Friday, April 22, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Crimean Tatars Press to Go Back to Latin Script by End of 2011

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 22 – The Crimean Tatars are stepping up the campaign they launched in 1991 to return to the Latin-based script in which their language was written between 1928 and 1938 and thus end the use of the Cyrillic-based script Stalin imposed on them, a step that will further set them apart from Slavic groups and bring them closer to Turkey.

On Monday, Eduard Dudakov, the chairman of the Republic Committee of Crimea for Inter-National Relations and the Affairs of Deported Citizens, told journalists that “the process of shifting the Crimean Tatar language from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to the Latin script is to be completed before the end of the year.

Discussion of this measure has gone on long enough, he continued, and the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine needs to adopt modifications in the country’s law on language that can “become the basis for the introduction of changes in the corresponding legal act, regulating the use of various writing systems.”

Dudakov’s comments follow proposals by Mustafa Cemilev, the president of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people who has long sought “a single alphabet for all Crimean Tatars in the world” and the publication last month of “Nenkecan,” a Crimean journal in the Latin script (

Following an overwhelming vote in favor, the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea on Wednesday called on the country’s parliament to adopt “in as short a time as possible” draft legislation that would regulate the languages of all minority nationalities in Ukraine, including not just Crimean Tatar but also Russian and other groups (

Because such legislation touches on the sensitive issue of Russian-Ukrainian relations and on the policies of the incumbent Ukrainian president who earlier promised to boost the status of Russian, that aspect of debates about a new language law is likely to attract the most attention in the coming weeks.

But in fact, the effort of the Crimean Tatars to go back to the Latin script may prove more important, not only because it will set them even more apart from the others on the peninsula but also because it will serve as a model for other Turkic groups in the post-Soviet world, in the first instance the Kazan Tatars, and tighten relations between these communities and Turkey.

The impact on the Kazan Tatars is likely to be especially great given Moscow’s increasing efforts to Russianize Tatarstan and especially the Russian government’s use of an appeal by a group of Kazan parents to reduce the amount of Tatar used in the schools of that Middle Volga republic.

Those Russian efforts have prompted some Tatar and Muslim commentators to ask, in this Year of Gabdulla Tukay, a leader of the Tatar renaissance of a century ago, “whether the language of Tukay [Tatar] will survive until the end of the 21st century?” -- or whether it is fated to be overwhelmed by Russian (

Given the historic ties between the Kazan Tatars and the Crimean Tatars, a successful move to return to Latin script among the latter will likely spark calls for a similar step among the former, the largest ethnic minority in the Russian Federation and often a bellwether for the actions of other nations inside that country.

There are three reasons this Crimean Tatar effort is important in addition of course to its impact on the future of that nation. First, it highlights the way in which over the last year the Crimean Tatars and other nations of Eurasia have reasserted their efforts in the early 1990s to recover their own histories and set themselves apart from the hitherto dominant Russians.

Second, it underscores the ways in which Turkey is gaining influence among these peoples, positioning itself as a regional leader in direct competition with Moscow, Kyiv and other capitals and giving new content to the idea of Turkic world led intellectually at least from Ankara and Istanbul.

And third, it could trigger demands among other nations in Eurasia to shift away from the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic alphabets, including for at least some of the Finno-Ugric and North Caucasian languages and thus increase still further the centrifugal forces on the territory of the former Soviet space.

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