Azeri Papers 'Threatened' by Language Decree

The Azeri media fear the compulsory transition from Cyrillic to Latin letters will cost them readers

Azeri Papers 'Threatened' by Language Decree

The Azeri media fear the compulsory transition from Cyrillic to Latin letters will cost them readers

The people of Azerbaijan will wake up on August 1 to find their newspapers printed in a language many may struggle to understand.


The print media will no longer be published in Cyrillic but Latin - one of the consequences of a language decree President Heidar Aliev recently signed.


The reform was not unexpected, as a law on the transition to the Latin script was adopted back in 1991. But little progress has been made since then, and with the exception of 'Ayne' (The Mirror) and two children newspapers, the press all continued using Cyrillic, not least because most people over 30 remain unfamiliar with Latin letters.


Changes to the alphabet are not new to Azerbaijan. This is the fourth alteration in a century. Before the Russian Revolution, Arabic was generally employed. In the 1920s this gave way to Latin. Stalin then imposed Cyrillic in the 1930s, which remained in use until the collapse of Soviet Union.


Public opinion is generally hostile to the compulsory nature of the change. 'At school I easily read books in Latin but I am against such a swift transition,' said Ajdin Badalov, 50, a company manager. "The business of reading will become strenuous and time-consuming. The reform should be introduced gradually."


Pensioner Zeinab Khalilova agrees. "This is an insult to the elderly,' she said. 'How can I start learning the new alphabet at 63? Pensioners spend much of their time reading papers. Now we will be deprived of that as well."


Many younger people sympathise with her plight. 'Reading Latin is no problem for me,' said Shovgi Safarov, 31, "but you cannot force people to give up something they have known for their whole life."


The stance of the politicians inevitably reflects the agendas of their parties. The pro-government parties of the National Democratic bloc mostly support the decree, while those in the opposition Union of Pro-Azerbaijan Forces do not.


Sabir Rustamkhanli, chairman of the Civic Solidarity Party and a former minister of press and information, says a swift transition will be less painful in the long term. "Stalin changed the alphabet in one day," he said. 'Ataturk, the first president of Turkish Republic, in three months. We have been marking time for 10 years and without the [presidential] decree, it would go on for another 10 years."


Sceptics complain that changing the alphabet ranks very low on the list of country's priorities and is a waste of money. "We will need to spend about $4 million to carry out this reform," said Araz Alizade, one of the chairmen of the Social Democratic Party. "We would be better off spending this money on the army. If adopting Latin is so important, the transition period should be about 25 years, not one month."


The Azerbaijani intelligentsia is as divided as the politicians, although Baku university professor Shirmamed Huseinov claims the change will open Azerbaijan to the world. "The newspapers may have some difficulties but the number of foreign readers will increase," he said. "Our schools have been using Latin-printed textbooks for several years. This decision serves the interests of the young generation."


The poet Vakhid Azimov is less certain. 'People are always talking about how Ataturk switched Turkey to the Latin alphabet in one year," he said. 'They forget that 80 per cent of Turkish population was illiterate!"


Behind the arguments, a concensus is emerging that Cyrillic will eventually give way to Latin. Most of the quarrels revolve around the time, capital investment and measures that will be required to teach the population the new alphabet.


But the print media is especially worried. It says it needs both time and financial support from the government if it is not to suffer unduly from the changeover. "The state must help the press solve this problem," said Arif Aliev, president of the Baku Press Club. Gabil Abbasoglu, editor of the country's most popular daily, Yeni Musavat, wants the transition period extended and support for the print media from the budget.


"The whole store of knowledge of my generation is based on books printed in Cyrillic, as is that of the previous generation," said Mamed Suleymanov, 30, editor of the newspaper 7 Dnej, (Seven Days). 'If I have difficulties reading my own newspaper, what can I expect from the middle-aged people who form our core readers?"


Despite the widespread criticism, the language reform is underway. And after August 1 Azerbaijan's press - inevitably - faces the prospect of losing a portion of its readers. One consequence is that the electronic media, which is more directly controlled by the authorities, will become the main source of information for much of the population.


Shahin Rzaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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