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Russia: Cyrillic Law Ruffles Feathers In Republics

  • Kathleen Moore

A change in the law on the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation is about to make Cyrillic the only legal alphabet for official languages. The move is designed to preserve linguistic unity in official documents, but it's being disputed by those from republics within Russia that use the Latin script for their titular languages. They're calling on President Vladimir Putin not to sign the amendment, saying it violates the constitution.

Prague, 5 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amendments to the law on the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation will make Cyrillic the only alphabet for the country's state languages.

That means no more Latin script for the titular languages in republics where they have official "state" status -- currently Tatarstan, which is in the process of switching from Cyrillic, and potentially the northwestern republic of Karelia, where there is a drive to make Karelian the second state language after Russian.

The proposed changes sailed easily through both houses of parliament late last month, despite strong protests from politicians from the regions affected. Federation Council member Viktor Stepanov from Karelia compares tampering with a language's script to tampering with genes. "Teaching Karelian on the basis of the Cyrillic alphabet will practically destroy the Karelian language. In my opinion, we are intruding -- just like Lysenko was intruding on genetics -- we are intruding on the genetics of human consciousness," Stepanov said.

Proponents say the changes will not affect anyone's right to use native languages, only the way those languages are written as part of official documents.

In the past, Moscow has viewed attempts to move away from Cyrillic with suspicion. Officials complained that Tatarstan's proposed switch to Latin script, for instance, would loosen the bonds tying the republic to the Russian Federation.

But many say the amendment amounts to an infringement of various rights accorded under the constitution. And they add that it makes little linguistic sense.

Yevgenii Shorokhov, chairman of the Karelian State Committee on National Affairs, said people in his region are bewildered by the move to reinforce Cyrillic. He said Karelian and another similar regional language, Vepsian, cannot be represented in Cyrillic -- they have twice as many vowels as Russian, for instance.

In Tatarstan, last year saw the start of what was expected to be a decade-long transition to the Latin alphabet. Proponents of that change say Latin reflects better the sound qualities of Tatar and would make it easier for people to learn foreign languages such as English.

And they say it's not about a switch; it's returning to a script used early in the 20th century, after Arabic was abandoned and before Cyrillic was imposed in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's time.

The Executive Committee of the World Tatar Congress has condemned the law change. Historian Damir Iskhaqov said: "In the Russian constitution, there are articles that guarantee the freedom and development of nationalities. Tatars have already expressed their will, because in 1997 the World Congress of Tatars adopted the principle of switching to the Latin alphabet and the Tatar parliament later made this wish law. Now the Russian Duma and the Federation Council have come out against the desire of one of the Russian peoples. I can't view this as anything other than a violation of the Russian Constitution. There are a lot of violations here; this issue is not the prerogative of the central authorities. It's the republic that should decide itself, and Moscow has no right to interfere in what are republic-level affairs."

He said relations between Kazan and Moscow will deteriorate as a result. "How is it possible to relate in a positive way to the central government and an ethnic majority that is behind this government when we already clearly expressed our desire to switch to Latin, and they say 'You don't have the right'? I don't understand how [anyone can] force their own ideas of cultural development on another people. It's just not possible. So, of course, this will lead to negative relations, negative emotions, and in general to an aggravation of relations between the federal authorities and Tatars," Iskhaqov said.

Iskhaqov and others also say the law contradicts the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages, a Council of Europe initiative that aims to protect, preserve, and promote linguistic diversity.

That charter does not specifically mention the use of scripts. And, though Russia signed the charter last year, Moscow has not yet ratified it. This makes any argument over violations a technical one at this point.

However, the Cyrillic amendment does appear to go against the charter's spirit, says one of its co-authors, Donall O Riagain. He cited one chapter in particular, which states: "In determining their policy with regard to regional or minority languages, the Parties shall take into consideration the needs and wishes expressed by the groups which use such languages. They are encouraged to establish bodies, if necessary, for the purpose of advising the authorities on all matters pertaining to regional or minority languages."

O Riagain added: "There is also the thing that people very often associate [with] language -- you can't just take it in a vacuum as a medium of communication. It's [an item] of common heritage. It has its own affiliations, its own value system for people. And if they consider their script to be an integral part of this, well, you are really damaging a part of what makes a language meaningful to them."

Script changes are often politicized, tied up in efforts to gain a separate cultural or political identity or independence. Moldova and Azerbaijan recently cast off the Cyrillic alphabet forced upon them by Stalin and switched back to Latin.

German and Irish Gaelic are two languages that in recent times have dropped their traditional scripts in favor of a modern Latin script. But the important thing there, O Riagain said, is that this was a voluntary decision.

The World Congress of Tatars has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin not to sign the amendment. If that fails, there's the Constitutional Court. Iskhaqov said if they can't find resolution there, they'll try an as-yet-unspecified international route.

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