Tatarstan, the semi-autonomous Muslim republic in the Russian Federation, is dropping the Cyrillic alphabet imposed on it by Joseph Stalin in 1939, adopting instead the Latin alphabet. The switch is not exactly a declaration of independence, and does not make Tatarstan another Chechnya, but it has come at a time when president Vladimir Putin has introduced a new law to purge the Russian language of foreign words. He has also imposed new restrictions on all the regions of Russia in order to secure Moscow’s domination. The Tartars certainly see now as a good time to distance their country from Moscow, while the Russians view their actions as a “danger to the state” and “the first step towards separatism”.
That Tartarastan is determined to carry out the switch, despite Russian objections, is shown by the fact that it has passed the necessary legislation, and has already made available the funds (US$700,000) needed to cover the costs of the project’s initial stages this year. Already the textbooks for the experimental stage, which began in March, have been rewritten, and the first group of teachers retrained. By the end of this year all first-graders in the republic’s schools, irrespective of whether they are Tartar or Russian, will be required to learn Tartar in the new alphabet. The entire project is expected to take 10 years to complete and to cost about $7 million.
Admittedly the adoption of the Latin script by a Muslim people is not an ideal policy, but given Tartarastan’s special circumstances the change from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet is a remarkable step, which may well save the Tartar language from extinction. It may also bring about the cultural independence necessary to effect a wider break with an imperial power that has dominated Tartarastan since the sixteenth century, when Ivan the Terrible first conquered it. Just how remarkable this move is is indicated by the fact that the country’s population is 48 percent Russian and 43 percent Tartar, and that less than half of the Tartars speak their own mother tongue, although the republic declared Tartar the country’s official language almost ten years ago. Not surprisingly, Russian continues to be the lingua franca of the country’s various ethnic groups.
The Russians are right to read any move designed to alter these circumstances as a step in the wrong direction from their own point of view. Certainly a Russian parliamentary commission visiting Kazan, the capital of Tartarastan, several months ago, did not mince its words when it issued a report describing the move as a “threat to Russia’s security”. Nor did Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader in Moscow, when he declared it an “open step toward separatism”. One Russian leader who is bound to consider the move an open defiance of his policy to ensure that Russian remains the federation’s dominant language is president Putin.
When Putin come to power last year, one of the first things he did was to set up a language committee to “maintain the purity” of the Russian language. He is now set to follow this up by introducing legislation. But his real aim is not just to “maintain the purity” of the Russian tongue but to impose it as the federation’s main language; this is part of his overall policy of preventing non-Russian ethnic groups from seceding, as Kader-ool Bicheldei, a member of the Tartar parliament and author of its draft language legislation, explained in a recent newspaper interview. “Language policy is a vital component of national policy,” he said; “this will help to avoid conflicts.”
Another sign that Putin’s preoccupation is not primarily with the “purity” of the Russian language is the severity of the law expected to be passed soon. It will punish offenders with fines, verbal censures and, in the most serious cases, with imprisonment for up to two years for “hooliganism”. But Putin, who is guilty of the worst “hooliganism” (and worse), and “relies on the cliches of KGB-speak in public speeches,” as a newspaper-report put it recently, is the least-qualified person to set language standards. It was he, after all, who shocked his compatriots when he famously said that he would send Chechen ‘terrorists’ “to the toilet”, which in Russian is coarse prison-slang.
The same observations apply to the Kremlin’s threat to shut down the Moscow office of Radio Liberty, a station funded by the US, if it starts broadcasting a Chechen-language service. The Russians are primarily concerned that their successful takeover of private television and radio stations in their country, which used to broadcast independent news about Chechnya, would not have its full effect if other countries’ media cover the Chechen struggle for self-determination. The Russian stations recently taken into public ownership, in order to silence them, were all critical of Putin’s policies in Chechnya. This explains why Mikael Lesin, the press minister, has publicly criticised Radio Liberty’s plans and has threatened to close down its Moscow office. But the Americans are not bowing to the threat, and say that they will relocate Radio Liberty in either Turkey or the Czech Republic if necessary.
The situation in Tartarastan is more complicated, of course, and the government there is faced with the severe limitation of the options open to them if Moscow cracks down on its efforts to seek cultural independence as a prelude to separation from the Russian Federation. To begin with, Tartarastan is at the very heart of Russia, both physically and politically, and unlike Chechnya is cut off from the rest of the Muslim world both ways. The population of Tartarastan is also only 4 million, of whom less half are Tartar; the Tartars are also outnumbered by the Russians. This explains why the government cannot demand outright independence and is content, for the time being at least, to seek cultural separation, while compromising on other issues.
One of the issues on which the Tartars are willing to accommodate Moscow is the continued contribution of funds to the central government in Moscow. But to their credit they are adamant on their demand for cultural revival, and are determined to implement the law on language-change. This is a step in the right direction and merits the support of Muslims worldwide. Such support and involvement of Muslims in Tartarastan’s affairs will not only warn Moscow against hasty counter-action, but will also counter any influence the Latin alphabet might have to persuade the Tartars to prefer cultural ties with the West instead of with the Muslim world.