Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
On 20 February 2018, the President of Kazakhstan approved a new script for the Kazakh language on the basis of Latin alphabet. Through this decision, Kazakhstan refuses to use Cyrillic. In this regard, Kazakhstan is no exception. The painful process of moving from Cyrillic to Latin script has been going on in the Post-Soviet states since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Changing the script, which, at first glance, is just a linguistic matter, could lead to serious political changes in a long-term perspective.
Changing Scripts and Politics
In the countries where the script changed several times during the past century, moving from Cyrillic script to Latin one since the dissolution of the Soviet Union was followed by complicated political processes. In the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan and Moldova, the changes in script was connected with the issues of the formation of national identities and liberation from Russian colonial influence.
Changing the script had the biggest outcry in Kazakhstan, whilst other Turkish language states – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan replaced Cyrillic with Latin script back in the 1990s. Kazakhstan approached this issue more carefully, so that this apparent linguistic issue would not spoil relations with Russia. Before making the changes, the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that moving to Latin script “does in no way concern/violate the rights of the Russian speaking population, the Russian language or any other languages”. Most of the population still speaks Russian and the Russian language is still being used in business, administrative management and in relations between the ethnic groups.
Until 1920s, Kazakh language used to use Arabic script, which was later replaced by Latin. In 1940, Latin was replaced by Cyrillic script, which will be once again replaced by Latin in 2025. The issue of moving to a Latin script has been under consideration since 2007, at the request of the President. Nazarbayev explained these changes with pragmatism, as, according to his view, such a step is necessary to be in accordance with the contemporary requirements. According to the assessment of the proponents of changing the script, in the contemporary business world (banking sector, internet) where Latin is the main script, Cyrillic is rather complicated.
In October 2017, Nazarbayev signed a directive on the gradual transfer of the Kazakh writing to Latin script by 2025. In 2018, the education specialists started to prepare new books for secondary school, whilst in 2021-2023, it is planned to hand out passports and ID cards and other documents with Latin script in them. In 2022-2025, the representatives of local governments, state media and press will also start using Latin script. The authors of the reform believe that changing the script will also help popularize the Kazakh language, making it easier for the population to learn the language.
Uzbekistan was using Latin script since 1926; however, in 1940 it was replaced by Cyrillic. Since 1992, Latin once again became the official state script and has been taught in schools since 2005. Despite the popularization of the Uzbek language, Russian language is still relevant in terms of the conversation between ethnic groups, everyday life and administrative management.
Until 1928, Turkmenistan had Arabic script, which was first replaced with Latin and then, in 1940, with Cyrillic. In 1991, Turkmenistan returned to Latin script; however, Russian still remains important for the relations between the ethnic groups.
Until the 1920s, Tajikistan used to utilize Persian script for Tajik language. In 1927, the Soviet government changed it to Latin. In terms of the Russification of Central Asia, Cyrillic was also implemented in Tajikistan and is used to date. Russian language is also relevant in business and for contact between the ethnic groups.
Until 1928, Kyrgyzstan was using Arabic script, later replaced by Latin, whilst from 1941 to date, it has been using Cyrillic. Business and political affairs are conducted in Russian; however, the positions of the Kyrgyz language have been strengthened lately and the majority of Parliamentary sessions are conducted in Kyrgyz language.
In 1929, Azerbaijan moved from Arabic to Latin script, which was influenced by the decision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to replace Arabic script with Latin in the Turkish republic. After 1939, much like the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan switched to the Cyrillic script. Kremlin’s decision was also influenced by the political factors, aiming to constrain relations between Azerbaijanis and the Turkish people.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Parliament of Azerbaijan decided to replace Cyrillic with Latin; however, the full enactment of the Law only became possible in 2001. According to the statement of the proponents of changing the script, with these changes Azerbaijan would become closer to Europe and especially Turkey, which speaks a similar language and uses Latin script. One of the arguments of the proponents also was that Latin letter were better compatible with the phonetics of Azeri language.
Moldova used Cyrillic script in 1924-1932 and 1938-1939. In 1989, Soviet Moldova recognized the contemporary Romanian version of Latin script as the official national script. However, the main problem in Moldova is not the issue of the script, but the name of the official state language.
The 1991 Declaration of Independence recognized Romanian as the official state language; however, the 1994 Constitution gave such a status to Moldovan language only. During the Soviet period, only Moldovan could be used as an official term. The Soviet politics was working to distance Moldovan from Romanian, considering Moldovan to be separate from Romanian.
In December 2013, the Constitutional Court decided that the Declaration of Independence is superior to the Constitution and determined the state language to be Romanian. In March 2017, the pro-Russian President of Moldova, Igor Dodon marked Moldovan as his native language on the website of his Administration. According to Dodon’s supporters, the judges holding double (Romanian and Moldovan) citizenship should not be deciding the fate of the Moldovan people.
Challenges of Changing the Script
Apart from the political issues, switching from Cyrillic to Latin script requires many technical changes as well. Documentation must be changed in the public and private sectors as well as identification symbols and textbooks. Changes need to be made in terms of advertisement, newspapers and printed literature. This process is also rather costly.
Cyrillic, which was used in many Soviet Republics, remains as the only understandable script for large parts of the population. Transferring to a different script creates a challenge of learning this new script for the part of the population that got education in Cyrillic.
- Transfer of the Post-Soviet States from Cyrillic script to Latin: Is an important step of liberation from Russian/Soviet colonial past; Will facilitate the development of a local identity and culture; Is a symbolic separation from Russia, which will weaken Russia’s cultural and political influence on these countries; Will reduce the informational influence of Russia, as the majority of the populations of these countries are currently the viewers of the Russian media; Will facilitate the integration of these countries into the global world where Latin script plays an important role.
- Refusal of the former colonies to use Cyrillic is a sign for Russia that these Post-Soviet states are attempting to move away from its cultural influence, which ultimately aims to curb Russian political influence as well.
- In the Post-Soviet states where they have switched from Cyrillic to Latin script, due to the difficult process of changing scripts, Russian language will still maintain its influence for the nearest future and will remain the main language of communication between ethnic groups.