Sunday, February 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Spread of Latin Script in Belarus Making Moscow Nervous



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 17 – The replacement of Cyrillic with the Latin script has proceeded so far in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Moldova that few Moscow authors display concern. These writers are still contesting Kazakhstan’s plan to make this shift, but they seem especially concerned about the new interest in the Latin script in neighboring Belarus.

                On the one hand, these writers routinely point out, in Belarus, Russian has been declared the second state language by the republic constitution and therefore it is “natural” that both languages should be written in Cyrillic. And on the other, they argue that any shift to the Latin script slows the process of the integration of the union state the two countries have formed.

            But despite these Russian arguments, many Belarusians are interested in preserving their national language and see the Latin script as another way not only to do that but to help Mensk expand its cooperation with the West and not just Moscow.  And there is evidence that at least some members of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka support this idea.

            On Friday, Russian commentator Aleksey Polozov published an article entitled “’The Ministry of Nationalism? About Latinization Efforts in Belorussia” on the “Stoletie” portal, an Internet site that usually reflects the views of those Russian nationalists with close ties to the Orthodox Church (www.stoletie.ru/slavyanskoe_pole/ministerstvo_nacionalizma_380.htm).

            Polozov observes that in recent months, “in the sphere of language policy” in Belarus, there have been “certain processes” which do not appeal logical, are viewed with humor by the population, and do not appear part of general plan.  But he insists that they “are links of one chain and have as their long-term goals the weakening of the position of the Russian language.”

            Many of these initiatives, the Russian commentator continues, are linked to former Culture Minister Pavel Latushko,  who now serves as Belarusian ambassador to Paris but whose staff continue to push many of his ideas including “the introduction of the so-called Belarusian Latin script in the Minsk subway system.”

            Until last year, signs in the metro were “exclusively” in Belarusian in Cyrillic, but then officials began putting up English and Russian signs as well. That is fine as far as it goes, Polozov says, although the behavior of the subway managers does appear to violate Russia’s constitutional status in the country.

            But in recent months, the Russian writer says, to the confusion of many Mensk residents, “not to speak about foreigners, Belarusian place names in Cyrillic have been duplicated by the same Belarusian names but already in the Latin script.”  Subway officials say that this change will help visitors to the 2014 ice hockey competition in the city.

            Such an “explanation” does not withstand examination, Polozov says, because “the Belarusians themselves are not in a position to read these signs,” and when journalists in the Belarusian capital asked an American to read the signs in Latinized Belarusian, “he was not able to do so correctly in a single case.”

            The real explanation for the change, the Russian writer says, is an October 4, 2012, decision taken by the commission on place names of the Belarusian Council of Ministers, which called for the use of the Latin script in place names not only in the subway but also for streets and towns.

            The decision called for experts from the Institute of Linguistics of the National Academy of Sciences to help make these chances, a place, Polozov continues, in which “work a multitude of those who have striven insistently and for a longtime to ‘escape form Russian force’ and ‘turn Belarus toward the European Union.’”

            “Despite the fact that practically all power is concentrated in the hands of the sufficiently pro-Russian Belarusian president, A.G. Luakashenko,” there are “not a few among the Belarusian elite” who want to stop the integration of Belarus and the Russian Federation and to do so by using language and alphabet reform as a means to that end.

            Elena Anisim of the Institute of Linguistics, told Polozov that “the official position” about using the Latin script was adopted during the compilation of the six-volume handbook of the names of cities and towns in the country, even though in the Russian commentator’s opinion, the use of Latin script in fact means the introduction of “a new language.”

            Polozov observes that “a special feature of Belarusian society and above all the state apparatus and power vertical is the literal execution of all orders that come from above,” a situation that means that government financing of this effort and the adoption of the October 2012 rules suggests that the shift to Latinization enjoys at least some support from on high.

            Additional evidence for that, Polozov says, emerged at a literary competition for Belarusian children. Lukashenko’s grandchildren all took home prizes, and all of them used Belarusian rather than Russian to do so.  That has led opposition figures to suggest that “even in Lukashenka’s family the new generation is choosing Belarusian and independence.”

            One opposition figure even noted “with satisfaction,” the Russian notes, “that the  grandchildren of Lukashenko are 100 percent Belarusian speaking” and that “A. Lukashenko himself ‘never speaks Russian … [because] he has a poor supply of Russian words.” Instead, like most Belarusians, he speaks a mixture of the two languages and with a clear Belarusian accent.

            Latushko’s successor as culture minister, B. Svetlov, has continued the policies of his predecessor, another indication that Latinization of at least place names is now state policy in Belarus, a reality that Polozov says should require that Minsk change the name of that institution to “the ministry of nationalism.”

            But, the Russian commentator insists, all this is “only a test of strength” between the supporters of the Cyrillic script and those of Latin, one that reflects the fact that Belarus is a place where there is “a clash of Western and Eastern civilizations.”  However, he says, any plan to turn away from Russia such as the use of the Latin script is “condemned to failure.”

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