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Azerbaijan: Better To Change Language Than Ignore New Script

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan completed its transition to a new Latin script to replace the Cyrillic alphabet in use since the late 1930s. Two Azerbaijani-language newspapers have refused to comply with the new regulation. One continues to be printed in the previous Azerbaijani Cyrillic script. The other one opted for a more radical form of protest -- it has switched to using the Russian language. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch spoke to the editors in chief of both publications, who explained to him why they are refusing to make the changes.

Prague, Aug 14 (NCA/) -- Two weeks ago, the southern Caucasus state of Azerbaijan officially completed its transition to the Latin alphabet, the third such script change in less than a century.

The reform of the alphabet was partially implemented after the parliament voted to adopt the Latin script shortly after the country regained independence in 1991. But a presidential decree published less than two months ago ordered that all advertisements, road signs and printed literature must reflect the switch by 1 August.

From now on, no official or commercial document should contain a single character in the Cyrillic alphabet, which was forcibly imposed on the country in 1939 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It replaced the Latin script that had been in use since the mid-1920s.

Although most Azerbaijani-language newspapers had already partially switched to the Latin alphabet, they had to work round the clock to meet the 1 August deadline.

All print media outlets but two have now complied with the new regulation.

Among those that have not switched is "Seven Days," a medium-circulation independent weekly which earlier this month (4 August) unexpectedly began publishing in the Russian language. The newspaper went as far as to alter its identity, dropping its original Azerbaijani name "Yeddi Gun" for the equivalent in Russian, "Sem' Dnei."

"Seven Days" editor Mamed Suleymanov tells RFE/RL the move was a protest against what he describes as a historical aberration:

"For about 80 years, generations of Azerbaijanis have been reading in Cyrillic. All books were being printed in Cyrillic. Except for a short period of time, the Latin script has never been in use. The Cyrillic alphabet is our historical memory. If we switch to the Latin script, these generations will remain with practically no newspapers. Frankly speaking, this is rather a personal revolt. I do mean a revolt. It is the revolt of a desperate man. I know this will [not change] the situation. It is just a personal revolt."

The other newspaper that has defied President Heidar Aliev's orders is "Impulse" ("Impuls"), an independent weekly that was created three years ago. "Impulse" chose to stick to the previous Azerbaijani Cyrillic alphabet.

Asked why she chose to ignore the new alphabet requirement, "Impulse" Editor in Chief Metanet Aliyeva says:

"Because otherwise our readers would not be able to read us. People are used to the Cyrillic alphabet, and nobody would think about buying a newspaper that is printed in Latin script. If there is no demand for our newspaper, why should we publish it?"

Proponents of the linguistic reform argue the change will help the country move closer to Europe and also to Turkey, which shares a similar language with Azerbaijan written in Latin script.

Opponents fear the switch will confuse many ordinary citizens and make it harder for them to read papers and street signs. Others say it could marginalize ethnic Russians, who make up approximately 2.5 percent of the population.

Arif Ariyev is the chairman of "Yeni Nasil" ("New Generation"), one of the country's three professional associations of journalists. He says the government is doing little to help newspapers and readers adjust to the new alphabet:

"In the month that followed the publication of the presidential decree ordering the switch, all media outlets and editors in chief urged the authorities to establish a transitional period that could be used to provide financial support to those [media] structures that were on the verge of bankruptcy, or to help the population get prepared to the change. But the authorities' reaction to our request was slow. Even though all newspapers have accomplished an immense preparatory work. They have notably published the new script in all their issues. Headlines -- and even sometimes entire articles -- have been published using the Latin alphabet."

Ariyev is critical of the decision made by "Seven Days" and "Impulse" not to obey Aliev's decree:

"Some newspapers thought that [sticking] to the Cyrillic alphabet would allow them to increase their circulation. Editors thought that those readers who were unable to read the Latin script would then switch to their newspapers. To my view, such methods are not very ethical from a journalistic viewpoint. Even economically, this is not justified, as the last few days have demonstrated."

Ariyev argues that warnings predicting a drop in newspaper sales after the switch have not come true. At the very most, he says, the average circulation of Azerbaijan-language newspapers has decreased three to five percent.

Ariyev points out that some newspapers printed in the new Latin alphabet have actually increased their circulation.

This is the case with "525th Newspaper" ("525ci Gazete") and "Yeni Musavat," two papers officially close to the opposition. "Yeni Musavat" claims that it must now print 800 extra copies a day to meet increasing demand.

"Seven Days" Editor Suleymanov disputes Ariyev's conclusions. He says the switch to the new script has already led to a decrease in circulation of 30 to 40 percent for all Azerbaijani-language printed media outlets.

Suleymanov agrees with those analysts and political leaders who believe that the alphabet reform -- which was implemented at short notice -- may have been designed to suppress political debate in the country by making it difficult for citizens to read newspapers.

No criminal or administrative sanctions are planned for those who fail to comply to the new alphabet regulation. However "Impulse" appears already to be suffering the consequences of its rebellious attitude.

Media reports last week said the government had ordered that the weekly be closed down. But Aliyeva says no real sanctions have been taken yet against "Impulse":

"Our newspaper has not been shut down and we continue to publish it in the Cyrillic alphabet. Simply, printing houses now refuse to print it and we are currently looking for an alternative solution. If we can afford it, we will buy our own printing house."

Aliyeva says her deputy and the weekly's owners were summoned last week to the Baku city prosecutor's office, where they were warned that should they continue to ignore the presidential decree they could face prosecution. Aliyeva says she fears the authorities will try to take on her newspaper's main financial sponsor, a private society which specializes in the distribution of local and foreign newspapers.

As for Suleymanov, he tells RFE/RL that he does not expect any trouble from the Azerbaijani authorities, since nothing in the country's legislation forbids publication and printing of Russian-language newspapers.

He even gave an additional reason to explain his decision to drop the Azerbaijani language and switch to Russian:

"['Impulse' people] say that they want to continue to publish their newspaper in Azerbaijani, using the Cyrillic alphabet. This explains why they are currently in trouble. I myself knew that, should we go out in Azerbaijani Cyrillic, [authorities] would have to close us down. This is why we chose to change the language in order to save our alphabet."

Even though "Seven Days" had to reduce its circulation by almost two-thirds to 3,500 copies after its change of identity, two issues have been published since 1 August, a date which President Aliyev says will be celebrated each year as "Alphabet Day."

By contrast, only one issue of "Impulse" has gone out to readers since the beginning of the month. Aliyeva says the second issue is ready and awaiting a publisher who will agree to send it to press.