Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeris Try to Follow Letter of the Law

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Newspaper sales are dropping, computer technicians are working overtime and some oil companies executives are scratching their heads.

The problem — a new alphabet.

Just a week after Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, Azeris are struggling to cope with the new letters.

Following a presidential decree in June, all billboards, shop signs, newspapers, magazines and books had to be rewritten in the Latin script by Aug. 1.

Businesses say they have had problems installing new computer programs and finding enough keyboards to go round. Newspaper offices were forced to work around the clock to switch to the new script.

The AdaNet communications company in Baku said its biggest problem is with keyboards.

"Our computers were prepared for the change because we have gradually been installing new programs for a number of months," said Dennis Neshtoon, the company's technical director. "The biggest problem is that we don't have Azeri keyboards."

Although the language is now written with ABCs, Azeri has some characters, including an upside down "e," cedillas and umlauts, that aren't found on ordinary Latin-alphabet keyboards.

The government has not yet indicated when it plans to introduce an official Azeri keyboard.

In the meantime, businesses are ordering keyboards by the truckload from Turkey, which has a similar alphabet. The Azeri ambassador to Turkey has even appealed to Turkish businesses to help provide keyboards and typewriters.

Western oil companies working in the region say the new alphabet has sparked a dilemma of whether to continue translating documents into Russian or to follow the national trend and start translating into Azeri instead. Traditionally, businesses have worked in Russian, which is as widely spoken as Azeri.

"Obviously this issue now has the attention of the authorities and so it is something we need to look at more closely," said a foreign oil representative in Baku who asked not to be identified.

He said his firm has started translating internal documents into Azeri.

Supporters of the alphabet changeover say the move will reduce the dominant role of neighboring Russia and cement Azeri ties with the West.

Linguists say the Latin alphabet is better suited to the Azeri language.

But detractors say the law discriminates against Azerbaijan's Russian speakers, who make up more than half the population. Arzu Abdulayeva, head of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a human rights organization based in Baku, said she fears there will be a sharp rise in illiteracy. "Older people simply can't read the new script," she said.

Azerbaijan began using the Cyrillic alphabet in 1939. For centuries, Azeris had written in the Arabic script, and they had a brief spell with the Latin script from 1929 to 1939. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a gradual move toward the Latin alphabet again. Now that move toward Latin is the law.

Newspapers have been struggling to meet last week's deadline. Qabil Abassoglu, the deputy editor of the Yeni Musavat newspaper, said he faced a race against time upgrading the presses.

He also said circulation is down because a lot of his readers cannot read the new script, but he added that his paper had been one of the luckier ones.

"One paper has had to stop printing [its Azeri edition] altogether because it couldn't afford to make the change," he said, referring to Sem Dnei, a weekly entertainment newspaper, which for now publishes only its Russian edition.

Some publications are ignoring the decree. The editor of the weekly Impulse newspaper, Matanyet Aliyev, said he will lose too many readers if he puts his paper out in the new alphabet.

So far, no action has been taken against Impulse because there is no law stating what measures should be taken against non-law-abiding publications.

The June decree ordered the Cabinet to come up with a way to deal with alphabet lawbreakers.

Aliyev said he knows the government is drafting such a law. But in the meantime, he said, he will continue to put out his paper in Cyrillic.