Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Has Tatarstan Found a Way to Promote Latin and Arabic Scripts in Place of Cyrillic?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 13 – Tatarstan may have found a way around Moscow’s 2002 ban on the use of any script except Cyrillic for non-Russian languages in the Russian Federation by calling for the setting up of elective courses in Tatar in Latin and Arabic scripts in order to maintain ties with Tatars and other Turkic peoples living abroad.

            “Kommersant” reports this week that members of the Tatarstan State Council have called for such courses because Tatars in Tatarstan need to know how to read and respond to Tatars and other Turks writing to them from countries where the language is rendered in Latin or Arabic script (

            With the collapse of the USSR, many of the Turkic peoples who gained their independence chose to shift from the Moscow-imposed Cyrillic to the Latin script they had used earlier. Tatarstan sought to follow this trend, but Moscow came down hard on it, with the Russian Supreme Court saying such an alphabet change would undermine Russian unity.

            But the issue has never gone away, and now the Tatars appear to have found a formula – voluntary and economic rather than required and political – that Moscow will have difficulty opposing. And if Kazan is able to go ahead, it may open the way in this regard as it has in others for the other Turkic peoples of the Russian Federation to follow.

            Up until 1927, Kazan Tatar was written in an Arabic-based script. Then to separate it from the Muslim world, the Soviet authorities imposed a Latin-based script. Twelve years later, to break Tatarstan’s ties with the broader Turkic world, Moscow imposed a new Cyrillic-based script.

            With the collapse of Soviet power, Tatarstan introduced instruction in the Latin script; and it 1999, Kazan called for “restoring” the use of the Latin script in all schools and state institutions by 2011.  That sparked a sharp reaction in Moscow, first by the State Duma and then by the Supreme Court.

            In 2002, the Russian Duma passed a law specifying that all state languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation were to be written only in Cyrillic.  And in 2004, the Russian Constitutional Court ordered Tatarstan to cancel its plans to shift to the Latin script, something Kazan agreed to with obvious regret.

            In 2012, Tatarstan’s State Council annulled the 1999 alphabet law; but at the same time, some of its deputies introduced legislation specifying that Tatars in Tatarstan had the right to use Latin or Arabic scripts when they responded to people writing to them from Turkic communities abroad.

            Now, Tatarstan’s State Council appears ready to take the next logical step: providing elective courses in these scripts in Tatar schools. The Council’s committee on education, culture, science and nationality issues has prepared draft legislation calling on the republic to consider the possibilities of introducing such instruction.

            Ravil Valeyev, the chairman of that committee, told “Kommersant” that it would be impossible for the Tatars to end the use of Latin and Arabic scripts because Tatars in China use only Arabic script; and Turkic peoples in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Finland, and Germany use only Latin. “We must respond to their appeals.”
            Under his plan, he continued, “every school would have the right to introduce elective courses” in these scripts.  But he added that “a year from now,” the State Council will return to this issue and “ask how our decisions is being implemented.”

            Rafael Khakimov, the director of the Institute of History of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences and a former advisor to the president of the republic, stressed that Arabic has little future in that Middle Volga republic but that the Latin script does. However, he added that “one need not see any politics” in this. The issue is “purely economic.”

            Sergey Sergeyev, an ethnic Russian professor at the Kazan National Technology Research University, counters, however, that this is “an attempt to find some kind of place for Latin script in the educational system of the republic” and thus could violate Russian federal law. At the very least, it sets up another conflict between Moscow and Kazan.

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