Estonia: Twisted Tongues
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Thu Sep 13 13:42:09 UTC 2007
TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Estonia: Twisted Tongues
by Joel Alas
12 September 2007
Debates about whether the country's Russian population should be
forced to learn Estonian are raising questions about long-standing
citizenship requirements and multiculturalism.
TALLINN, Estonia | It's a warm September day in central Tallinn, but
the heat inside the hotel conference room has nothing to do with the
baking sunlight. Fiery exchanges fly from the delegates to the
conference moderator, a young woman who struggles to maintain
composure as she bears the brunt of their anger. The topic for
discussion is integration between Estonian- and Russian-speaking
communities, an issue the nation has struggled with through its 16
years of independence. The move to shore up an effective integration
strategy gained new impetus after late April, when the fragile facade
of coexistence was shattered by the Bronze Soldier riots. Over three
nights, young Russians clashed with police and ransacked the downtown
in protest over the relocation of a Red Army monument.
The purpose of the late-summer conference, held just a few hundred
meters from Toompea Castle, where the Estonian Parliament meets, is
for policy makers to harvest feedback from interest groups on a draft
integration program for the upcoming five years. But flipping through
the summary document, it's hard not to question whether it's actually
an assimilation program. Each of the program's objectives – economic,
legal, and cultural enhancements of Estonian-Russian interaction –
stems from a single mantra: everyone who wants to participate in this
society must speak the Estonian language. This central principle has
fired up some Russian-speaking conference delegates, and they are
greeted with applause as they stand to voice their opinions.
"The priority of this program and previous programs like it is that
the only priority is studying Estonian," says Liidia Kolvart, a
representative of the minorities advocacy group Luura. "Language is
only a means of communication to understand the standpoints of various
cultures. Language is the means, not the end." Estonia's stoic defense
of its language draws similar criticism on a regular basis.
International watchdog and human rights advocacy groups frequently
raise concerns about the government's steadfast conviction that its
Russian community – 26 percent of its 1.3 million residents – must
learn the state language.
SHAKY STATUS QUO
Throughout half a century of Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands
of Russians were relocated to Estonia, mostly to work in factories.
For those who grew roots and remained after independence, Estonia
offered citizenship on the condition that they pass a language and
culture test. Today only 40 percent have taken the test, while 20
percent cling to Russian citizenship and 40 percent remain stateless.
Government statistics show that 52 percent of residents who identify
as Russian speakers are also fluent in Estonian. For the remaining 48
percent, economic and social opportunities are limited. They have few
career options because a certificate of competence in the Estonian
language is required to hold certain positions, a condition that is
enforced through random checks by the Language Inspectorate. Education
opportunities are limited, as only 81 primary and secondary schools
deliver lessons in the Russian language, and no college or university
offers entire programs in Russian.
Some international lobby groups have beseeched Estonia to be more
lenient with its Russian speakers by softening language requirements.
In a report released in late 2006, Amnesty International called for
Russian to be recognized as an official minority language. More
recently, a July 2007 Council of Europe memorandum on human rights
recommended among other measures that Estonia scrap the citizenship
language exam requirement for elderly applicants. The memorandum also
states, "A common language for all the citizens could co-exist with
the perpetuation of regional or minority languages."
Before Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, Brussels urged the
country to integrate the Russian minority into the country and to
respect non-Estonian speakers.
But Estonia remains forthright – the protection of its language is not
open for negotiation. On the one hand, it's not hard to understand the
state's determination. Estonia is a nation that lived under occupation
for centuries; it was invaded frequently by stronger neighbors because
of its geographical advantages. When independence was regained finally
in 1991, the principle of preserving the Estonian language as a sign
of national heritage and freedom was embedded in the new Constitution.
