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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cyrillic Script Ditched in Azerbaijan

BAKU, Azerbaijan —The billboards have been torn down. The shopkeepers have been warned. All signs in Cyrillic — a vestige of this impoverished nation's 70 years as part of the Soviet Union — must go.

On Wednesday, the whole of Azerbaijan is switching to the Latin alphabet — its third change of script in the past century.

These are heady days for the country's language cops. According to a June decree by President Heidar Aliyev, all official documents, commercial signs and outdoor advertising, as well as Azeri-language newspapers, magazines and books, must change to the Latin alphabet.

Proponents of the change say it will bind the Caucasus nation of 7.7 million people closer to the outside world and reduce Russian cultural domination. But many Azeris fear it will marginalize Russian-speakers and cause a rift in this mostly Muslim society.

I am afraid of becoming a second-class citizen in the country where I was born and which I consider my homeland, just because I don't know Azeri," says 50-year-old Rugiya Mamedova, a teacher at a Russian-language elementary school in Baku.

Mamedova says she fears the decree will cause enrollment at Russian-language schools to decline and that she will be out of a job.

In Baku, city authorities have torn down about 50 billboards with Cyrillic ads, which will be replaced when the ad companies come up with Latin ones. Authorities also began visiting shops on Thursday warning that they had to change their signs — though no fines are planned as yet if they don't.

Some companies have made the switch. Pepsi-Cola's urge to "buy, open, win" is now in Latin letters, as is a local cellphone company's "Have a good time with Sim-Sim."

To help the new campaign along, billboards have been painted with Latin-lettered verses from one of Azerbaijan's classical 20th-century poets, Samed Burgun:

"You're my breath, you're my light and water, Before me your cities open up, I'm all yours forever, given to you as a son, Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan!"

Alphabet switches aren't new to this part of Asia. Turkish, to which Azeri is closely related, went from the Arabic alphabet to Latin letters in 1928. In the past decade, the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose languages are also part of the Turkic family, have adopted the Latin alphabet, which linguists argue is better suited to Turkic phonetics.

Azerbaijan has been slowly moving toward the Latin alphabet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but previous decrees lacked strict requirements and concrete deadlines.

The Azeris, who for centuries wrote in the Arabic script, had to use Cyrillic for most of Soviet rule, except for a 1929-39 experiment with Latin.

"The Soviet leadership was afraid of strengthening ties with the Turkish world," says Nizami Dzhafarov, head of the Ataturk Center, which studies Turkic languages.

Soviet policies and ethnic diversity also led to the widespread use of Russian across Azerbaijan. Those who did not speak Russian fluently came to be considered ignorant.

Russian remains widely spoken in Azerbaijan, not only among Russians and other minorities, but also among ethnic Azeris in urban areas.

"Knowledge of this language will remain important for a long time, if not forever, since many of us view our northern neighbor, Russia, as a place to find a job or open a business," says 35-year-old businessman Fuad Mamedov.