By Paul Goble
Kyrgyzstan has become the latest post-Soviet country where a struggle has broken out between those who want to shift from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in order to become more integrated with the Turkic and international community and those who oppose such a change, at least partially because of Moscow’s opposition.
Earlier this year, Kanybek Imanaliyev, a deputy in the Kyrgyzstan parliament, came out strongly in favor of having his country shift from the Cyrillic (Russian) script to the Latin alphaet as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan has done and as Kazakhstan has announced plans to do the same (zanoza.kg/doc/355638).
Such a move will help preserve the national identity of Kyrgyz, he said, although he acknowledged that “now we don’t have the money for it, but we must now begin to prepare specialists for the shift to the Latin script. It would be a good thing to plan to make the transition [to that common Turkic alphabet] in the 2030s and 2040s.”
Since that time, the issue has attracted some attention in the Bishkek media, but there is clear evidence that it is an idea that many Kyrgyz believe is one whose time has come. The clearest evidence of that is the passionate opposition President Almazbek Atambayev has expressed to such a step (zanoza.kg/doc/360590 and zanoza.kg/doc/355638).
Atambayev says that “if in the period of good-neighborly relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union, the peoples of Turkestan shifted from the Arabic script to the Latin one in the 1930s, then after the cooling of diplomatic ties, there was a sharp turn [away from the Latin alphabet] to the Cyrillic one.”
As a result of each of these changes, he continues, “our peoples have lost unique portions of our written literature and history and even the possibility for simple people to read and understand that which their ancestors wrote, sometimes even their fathers and grandfathers in Arabic and Latin script.”
Any break “from an earlier alphabet means a break with the past of the people In Central Asia,” this has now happened several times. Now, since 1991, “history is again repeating itself but already in reverse,” with Turkic countries shifting away from the Cyrillic script to the Latin alphabet.
The arguments people make for this shift keep changing, Atambayev says, and they are now all convincing. Alphabets alone don’t determine economic outcomes, and they won’t guarantee closer relations with one or another country. But changing them not only cuts people off from their pasts but also from those with whom they have had close ties
Many aren’t thinking, he argues, that if Kyrgyzstan shifts to the Latin script, it will lead to a break with “our brothers living in the Russian Federation. Do we want to forget about Tatars, Bashkirs, Altais, Khakases and many others? Because they will be using the Cyrillic script into the future.”
According to the Kyrgyzstan president, “a gradual transition to the Latin script will not unite but rather separate our peoples. And in fact, this transition under the influence of the ideas of pan-Turkism continues the ‘divide and rule’ method which has been used against our peoples both in the Russian Empire and in the USSR.”