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Ukraine: Crimean Turks Return Late To Latin Script

By David Nissman and Don Hill

Washington, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In 1924, reformer Mustafa Kemal --renamed Ataturk, "the father of Turks," by a grateful nation -- decreed that Turkish in Turkey henceforth would be written in the Latin alphabet rather than Arabic script. It was part of his successful drive to Europeanize his country.

This month, ethnic Tatars in Crimea, in the eastern Ukraine, decided to adopt the Latin alphabet. They thus join a trend among other Turkic peoples in the former Soviet Union.

This change in alphabets has been more symbolic than actual in the other newly independent states. The main manifestation of the change has been on billboards and in headlines. Newspapers continue to be published mostly in some variation of Cyrillic script, as are books, including textbooks, and magazines.

It may well be that the Crimean Tatars, although they are late to decide to make this change, will be the first to implement it completely. There are several reasons for this.

Among the Turkic peoples in the former Soviet Union, the Crimean Tatars bore the brunt of Stalin's anti-Turkic obsession. This increases the symbolic and the real importance to the Crimean Tatars of reconverting to the Latin script that had been in use in Crimea from the late 1920s to the late 1930s.

As Edige Kirimal wrote in his book, "The National Struggle of the Crimean Tatars," beginning in 1921 --when the autonomous Crimean Republic was established-- the Bolsheviks tried to isolate the Crimean Tatars from the rest of the Turkic world.

Kirimal pointed out that the other Tatars were divided into Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Turkmens, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Bashkorts, Kazan Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Kumyks, Balkars, Karachays and other independent peoples. As he put it: "In this way, the Tatars of Russia were condemned to a national, cultural and linguistic split. The only element that united the literary languages of these peoples was the Arabic script."

When most of the post-Soviet Turkic peoples decided to adopt a common Turkic Latin alphabet, they ended the primacy --but not the widespread use-- of Arabic script. There are good reasons for preferring Latin letters. They can reflect the phonetics of any one of the Turkic languages. Also, Latin script is easier to master and can reduce illiteracy.

Stalin imposed Cyrillic on most Turkic people by decree in 1940. In Crimea, the process began two years earlier. The Peoples Commissariat for Education and Soviet Propaganda had acted to "sovietize" Crimean Tatars by renouncing Arabic, Persian and Ottoman words, no matter how many centuries they had been in use, and substituting Russian or international words for them. The authorities labeled resistance to the imposed change bourgeois nationalism. At the same time, they pronounced much of the national Crimean Tatar literature published in the period 1929-1941 to be un-soviet and un-proletarian, and withdrew it from circulation.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s every Turkic republic formed alphabet commissions, and each commission issued a decree renouncing the Cyrillic script imposed on them in the Stalin years. They declared a return to the Latin alphabet of the 1930s.

But the Latin script has opponents, too. Some favor a return to Arabic. The remnants of the sovietized elite see alphabet reform as a symbolic end to hopes of reuniting the Soviet Union. There are also those who think that such a reform ranks very low on the list of priorities of a newly independent state.

Significant material problems impede the change of scripts. First, it is very expensive in terms of capital investment in printing machinery, typewriters, computer keyboards and the like. Second, the population needs to be educated in the new alphabet. Third, decisions are needed on such questions as which works of the past should be reprinted first, if at all.

These problems must be resolved in newly independent states already mired in economic reforms that demand massive investments. Also, these societies have lost their primary means of national communication, newspapers. National newspapers that used to circulate to hundreds of thousands now circulate in the low thousands.

Crimea does not face many of these problems. There is no sovietized elite fighting a rear-guard action to protect its concept of a future Russian empire. The Crimean Tatar population is smaller than the other Turkic nations. Communication is easier. All things considered, the Crimean Tatars, late from the post, are likely to lead the field in completing a change-over to the Latin script.