Should Russian speakers be obliged to learn Estonian?

FSD’s Olga Shvarova criticises the language-based discrimination ethnic Russians face in Estonia.

When Estonia emerged from the Soviet Union’s wreckage in 1991, the new country relegated much of its Slavic ethnic minority population (35% at the time) to non-citizen status unless they passed an examination in the Estonian language. Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority population finds the requirement problematic for several reasons. During the Soviet era, Russian was the official language in Estonia; it was the native language among 35% of the country’s population in 1989 and is still a major language today – 65% of Estonians speak it. Estonian on the other hand had limited presence in the republic between 1940 and 1991, though it was taught in some primary schools. Only one-third of ethnic Russians in Estonia have been granted Estonian citizenship since the1990s, either by passing the language exam or through exemption. The remaining two-thirds insist that Russian language at least be given minority status.

In 2006 Amnesty International brought attention to this issue of language minorities in Estonia and suggested that Russian should be officially recognised as a minority language. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance criticised Estonia in 2010 for the country’s high proportion of non-citizens (then at 8%) and commented that the naturalisation process was being hampered by excessively difficult language examinations. Estonia responded by offering free Estonian language courses to all, even providing translators in some cases, all the while maintaining its firm position that Estonia should only have one official language – Estonian.

In September 2012 debates on the Russian language’s status in Estonia flared up anew as a law was passed obliging Russian schools to teach subjects in Estonian. Russian speakers objected, claiming a lack of qualified teachers would make this requirement impossible. Some schools are now facing closure as a result.

Linguistic discrimination in Estonia has roots in recent history. After the Soviet system’s collapse, some of the most attractive property in Estonia ended up in the hands of the former local ruling elites – the Russians. To prevent the concentration of power in their hands, Estonians passed laws denying Russians the right to own large amounts of property and removing them from positions of power. The non-citizen status was born from a clash of old power, accustomed to control and privilege, and new power, keen on getting their own country back. The Russian language has consequently been regarded as foreign since 1991.

Many Estonians see Russian-speaking residents as disloyal to their country, uninterested in Estonian culture and unwilling to learn their language. The former education minister Tonis Lukas recently said: “If the transfer of all educational materials to Estonian depended only on me, it would be done tomorrow.” Some also consider the Russian language an instrument of Moscow’s cultural and political manipulation. Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper Der Bund that Russian is “the language of the occupation” and therefore categorically refuses to speak it.

Russians in Estonia are trying to maintain their cultural and linguistic identity. Many, especially among the older generations, consider the diminishing of their language tantamount to the loss of equality. I understand why Estonians are stressing their cultural and linguistic heritage, but couldn’t this be done alongside a minority language?

Russian language and culture will not disappear from Estonia by magic. Can two languages co-exist in a small EU country? Belgium, Switzerland and Finland prove yes. The question of Russian language in Estonia is therefore not purely administrative. It points at two separate problems: the difficulties Estonia faces as a multicultural country, which needs to re-create and protect its own identity, and the difficulty of reaching agreement on the historical events of the 20th century between two ethnic groups.

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Comments (4)

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  1. The requirement to learn Estonian as a condition of citizenship is not discrimination: it is a sensible and essential condition, for how otherwise can one follow debate and vote? Learning Estonian at school for ‘Russian’ children should be required. But it would be equally wrong to ban Russian ethnics from maintaining their language and culture. Perhaps each can learn from the other, if there is a modicum of goodwill. But I suspect that goodwill is a lacking commodity: the Estonian people suffered too much and too long under the Stalin terror.

    • Thank you very much for your comment. It is discouraging to see, how the difficulty of reaching agreement on the historical events between Russians and Estonians can create such problems. The goodwill indeed is lacking commodity, but the vengeance should never be the answer. Hopefully, as the new generations grow up, it would be easier for people, who speak the same language and are brought up withing the same education system, to relate to each other.

  2. The bad thing is that the whole Estonian-Russian language problem hinges on historical vengeance, and it is indeed should not be there. I agree – the Russians should, in ideal scenario, do exactly what the Swedish did in Finland – learn the language and assimilate; the situation looks unsavoury in Estonia as both sides pick up linguistic issues as weapons in a different debate, mostly political and socioeconomic. The linguistic problem does not exist BTW for the new generation of ethnically Russian kids, who are practically bilingual – it would be most interesting to see what their social status will be when they reach employable age.

  3. Some comments. Belgium and Switzerland reflect different historical situations. Belgium and Finland are also hardly examples of harmonious linguistic relationships within Europe. The conflict driving Belgium apart is exactly the fact that Walloon and Flemish speakers tend also to be divided along socioeconomic lines (cf. your economic comment on the status of Russians in Estonia). The Swedish population of Finland has declined (by emigration), and the Swedish elites in Finland fennicised consciously, precisely because they wished to (be seen to) belong to the developing Finnish nation. If Russians are serious about Estonia, then yes, they should be able to speak Estonian, even if as a second language. A vengeance argument (the Soviets imposed Russian on Estonia, so Estonia should impose Estonian on Russians) should not be made.
    I’m also in agreement with you in your comments on education policy, there one needs to be careful that a language policy doesn’t mean lack of access to education

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