Vienna, May 31 – Moves by the ethnic Russian community in Crimea to restore Russian to the official status it enjoyed in Soviet times have attracted a great deal of attention around the world, but plans by Crimean Tatars there to shift their alphabet from the Cyrillic (Russian) to the Latin have not, even though these could trigger developments of even greater consequence.
On the one hand, the restoration of the Latin script for Crimean Tatar, something Stalin took away from them in 1938, could strengthen links between the members of that community who live in their homeland and those who live not only in Central Asian exile but in the Middle East and Western countries, thus strengthening their national movement in Crimea.
And on the other, a successful effort by the Crimean Tatars to use the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic will beyond doubt lead many in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan inside the borders of the Russian Federation to make the same demand, even though Russian Federation law proscribes that, thus setting in train a new political conflict in the Middle Volga.
Last week, at the Crimean Engineering-Pedagogical University in Akmesdzhit, a group of Crimean Tatar politicians, activists, scholars and representatives from Turkey, Romania and Azerbaijan met to discuss the issues involved in shifting the alphabet used for the Crimean Tatar language to the Latin script (kr-alemi.com/index.php?name=News&op=article&sid=1108).
The list of those who took part speaks for itself: Mustafa Cemilev, the president of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Refat Chubarov, his deputy, Fevzi Yakubov, the rector of the host university, Professor Ismail Kerimov, Ayshe Seytmuratova, a leader of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, and a host of others.
One of them, Eden Mamut, a professor at Romania’s Ovidius University and secretary general of the Union of Universities of the Black Sea Region, told the assembly that “the rapid transition of the Crimean Tatar language to the Latin script is a step which will really unify all Crimean Tatars who are now spread across the entire world.”
At the conference, scholars presented a set of rules for the orthography of the Crimean Tatar literary language in the Latin script, which was developed by scholars at the host university “in cooperation with linguistic specialists of other universities and on the basis of previous decisions and investigations in this sector.”
The participants “unanimously” supported the introduction of this set of rules, Ayshe Umerova of Kr-Alemi.com reported, and established a working group headed by Professor Adile Emirova to oversee that effort, the clearest indication yet that the Crimean Tatars intend to use the current uncertainties in Ukraine to take that step.
The challenges they face are enormous. Many Crimean Tatars have never seen their language written in anything but Cyrillic. Until 1928, it was written in Arabic script, and since 1939, it has been written almost exclusively in Cyrillic, even though Crimean Tatars and most linguists say that the Latin script used from 1928 to 1939 was the most adequate.
And that has consequences. Not only is any change expensive, but when it happens, members of different generations find themselves cut off from one another, and there is a decline in the number of people who choose to read anything – books, magazines, and newspapers – in the new script, however politically attractive it is.
But such a step by the Crimean Tatars would both further set them apart from the Slavic Ukrainians and Russians living around them, closer integrate them with other Turkic groups, and help power a further growth in national identity, all trends that those who back this move view as more important than any loss in readership because of a change from Cyrillic to Latin.
But in this case, there is another set of consequences, one that may make many in Moscow nervous. While the Russian powers that be may welcome anything that weakens Ukrainian control over Crimea, they are going to be less happy with the impact this step will have among the Tatars and Bashkirs who have unsuccessfully sought to drop Cyrillic.
If the Crimean Tatars succeed in this, they will now, much as they did more than a century ago thanks to the writings of Ismail Gasprali and his newspaper “Tercuman,” promote change throughout the Turkic world now within the borders of the Russian Federation, an impact that was almost certainly part of the unspoken thoughts of participants in last week’s session.