UCL European Institute


Spotlight: Kristin Marie Bakke

Our July 2024 academic spotlight features Kristin Bakke, Professor in Political Science and International Relations in UCL’s Department of Political Science and EISPS.

Kristin Bakke

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m Professor of Political Science and International Relations in the Department of Political Science at UCL. I’m also a core faculty member in the European and International Social and Political Studies (EISPS) programme. Within the discipline, I’m an associate editor at the Journal of Peace Research and sit on the council of the Conflict Research Society and editorial board of International Security.

I came to UCL in 2009. I remember loving my job interview here and have loved my job ever since I walked in the door! Fabulous students and colleagues. At UCL, I’m one of the founders of the Conflict & Change research cluster, which is a group of scholars—at all career stages—who are interested in questions related to the causes, dynamics, and consequences of political conflicts.

Prior to joining UCL, I was an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a post-doc at the Belfer Center at Harvard in the US. I have also been affiliated with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Norway.

Originally from Norway, I began my academic career by studying political science at Østfold College, in my hometown Halden, and theatre theory at the University of Oslo, before moving abroad. I hold a BA in journalism and political science from Indiana University, Bloomington, in the US, and a PhD in political science from the University of Washington, Seattle.

When I don’t teach or write about political violence, which is what most of my research is about, I like reading novels, going for long countryside walks, and enjoying the peace and quiet (and wilderness…) of our garden.

What are your research interests?

Focusing on political violence, my research has explored how states respond to opposition within their borders (for example, why, how, and when governments restrict civil society groups); the dynamics of violence in civil wars (for example, why we sometimes see fighting between factions that are, ostensibly, on the same side); post-war state-building and wartime legacies (for example, why paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland still have social control in certain areas of, in particular, Belfast and Derry); and geopolitical orientations among ordinary people in Russia’s near abroad, including Ukraine.

In my research, I draw on both quantitative and qualitative methods and have conducted public opinion surveys and fieldwork in a diverse set of places, from Northern Ireland to India, Guatemala, and post-Soviet states and de facto states. I’m the author of a book on Decentralization and Intrastate Struggles: Chechnya, Punjab, and Québec, which is a comparative study of the conditions under which decentralization and autonomy arrangements can help preserve peace in internally divided states, as well as several academic journal articles. When my research can shed light on current events, I also write articles for a general audience.

Much of my work is collaborative and includes large data collection initiatives (such as surveys across several states), so for much of my career, I’ve worked with great colleagues from a variety of countries, in my discipline and beyond.

Tell us about some of your recent work on European issues

In 2018, along with two colleagues in the US—John O’Loughlin at Colorado University and Gerard Toal at Virginia Tech, both geographers—we got funding for a big and ambitious project that was about mapping the geopolitical orientations of ordinary people across several of the states and de facto states in the countries that Russia thinks of as its ‘near abroad’. Specifically, we were interested in figuring out how people situated themselves vis-à-vis Russia and ‘the West’.

In our grant application—this is a joint grant between the National Science Foundation in the US and the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK—we asked for funding to conduct two waves of nationally representative public opinion surveys of the same people, so that we could assess how stable their attitudes were if there were major changes in and outside the region. We were thinking of changes such as new leaders… Little did we know that the changes would be as violent and tragic as they have been.

We conducted the first wave of public opinion surveys in 2019-2020, in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as the de facto states Nagorno Karabakh and Transdniestria, and the territories in Ukraine that already then were controlled by Russia, in Crimea and the Donbas.

Our Belarus survey happened right before the 2020 pro-democracy protests, and our survey in the de facto state Nagorno Karabakah is the last one that took place there before it was dissolved (after the Azerbaijan offensive in autumn 2023)... We asked people about their views on civil society and foreign agents laws, something that has become ever so topical in Georgia in the last few weeks. And, of course, our Ukraine survey from 2019 now enables us to compare attitudes before and after the full-scale Russian invasion of 2022.

The second wave was first put on hold by the Covid pandemic and, then, the Russia-Ukraine war. We are currently in the process of wrapping up that second wave, which will give us a unique opportunity to see how the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaped ordinary people’s geopolitical attitudes both in Ukraine and other countries in Russia’s ‘near abroad’.

The survey we are currently conducting in Ukraine will actually be the third survey we do there, as we did commission a follow-up survey there in autumn 2022, with Marianne Dahl at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Unsurprisingly, it showed that the Russian full-scale invasion had pushed people’s attitudes towards the West (including higher than ever support for NATO membership) and away from Russia. We also asked people about their experiences of the war, their views on Western support, and their attitudes to protecting democratic rights in the midst of war. We should, of course, be careful about interpreting surveys conducted in a setting of war, though we work with a very experienced team of pollsters led by Natalia Kharchenko at the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology (KIIS).

What does Europe mean to you and why are you interested in it?

‘What Europe means to me…’—that’s quite a question.

I’m citizen of two countries—my native country Norway and, now, the UK—that have chosen to be on the outskirts of European integration, yet I very much feel European. I think the first time I consciously did was when, as a teenager, I went on interrail across Europe and got a real feel for how easy it was to go from one country to the next—countries with distinct yet shared cultures, histories, and values. When I later moved to America, I very strongly felt that I’m European. Though I loved living in the US, after ten years there, I wanted to go home, and the way I thought about ‘going home’ was Europe as a whole.

To your question of ‘why am I interested in Europe…’. The parts of Europe (and beyond) that I study are places that stand in contrast to the very safe upbringing that I—by the pure luck of where I was born—had in peaceful little Norway. When I was growing up, the conflict in Northern Ireland very much stood in contrast to my own life, as did the lives of those living in what we then thought of as the ‘Eastern bloc’. I was 12 when the Berlin Wall came down, and I remember the images very well, along with the (as it turned out, overly) optimistic sense that the divided European reality that had existed was going to disappear. I think these contrasts in my ‘formative years’ were important for making me want to understand why conflicts occur, why some governments repress their citizens, and how ordinary people experience living in societies that are less free and less peaceful.