Amnesty International report on Estonia

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 8 13:42:04 UTC 2006

The Amnesty Report

So the new report about Estonia's minority policies by Amnesty
International is out and it is meaty. The document, entitled Estonia
Linguistic minorities in Estonia: Discrimination must end at first glance
appears like an indictment of current minority policies. But if you
actually go through and read Amnesty's Report, you will see that Amnesty,
as a whole, agrees with Estonia's integration policies, but believes that
they should be better funded, and that economic barriers for
Russian-speakers in private business should be removed in areas where
Russian-speakers make up an overwhelming majority. For example, Amnesty
makes it clear that it supports the scheduled school reforms, but it
points out areas where the Estonian government should focus to end
discrimination, as the NGO deems it. For example, Amnesty recommends:

The Estonian authorities to monitor levels of drop-out rates in secondary
schools where Russian is replaced by Estonian as the language of teaching;
to provide more support for teachers who will be required to replace
Russian with Estonian as their language of teaching; to provide additional
and adequate resources (including necessary psychological and learning
supports) for all students who are required to replace Russian with
Estonian as their learning language to successfully manage this

Amnesty also takes a hard look at Ida-Virumaa:

In many parts of Estonia, notably the north-eastern region of Ida-Virumaa,
Estonian is not spoken by the majority of those residing in the region.
This means that Estonian language skills are de facto not necessarily
needed in all professions. The result is that although many persons
belonging to the Russian-speaking linguistic minority would be able to
carry out several functions in the labour market without endangering
public safety or order, they find themselves unemployed with no or limited
realistic opportunities to gain legal employment in the formal sector as
they do not have the appropriate Estonian language certificate. I advise
anyone who is interested to read this report. My first reaction is "easier
said than done" but when you have Amnesty International essentially
agreeing with Estonia's integration policies - agreeing with its unitary
language policy in the public sphere, I can't say there is much to
complain about. Can Estonia's integration policies be steamlined or made
more effective? Of course they can.

I think Estonians are still very frightened by the Russian language. They
feel as if there is a seven-ton linguistic elephant hovering over their
small land at all times. But the reality is that *physically* most of
Estonia is populated by Estonians that speak the Estonian language. And it
takes two and a half hours by bus to get to the overwhelmingly
Russian-speaking portion of Estonia in Narva and Sillame. There are
neighborhoods in Tallinn where people only speak Russian - but there are
neighborhoods in New York and London also where people only speak Russian
too. In some ways you could consider these minorities - the Narva minority
versus the Tallinn minority - to be in very different situations. The
Tallinners are undergoing a pretty stereotypical "immigrant experience."
Like Italians in New York's Little Italy of the 1900s, they live in
communal neighborhoods, preserving their culture, but using the language
of the majority - in that case English, in this case Estonian - to
interact in the private and public spheres. In Narva, you have much more
of a "national minority" situation. This is where you have an ethnically
different community residing at some distance from the national ethnic
majority. The Russian Estonians of Narva, unlike those of Tallinn,
therefore find themselves not unlike the Swedes of the Aaland Islands, or
the Sami of Finnmark, or the Bretons of France (bear with my comparisons
here, for my sake). They are more of a national minority or cultural
isolate than an immigrant community.

Now, I've heard some people tell me that Russian is a "stronger" language.
That if it isn't kept in check it will overtake Estonian - turning Estonia
into the next Ingria or Karelia - Finnic lands that have been colonized by
Slavs. This is a deep-seated, territorial fear. I respect it. Yet even
when 25 percent of the residents of Estonia speak Russian as their native
tongue, the language somehow hasn't caught on. In fact it's the Russian
teenagers in Tallinn that correct MY bad Estonian when I attempt to order
something or pay for tickets. And the younger generation of ethnic
Estonians - those younger than 25, even in Tallinn, barely speak Russian
at all.

Amnesty International is an NGO. It does not know all and does not command
the moral respect of a God. However, they have invested time into
preparing this report, and I am not afraid to reconsider some of the
questions that exist regarding Estonia's minority policies.


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