Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Tatarstan Takes Big Step toward Shifting to Latin Script

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 26—Tatarstan’s State Council has voted to allow Tatars to write in the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic-based one when they deal with republic officials, a step that brings that Middle Volga more closely into line with the broader Turkic world but that challenges Moscow which has insisted that non-Russians in the country use Cyrillic.

            The Tatarstan parliament approved the measure “after an emotional discussion, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reports, by a vote of 62 to 18 with six abstentions.  The new republic law thus partially restores the 1999 one that Russia’s Constitutional Court subsequently forced Kazan to repeal (

            The Kazan Tatars have used four different alphabets over the past century: the ancient Turkic, Arabic, Latin (1927 to 1937), and Cyrillic since 1937, but supporters of Latin script have argued that it will promote national identity, bring Tatarstan in line with other Turkic states and assist in integrating Tatarstan into the global economy which relies on Latin script languages.

            The Soviet government in the past and the Russian government now have insisted often over strong objections by non-Russians on the use of Cyrillic rather than Latin script. That is because Moscow views this as promoting both Russian language knowledge among the non-Russians and integrating these peoples into a Russian-dominated cultural and political milieu.

            Artem Prokofyev, a KPRF deputy in the Tatarstan State Council who opposed the measure, says that some of his colleagues suggested that the fate of the Tatars depends almost entirely on changing the alphabet from a Russian one to a Latin script. And they invoke “tradition” even though Tatar used a Latin script for only ten years.

            But Farit Mukhametshin, the speaker of the Tatarstan State Council, said this issue isn’t going away whatever its opponents think because “globalization is intensifying and the English language which uses the Latin script is more and more seving as the language of inter-national communication in our life.”

            It seems likely that many Tatars feel the way one blogger there does. He recently left a post saying that “if the Latin script would bring harm to the Tatar language, the Kremlin would hardly be opposed to its introduction” (

            (Tatarstan’s struggle to shift from Cyrillic to Latin script has been extremely complicated. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see Fandas Safiullin’s recent series entitled “Orthographic Imperialism” at,, and

            Meanwhile, there have been some other related developments on the alphabet and language front.  On December 14, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that his country would make the shift from Cyrillic script to Latin script by 2025, something for which Astana has already been planning ( and ).

            As Kazakhstan’s planning document makes clear, changing alphabets is both difficult and expensive. Moreover, whatever gains it produces, the shift itself can entail some losses with at least some people reducing their reading of materials in the new script and thus limiting the impact of those cultural forms.

            But however that may be, Nizami Jafarov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Milli Mejlis commiteeon culture, recentl noted that “the transition to a single Latin script has begun in all Turkic language countries” and that this process will now accelerate given Kazakhstan’s influence on the Kyrgyz, Tatars and Bashkirs (

            And in Kyrgyzstan where Russian and Cyrillic still dominates, Syrtbay Musayev, a writer, has appealed in an article in “Kyrgyz Tuusu” for the population to pressure Bishkek to ensure that Kyrgyz speak Kyrgyz,,the state language, and not just Russian, the official one


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