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Central Asia: Professor Svat Soucek Answers Questions On 'Inner Asia'

Svat Soucek is a historian specializing in Central Asian history, or -- as he prefers to call it -- "Inner Asian" history. Soucek's book "The History of Inner Asia" was published last year. He visited RFE/RL this week and spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier about how history has played a role in the events in the region today.

Prague, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The book "The History of Inner Asia" was published last year and is currently in its second printing. Svat Soucek, the author, has long had an interest in Central Asia.

Soucek first became interested in the region as a bibliographer of Islamic and Russian studies at New York's Columbia University and the New York Public Library. Islam has been the dominant religion in Central Asia for more than a millennium, and some 150 years ago the expanding Russian empire began moving into the region. For Soucek, Central Asia was the natural point where his interests converged.

Soucek was born in what was then Czechoslovakia in the late 1920s. He left the country in 1948 after the communist takeover and after living in France for a few years, moved to New York. By chance, one of his neighbors in the late 1950s was an ethnic Kyrgyz from what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kirghizia.

For decades, Soucek has studied the history of Central Asia. He and a handful of other scholars are considered the founders of the field in the United States. These days, he can often be found lecturing about Central Asia at universities around the country.

He spoke recently with RFE/RL correspondents in Prague about the influence of history on contemporary events in Central Asia.

The governments of the five countries in the region -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- claim to be democracies. But international human rights and other groups, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have said their commitment to democracy is not apparent.

Soucek, speaking as a historian, says this is to be expected:

"Of course, there was no democracy in Central Asia. One could have hoped that with the examples of democracy flourishing in the most developed part of the world -- in other words, Western Europe and the United States -- the Central Asian republics would like to emulate that kind of political system. But this was perhaps expecting, or hoping [for], too much. I think there is a lot of learning [and] experimenting to go through before that becomes a reality."

Soucek notes that the region has no history of democracy. He says, by contrast, there is more of a "strong man" mentality -- the idea that someone with an iron will is needed to keep order. Historically, he says, such leaders have been preferable for the people of the region:

"To many political thinkers, in Islamic religious [and] political literature, anarchy appeared worse than tyranny. It's better to have a tyrannical leader than anarchy." But Soucek says the "cult of personality" that leaders in Central Asia appear to be cultivating now is not an indigenous product.

Nowhere is that cult more apparent than in Turkmenistan, where the president's picture is on all of the monetary notes. There is a prayer to him on the front page of every newspaper, and streets, factories, and even a city are named after him.

Soucek says this is a legacy of the region's history as part of the Soviet Union.

"The puzzle is Russia, which is where this cult of personality was really invented. It has mushroomed in non-Western societies. Before it appeared in the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, the phenomenon of the cult of personality did not exist."

Soucek says the leaders of Central Asia in the pre-Russian period were subject to different influences. Central Asia has a history of great thinkers and poets who were able to criticize the various governments, or heads of government.

Soucek says another influence was, naturally, Islam. Although all of the current leaders in the five Central Asian states claim nominally to be Muslim, all grew up under the formal atheism of communism.

"Islamic political literature is very attentive to this question and the responsibility of the ruler is actually ever-present. [It] is a very strong element in philosophical treatises. In Islamic law, the ruler has responsibilities. He's not an absolute ruler who can do what he wants. He's bound by religious law as well."

Religion will undoubtedly prove a major factor in Central Asia again in the future -- which is why historians like Soucek are invaluable. As Soucek says, every culture needs knowledge of its past to preserve a sense of identity. Whatever government or ruler is in power, he says, people will always respect the great personalities of their past and bright moments of their nation's history.