Friday, April 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Northern Peoples to Get Linux-Based Computer Scripts

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 24 – Scholars in the Sakha Republic have developed computer scripts for the Linux operating system not only for the Sakha but also for the Yukagirs, Evens, and Evenks, three other numerically small nationalities who live in that region, a breakthrough that steals a march on Microsoft and promises to open the way for computerization across the Russian north.
Yesterday, Russian news agencies reported that specialists at Yakut State University, the Sakha Institute of Humanitarian Research, and the Institute of Problems of the Numerically Small Peoples of the North had succeeded in their efforts to develop scripts and keyboards for these languages (
According to, the scholars concluded that they needed to introduce a “universal” keyboard “which could work not only for the scripts of the Yakut [Sakha] language but also for the scripts of all the peoples of the North who live in the republic,” a challenge given their diversity and one that computer specialists had long believed could not be met.
But the Sakha scholars have now developed just such a keyboard using Unicode and the Linux operating system, an achievement that many unfamiliar with the problems of the Northern peoples may see as small but one that has at least three major consequences for the future of the 26 numerically small nationalities living across the northern third of the Russian Federation.
First, because the system the Sakha have developed almost certainly will be extended to the other nationalities in the near future, these peoples will be able to go online in their own languages rather than having to go through Russian or English as at present and thus will be able to share information and mobilize their members more effectively than ever before.
Second, because these scripts will help make the Northern peoples of the Russian Federation more computer savvy, they will almost certainly increase the links between these isolated and often hard-pressed communities and the more politically active and effective Arctic peoples of Greenland, Canada, and the United States, opening the way for the former to be affected by the latter.
And third – and from the perspective of computer and Internet development more broadly, perhaps most important – the success the Sakha researchers have had using the Linux system almost certainly will spark a new competition in this region between Linux and Microsoft, which until recently had the field there largely to itself.
Over the last several years, Microsoft has worked with computer experts in Tatarstan and in several Finno-Ugric republics to produce new scripts compatible with its operating system. It seems unlikely that having made this investment, Microsoft will not try to recover its predominant position by pushing even harder for the development of its own OS scripts for these languages.
If that happens, then competition between two American companies could lead not just to the elaboration of new computer scripts for the people of the North but also open the way for greater political activism among them, a possibility most observers in Moscow and the West have long discounted but one that is entirely possible.

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