern U.S. state of Georgia, maintains that while the Unity Fund got its start in Kyrgyzstan, it hopes to broaden its reach to include countries like Afghanistan in the near future:
"Our fund is really diverse," she says. "The co-founders are from Kyrgyzstan and from China. The girl from China is one of the most motivating people in our fund."
"We're just a group of people who couldn't stand aside and just be indifferent to things. I couldn't say it's because of the nationality thing in particular; it's just the personality of each person."
Efforts to forge a kind of pan-Eurasian unity raise difficult questions at a time when many post-Soviet citizens feel that after 70 years in the USSR, they have finally earned the right to put national concerns before regional or even global ones.
It's a conundrum that Bakyt Omurzakov, a Kyrgyz studying international affairs as a Muskie fellow in the United States, understands perfectly. At 36, Omurzakov -- who hopes to work on migration and development issues once he returns home -- is both old enough to recollect a time when his identity was not Kyrgyz or Central Asian, but Soviet:
"[E]veryone -- not only Kyrgyz, but all nationalities, all ethnicities -- thought of themselves as Soviet people," he says. "There was no southern Kyrgyz, northern Kyrgyz, or any of these other minorities and ethnicities. Our identity was pretty much determined for us."
Omurzakov, who hopes to receive his master's in political science from Kansas State University this December, says he also remembers the joy he felt at being free to explore Kyrgyzstan's rich history once the Soviet Union collapsed.
"Our minds and our vision changed completely with independence," he says. But at the same time, he claims that many of the Kazakh, Tajik and Uzbek students he has encountered during his studies agree on the importance of moving toward better cooperation between the Central Asian states. "We need it," he says. "Everyone feels it."
Kubat Kasymbekov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report from Bishkek