Urve Palo, minister of population and ethnic affairs, said that
despite the Council of Europe memorandum, the government "will not
change the basic rules… [that] were established at the beginning of
independence." "Our government does a lot to help non-citizens," Palo
said. "We have a system where they can take a language course and get
the money back if they pass the test. In the school time there are
free language courses. We have the same social rights for residents
who are non-citizens for education and health, and the right to vote
at local municipal elections."
There are restrictions, however, on non-citizens voting at the
national level. Palo also said the Russian media attempt to portray
Estonia as discriminating against its Russian minority.
"Unfortunately, their media does their job very well," he said. "We
know we are a democratic country, where everyone has the same
possibilities to develop. But we have to have the same rules for
everyone to get citizenship. Of course it's possible to live here
without speaking the language, but if you want to go to university, if
you want a good career, you need to learn Estonian. I think young
people understand that, and they are learning."
The new draft integration plan for 2008 to 2013, presented at the
Tallinn conference, reiterates the government's insistence that for
such inclusion, residents must speak Estonian. As the plan states, its
goal on the one hand is to "maintain idiosyncrasies" among its
residents. But ultimately, the government should aim for the
"homogenisation of the society on the basis of knowledge of the
Estonian language and Estonian citizenship."
A similar integration program is underway currently, and its resources
largely go to non-governmental organizations that run specialized
programs assisting minority groups. The recent divisions in Estonian
society give the new plan heightened importance. The draft generally
calls for the development of a "single national identity," improved
competitiveness of non-Estonians in the labor market, and increased
involvement of non-Estonians in society and politics. It offers few
measures, however, for achieving these goals; in it current state, it
is largely a mission statement for what policy makers should focus on
in coming years.
LEARNING THE ROPES
What the plan does stipulate more specifically are ways to improve
Estonian language skills among minority populations. The draft, for
example, calls for increased Estonian language lessons in schools. In
recent years, the state has taken some steps to help Russian students
learn Estonian, which is a branch of Finno-Ugric language group with a
difficult grammatical structure and a hard-to-perfect accent. The
latest of these developments was introduced on 1 September in Russian
schools, or Estonian public schools that deliver lessons in Russian.
All 10th-grade students at these schools now will be required to take
one class each week in Estonian literature, taught in the Estonian
An overhaul of the education system eventually will see 60 percent of
the curriculum in senior grades at Russian schools delivered in
Estonian. But a key policy shaper in the integration process believes
Russian young people aren't the only ones who should be subjected to
new educational requirements; he says Estonians also have a lot to
learn about the state's minority populations.
Ain Aaviksoo is chairman of the board at the Praxis Centre for Policy
Studies, a think-tank commissioned by the Estonian Government to help
steer the current integration program. Aaviksoo introduced the draft
concepts of the state integration program to delegates at the
He argued that Estonians should drop their defensive attitude toward
language, which often is perceived as a hostile barrier by those who
consider learning it.
"There are things we can't change about history and our past issues,
but we can change our attitudes toward our co-patriots," Aaviksoo
"Our constitution says that one reason for the existence of the state
is to preserve our language and culture," he said. "The problem is how
to interpret that. If you adopt a protective approach, then in a way
you create enemies of every outsider. But if [the way] you define the
ideal situation for Estonia is as a country that … interacts with
others, the rational follow-on is that you can't be hostile to
outsiders. You have to be capable of embracing them." Aaviksoo
suggested it might be time for Estonians to take a class in how to
help foreigners – and resident Russians – ease into their national
language. Many Russians say they feel more comfortable speaking
Russian because too much attention is placed on perfection when
Aiviksoo pointed to the conflict over language as a testament to
Estonia's wavering ability to embrace a multicultural society. "There
is one question that Estonia as a nation has to answer honestly – do
we want people of different backgrounds to be here?" Aaviksoo said.
"If our behavior is as if we do not want them to be here, then we have
to look at ourselves and accept the criticism often levelled against
us. It's not only about rhetoric, it's how we act."
Joel Alas is the Tallinn bureau chief for The Baltic Times.
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