When Sarvar Otamuradov ran for president in Uzbekistan last year, one of his main campaign promises was to push through the full-fledged adoption of the Latin alphabet.
The tone of Otamuradov’s platform is best illustrated by the name of his party, Milliy Tiklanish, or National Revival. As proponents of the Latinization of the Uzbek language like to argue, a transition away from the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic alphabet would allow the nation to fully assert its national identity.
Critics of the idea worry that bringing these plans to fruition would be too costly and complicate the lives of many people for whom intimate knowledge of Cyrillic script is a matter of economic survival.
The issue has been on the public agenda for a quarter of a century.
In the spring of 1993, Uzbekistan created a government commission to study the possibility of scrapping Cyrillic. The initiative appears to have been prompted by discussions among official representatives from post-Soviet Turkic nations in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in March of that year. But the debate had in fact already been raging for several years. Some outliers even proposed a return to Arabic script. In the end, those arguing, for example, that familiarity with the Latin alphabet would ease the adoption of modern technologies — such as computers — won the day.
In September of that year, parliament adopted legislation titled “On the Introduction of an Uzbek Alphabet Based on Latin Script” that set down the timetable. The plan was to inculcate familiarity with Roman letters adapted to Uzbek needs and gradually move toward completion of the formal switchover by 2000.
Russian state media was, at the time, predictably dismayed. An October 1993 article in Moscow’s government-funded Rossiskaya Gazeta, titled “Goodbye Cyrillic,” described the development as nothing short of a betrayal.
“It is curious that in the years of perestroika, the local intelligentsia condemned the communist authorities for their violence against the Uzbek language, which, according to them, led to an alienation from spiritual roots and ancient literary legacies. They said that by changing the alphabet twice, the people were burdened with illiteracy. They don’t seem to remember all of that now,” Vladimir Berezovsky, the Tashkent correspondent for the newspaper, wrote.
Undaunted by such brickbats, Uzbek authorities began to create new school textbooks, and adults received crash courses in the revamped alphabet. Further tinkering of the alphabet in May 1995 slowed things down, however. The lack of resources and consistency in the application of the rules further delayed progress, leading scholars like cultural historian Artyom Kosmarskii to muse many years later about the prevailing confusion.
“I was especially intrigued by words that appear in Latin script but that evoke doubt concerning which language they belong to: simply ‘something Western’ — most often in the names of firms: ‘cafe Millenium,’ ‘kafe Fant,’ ‘salon Style’ (a beauty parlor), or in the designation of types of establishment (‘internet club,’ ‘billiard club,’ ‘supermarket’) — is this still English or already Uzbek?” Kosmarskii wrote in 2007.
On a more puerile note, the way in which Russian words have been transliterated into Romanized Uzbek can cause red faces. One notable example is the Russian word “tsekh” (“цех” in Cyrillic), which describes any kind of industrial production facility. That is rendered into Uzbek as “sex.” Much to the amusement of schoolchildren, it is possible to see sausage-makers bearing signs reading “kolbasa sexi.”
In any event, the original 2000 deadline for the full adoption of the Latin alphabet was first pushed back to 2005, and then again to 2010. Perhaps recognizing the embarrassment of missed targets, officials have in more recent times avoided giving the issue too much publicity.
The model to which all Turkic nations in the former Soviet Union have aspired is, unsurprisingly enough, Turkey, which adopted a modified Latin alphabet in the 1920s as it went through an accelerated period of Westernization. Ankara has explicitly traded on its role-model status, hoping to displace Russia as the region’s “big brother.”
Of the former Soviet Turkic nations, the first to take the plunge was Azerbaijan. Already by the first year of independence, first graders there were given textbooks in Roman script. The sight of the Latin alphabet is now ubiquitous, and Cyrillic has accordingly largely disappeared from public view.
In Turkmenistan, the country’s parliament took their decision to go the same way in April 1993. Predictably enough, the first book in Turkmen to be published under the new, heavily “Turkified” Roman alphabet was a biography of President Saparmurat Niyazov, in 1995.
One arguable inadvertent effect of the stop-start alphabet policy in Uzbekistan has been to dampen the debate in neighboring Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has on occasion reminded his population of his vision to have Latin eventually take the place of Cyrillic.
As for Uzbekistan, this is the third alphabet reform to take place in the modern Uzbek state. In 1929, Arabic script previously in use among the lettered elite was ditched in favor of a reworked version of Latin script. That Cyrillic was not introduced at that time stemmed in part from concerns of a nationalist, anti-Russian backlash in a region where such sentiments were still running high as a result of decades of an anti-Tsarist and later anti-Bolshevik insurgency. Moscow associated the Arabic alphabet with Islam and, consequently, saw the adoption of a new way of writing as a quick path to casting off what they viewed as obscurantism and superstition.
Latin script failed to take root, however, and the desire to forestall the lure of gradually Westernizing Turkey prompted the adoption of Cyrillic in 1940.
Views remain mixed about what Uzbekistan must now do.
Political analyst Anvar Nazirov told EurasiaNet.org that he believes that while the transition to Latin script is the right idea, execution has been poor, and that the views of specialists have been disregarded.
“For these 23 years, there were no attempts to adapt Latin to the [needs of the] Uzbek language. There was no competent organization involved in the introduction of the new alphabet into bureaucratic production,” he said.
The main argument raised against the Latin alphabet is that of cost. But those unsure about the wisdom of the change see more in the shedding of Cyrillic than just accounting.
“This transition will complicate the lives of young people, particularly those going to work in Russia and Kazakhstan, since it will complicate their communication with the local population and limit their ability to carry out their professional duties,” said veteran journalist Elparid Hojaev.
At present, the Latin alphabet has been fully incorporated in Uzbekistan’s syllabus. It is also used interchangeably with Cyrillic on road signs and in the metro system.
But newspaper editors have resisted similar efforts, fearing disaster for their circulation figures. The Uzbek Internet, meanwhile, has to some extent adopted both Latin and Cyrillic. Many official government websites, for example, provide Uzbek language texts in both versions, as do some news websites.
Red tape remains firmly the domain of Cyrillic, however.
And yet, politicians or public officials hoping to push their own nationalist agendas by exploiting the very slight sliver of political liberalization spied under the regime of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev may have long to wait before seeing dividends. Not that anybody had the slightest chance against Mirziyoyev in the December presidential election, but it is possibly telling that Otamuradov, Latinization’s champion, came last out of four contenders, with 2.4 percent of the vote.
“The introduction of Latin has divided society into two camps: supporters and opponents of the [Latin] alphabet,” said Fahriddin Tashpulatov, a teacher at an institution of higher learning in Tashkent. “It is unlikely that I would have voted for Otamuratov and I think the generation that grew up with Cyrillic would have been of the same view.”