Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Will Kyrgyzstan -- like All Other Independent Turkic Countries -- Shift from Cyrillic to Latin Alphabet?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 29 – Kyrgyzstan is once again divided on the question of whether to shift from a Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet to the Latin script, with the new education minister saying that he’s ready to do so if the money can be found but the incumbent president saying that other issues are more pressing.

            Moscow cares profoundly about such shifts, seeing them as undermining its “Russian world” by creating or exacerbating divisions between Turkic countries and the Russian Federation.  And thus its experts and politicians weigh in whenever such alphabet changes are being discussed.

            A new article in NG-Dipkuryer by Dmitry Orlov of the East-West Strategy Analytic Center is the latest of these and in opposing any change in Kyryzstan unintentionally highlights just how much of a retreat Moscow’s favored Cyrillic alphabet has made over the last three decades (

            As Russian opponents of the shift typically do, Orlov makes three points: first, such shifts are difficult because the languages have different sound patterns and thus they are moving not toward one Latin script but several, undercutting the idea that there is anything like a genuinely unified Turkic world.

            Second, he says, any shift away from Cyrillic will cut off the population from its past, most of which is contained in materials only in the Cyrillic script and thus will be reduced to the status of “mankurts,” people who do not know where they come from, an especially powerful image in Kyrgyzstan given Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov popularized that term. 

            And third, Orlov says that such a shift will make it more difficult for Kyrgyz to go to Russia for work and not make it any easier for them to travel to other countries. Instead, he says, if Kyrgyzstan does make the shift, fewer Kyrgyz will earn money abroad and thus be able to send it home.

            But then he makes the following statement which in fact is a remarkable concession of the contraction of the use of Cyrillic among Turkic peoples.  “Of the peoples related to Turks, only seven have shifted to the Latin script –Turks, Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Azerbaijanis, Gagauz, Crimean Tatars and Turkmens” with Kazakhs doing so now.

            “The Turks of China and also the Iranian Turks and Azerbaijanis use the Arabic script,” Orlov points out and then says that “the remaining 13 Turkic peoples” have not. What he doesn’t say is that they do not yet have their independence but are part of the Russian Federation which has banned any use of Latin script by titular nationalities there.

            Whether Kyrgyzstan makes the switch remains to be scene – its lack of money is certain to slow things down – but Orlov’s catalogue shows that among Turks who are in a position to make the choice for themselves, all but the Kyrgyz have decided to use the Latin script, a triumph for those who want to exit from a Russian world and join a Turkic one. 

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