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Azerbaijan: Cyrillic Alphabet Replaced By Latin One

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

One of the first acts of legislation voted by Azerbaijan's parliament after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was to adopt a Latin script to replace the Cyrillic alphabet forcibly imposed on the country by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Yet, the new law had only been partially implemented until last June, when President Heidar Aliyev ordered the transition be completed by 1 August. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch talked about this politically sensitive issue with two experts on Azerbaijan.

Prague, 1 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The South Caucasus state of Azerbaijan today officially completes its transition to the Latin alphabet, following a presidential order issued a little more than a month ago.

The linguistic reform, which has been partially implemented since parliament voted to adopt the Latin script shortly after the country regained independence in 1991, will start with advertisements, road signs, newspapers, and printed literature. Starting today, no official or commercial document should contain a Cyrillic character.

In the capital Baku, authorities have already torn down Cyrillic billboards in order to meet the deadline.

Officials have been monitoring shopkeepers to see that they replace commercial signs, although no fines are planned for those who fail to comply with the new regulation.

For Azerbaijan's almost 8 million people, the change will not be easy. Cyrillic characters have been in use now for more than 60 years, and people reportedly have been complaining that they are unable to read new road signs.

Since President Heidar Aliyev ordered the change in late June, printing houses and newspapers have been working around the clock to convert their printing presses to the new script.

Until today, newspapers could use both scripts, but most had chosen simply to write headlines in Latin script while leaving the stories in Cyrillic. Only the weekly "Ayna" (Mirror) -- which is a supplement to the Russian newspaper of the same name, "Zerkalo" -- has been printed exclusively in Latin. "Ayna" has suffered from low readership because few people read Latin script.

Proponents of the reform say the change will bring Azerbaijan closer to Europe and especially to Turkey, which shares a similar language written in Latin script. Supporters say Latin letters better suit the phonetics of Azeri.

But others wonder why the reform had to be implemented at such short notice. Some also fear the switchover could marginalize ethnic Russians -- who make up approximately 2.5 percent of the country's population -- and other non-ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Opponents of Aliev's regime say the cost of the switch -- which they put at $4 million -- has been excessive and the money could have been better spent helping the 800,000 refugees that have been driven from their homes by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Opposition parties also claim the switch is designed to suppress political debate in the country by making it difficult for citizens to read newspapers.

Kamil Veli Narimanogly is a former professor of linguistics at Baku State University who now runs the Center for Eurasian Studies. Narimanogly says he agrees that the readership of the country's newspapers will shrink and that this could benefit the leadership:

"Within a year, the popularity of newspapers, magazines, and books is likely to decrease. To switch overnight to the Latin alphabet is going to be difficult. People, especially those over 40, will not willingly read newspapers. They will certainly experience difficulties in acquiring new reading habits."

The Cyrillic alphabet -- a modern version of the alphabet ascribed to 9th-century monk Saint Cyril and now used, with slight variations, in Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Serbia -- was forcibly introduced in Azerbaijan by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1939. Historians say the move was an attempt to limit contact between Azerbaijanis and their Turkish kin on the other side of the border.

The Cyrillic alphabet was bolstered by the widespread use of Russian throughout the Soviet Union as the main language of education and administration.

Narimanogly says that because of this link in people's minds between Cyrillic and the Soviet Union, the change to Latin was necessary:

"For us, the Cyrillic alphabet was perceived as a symbol of Russia, a symbol of Soviet statehood. In order to get rid of the Soviet and Russian psychology, we had to adopt a new alphabet -- or, rather, to restore [the Latin alphabet]."

Dmitri Furman at the European Institute of the Russian Academy of Science says the linguistic reform goes further than trying to improve ties to Turkey or eliminate vestiges of the Soviet Union. He tells RFE/RL he sees the reform as an attempt to revive the spirit of an earlier age, shortly after World War I, when Azerbaijan was an independent state and an early adopter of Latin script.

The Latin alphabet was officially introduced in Azerbaijan in 1929 to replace Arabic script, in use since the 7th century, but the first documents written in Latin Azeri date back to 1923 and possibly earlier. Turkey switched to Latin letters in 1928 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Furman says the current switch evokes the spirit of Mamed Amin Rasulzade, the founder and Socialist leader of the first republic of Azerbaijan, which was crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1920:

"Azerbaijan was the first [Muslim] country to invent and switch to [what is called] Latin Turkish. Ataturk was not the first. Ataturk just followed in Azerbaijan's steps. Rasulzade's triple motto -- 'Turkicization, Islamicization, Europeanization' -- represents the three imminent aspects of Azerbaijan's modern culture. [In 1918] Azerbaijan was the first republic of the Muslim world. It was also the first Muslim country to look toward Europe. So one could say that Azerbaijan is trying to go back to its original tradition."

Among the most passionate proponents of the Latin alphabet was late President Abulfaz Elchibey.

The pro-Turkish nationalist leader, who presided over Azerbaijan from June 1992 until he was ousted by a Moscow-sponsored coup, was adamant about rejecting any sign of the defunct Soviet state. He also opposed adopting Arabic script, now used by millions of ethnic Azeris living in Iran.

Narimanogly recalls the passionate debates that took place in the early years of Azerbaijani independence in the 1990s:

"Those intellectuals who had connections with Iran wanted to use the Arabic alphabet. Others wanted to stick to the Cyrillic alphabet. But the overwhelming majority of the country -- the youth, the state and the democratic intelligentsia -- wanted to return to the Latin alphabet. They saw historical reasons for that. It was a political issue. It was not related to linguistics or Turkic studies. It was, first of all, a political choice."

The most recent linguistic reform will use an altered form of Latin script rather than simply adopting the Turkish alphabet.

Furman says this reflects the complexity of relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey:

"There has always been a certain duality. It goes back a long way. There have always been two trends [in Azerbaijan's history]: one that I would describe as all-Turkish, or specifically Ottoman, and one that aims at underlining local specificities, or 'Azerbaijanism,' so to speak. Therefore I do not see any particular problem: it is a rapprochement [between Azerbaijan and Turkey], but a rapprochement that highlights Azerbaijan's specificity. One should remember that Azerbaijanis are not merely Turks."

Narimanogly says Azerbaijan should serve as an example to other Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union. He says that all of them should someday adopt a single alphabet derived from the Latin script. He says he expects more linguistic reforms in the future.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)

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