Estonia: Twisted Tongues

estonia-sovietTALLINN, 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 language.

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 September conference.

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 said.

“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 speaking Estonian.

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.”


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