The Cyrillic Alphabet as an Obstacle to Economic Development – Wanted: An East European Ataturk

In November 2002, Citibank became the first American bank to open a retail operation in Russia, replete with phone and Internet banking. It offered middle-class Russian clients in Moscow and St. Petersburg both ruble and dollar accounts, overdraft and loan facilities in both currencies, and even debit – though no credit – cards. Murky laws regarding ownership of real estate had initially preclude mortgages. Citibank already managed some corporate business in Russia with a modest asset portfolio of c. $1 billion.

According to the Russian headquarters of the bank, the price tag of opening the branch reached “several million dollars”. Most of it was to convert the bank’s global systems to the 33-letters Cyrillic alphabet. This is an illustration of the hidden business costs incurred by preferring the idiosyncratic Slavic script to the widely used Latin one.

The peoples of eastern Europe have little left except their character set. Their industry dilapidated, their politics venal and acrimonious, their standard of living dismal, their society disintegrating, and their national identities often fragile – they cling fiercely to their “historical” myths and calligraphic lettering, the last vestiges of long-gone grandeur. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Macedonians still argue rancorously about the ethnic affiliation of the 9th century inventors of the Cyrillic symbols – the eponymous Saint Cyril and his brother, Saint Methodius.

Russian news agencies reported that on November 15, 2002 the Duma passed an amendment to the Law on the Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation, making the Cyrillic alphabet mandatory, though not exclusive. The use of other scripts is hence subject to the enactment case-by-case federal laws.

Many of Russia’s numerous constituent republics and countless ethnic minorities are unhappy. The Tatars, for instance, have been using the Latin script since September 2001. Cyrillic characters in Tatarstan are due to be phased out in 2011. The republic of Karelia, next to the Finnish border, has been using Latin letters exclusively and would also be adversely affected.

Prominent Tatars – and the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations – have taken to calling the amendment a violation of human rights and of the constitution. This, surely, is somewhat overdone. The new statute is easy to circumvent. A loophole in the law would allow, for instance, the use of non-Cyrillic alphabets for non-state languages.

The economic implications of an obscure script were well grasped by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He was fond of saying that “the cornerstone of education is an easy system of reading and writing. The key to this is the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin script.” In 1928, he replaced the cumbersome Arabic script with a Latinized version of Turkish. Literacy shot up and access to a wealth of educational and cultural material was secured.

Yet, many Slav scholars point out that other countries – like Israel, Japan and China – have chosen to tenaciously preserve their ancient alphabets. It did not seem to affect their economic ascendance.

Moreover, scriptural conversion is bound to be as costly as preserving the old letters: the transcription of archives and contracts; the reprinting of textbooks and periodicals; the recoding of software and electronic documents; the purchase of new typeset machines; the training of printers, authors, journalists, judges, teachers, bureaucrats, the populace; the changing of road signs and computer keyboards; the re-posting of Web sites and the development of fonts. And this is a – very – partial list.

To burnish his nationalist credentials, during the election campaign in Bulgaria in 2001, the incumbent president, Petar Stoyanov, distanced himself from a suggestion made by professor Otto Kronsteiner, an Austrian professor of Bulgarian studies, who advocates swapping the Cyrillic character set for the Latin one.

Similarly, Macedonian negotiators insisted, during the negotiations leading to the August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement which terminated the Albanian uprising, on maintaining the Macedonian language and the Cyrillic alphabet as the only official ones.

The Prime Minister of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, often engages in ostentatious religious and nationalistic posturing. Wounded by Greek intransigence over the name issue (should the Republic of Macedonia be allowed to use its constitutional name or not) and by Bulgaria’s insistence that Macedonians are merely culturally-inferior Bulgarians, Macedonians react well to his message.

Thus, in April 2008, MIA, the Macedonian Information Agency, embarked on yet another campaign, titled: “I preserve what is mine – while I write using Cyrillic alphabet – I exist!”.

But the dominance of English is forcing even the most fervent nationalists to adopt. Moldova has reinstated Romanian and its Latin alphabet as the state language in 1989. Even the Inuit of Russia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska are discussing a common alphabet for their 7000-years old Inuktitut language.

According to the Khabar news agency, Kazakhstan, following the footsteps of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is in the throes of reverting to Latin script. Kazakh officials cited the trouble-free use of computers and the Internet as a major advantage of dumping the Cyrillic alphabet.

It would also insulate Kazakhstan from the overbearing Russians next door. But this is a two-edged sword. In August 2001, the Azeri government suspended the publication of the weekly Impulse for refusing to switch from Soviet-era Cyrillic to Latin.

The periodical’s hapless owner protested that no one is able to decipher the newly introduced Latin script. Illiteracy has surged as a result and Russian citizens of Azerbaijan feel alienated and discriminated against. Recently Latinized former satellites of the Soviet Union seem to have been severed from the entire body of Russian culture, science and education.

Fervid protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Cyrillic lettering is a barrier. NASA published in 2001 the logbooks of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The entries for Nov 25, 2000 and January read: “Sergei (Krikalev) discusses some problems with the way (Microsoft) Windows is handling Cyrillic fonts … Sergei is still having difficulties with his e-mail. After the mail sync, he still has ‘outgoing’ mail left instead of everything in the ‘sent’ folder.”

It took Microsoft more than two years to embark on a localization process of the Windows XP Professional operating system and the Office Suite in Serbia where the Cyrillic alphabet is still widely used. Even so, the first version was in Latin letters. Cyrillic characters were introduced “in the next version”. A Cyrillic version has been available in Bulgaria since October 2001 after protracted meetings between Bulgarian officials and Microsoft executives.

The Board for the Standardization of the Serbian Language and the Serbian National Library, aware of the Cyrillic impediment are studying “ways of increasing the use of Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet in modern communications, especially the Internet”.

But the dual use of Latin and Cyrillic scripts – at least in official documents – is spreading. Bosnia-Herzegovina has recently decided to grant its citizens the freedom to choose between the two on their secure identity cards. The triumph of the Latin script seems inevitable, whether sanctioned by officialdom or not.

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