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Article, Human Rights, Multiculturalism

The Russian-Estonian Debate: The Language of Instruction for Schools in Estonia

By Vladislav Strnad, The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy

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Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has criticized Estonia in connection with various Russian-language schools opting to teach in Estonian, without taking into account the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia. “This decision is not only contrary to the international obligations of Estonia in the field of protection of national minorities, but also violates the provisions of the State Constitution, which indicates that the school chooses the language of the education.” The Russian Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Human Rights, Konstantin Dolgov, considers this decision as “another example illustrating the reluctance of the Estonian authorities to take into account the rights of Russian-speaking population, the largest ethnic minority in Estonia.” According to him, Tallinn has been implementing a discriminatory policy of forced assimilation for a long time.(1)

This Russian reaction followed after the Estonian government refused to allow four Russian gymnasiums in Tallinn to keep teaching in Russian. According to the Ministry of Education of Estonia, there is no legislation standing in the way of the transition to 60% of teaching to be in Estonian. This reform was decided in 1997 and the law was adopted in 2007. The Ministry maintains that schools have been given plenty of time to prepare for the transition, which was to be put into full effect the year 2011/2012.(2)

The Estonian Constitution gives the rights to national minorities to choose the language of education. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities provides state aid for education in minority languages. There is also a law on primary and secondary education, which declares that the Governing Board of the school has the right to choose the language of teaching but in order for this to happen they are required to send the proposal to their local government, which then asks the government for permission.

The Estonian society is multinational for many historical reasons. From 1918, Estonia was under the control of Russia, then after 1940 it became part of the Soviet state. After the extensive industrialization of 1940 the region experienced a massive influx of Soviet immigrants. Therefore the Russians became the dominant group and Russian the dominant language; the wave of Sovietisation affected all segments of society. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Estonia regained independence but a large Russian-speaking minority remained on its territory and a number of unresolved issues remained between the two nations- the status and rights of the Russian minority being one of them. The Russians are opposed to nationalism for fear of it becoming a symbol of the Soviet regime. There are concerns about the national culture, language and identity influencing state policy towards minorities. From a psychological point of view, the Russians have difficulties coping with the loss of their authoritative status. They have different ethnic, linguistic and cultural characteristics which are they trying to maintain.

The bilingual education system existed in Soviet Estonia, but in the 90s the structure of society changed and a stronger nationalist sentiment grew leading to the only official language being taught in schools becoming Estonian and teaching in Russian was gradually reduced. Public high schools, followed then by private schools, were abolished due to the mismatch of the curriculum with Estonia’s educational standards. The Institute of Economics and Management (Ecomen) is the last private college in Estonia where the students are taught in Russian. The Institute, however, has also been forced to shut down due to complaints from the State.(3) The government has claimed thae reason being is in order to enhance competitiveness and improve preparation for further studies. Certain Russian state schools were closed due to insufficient numbers of children. Now in Estonia there are 63 primary and secondary schools that are teaching in Russian. Gymnasiums switched to teaching mainly in Estonian.

The emergence of the NGO “Russian School of Estonia” was the retaliatory action of the Russian minority. The aim of the organization is to defend the interests of Russian schools and appeal to compliance with national and international legislation. “The Russian School of Estonia” organized various meetings, rallies and calls to relevant international institutions, whilst also collectinf signatures in support of Russian schools. It managed to raise public interest for the “Russian language” issue. However, in 2012 the government refused to support 15 high schools to continue running. Local governments in Tallinn and Narva (mainly Russian speaking cities) complained against the “Estonia-ization” in court. The courts rejected the complaint immediately. Tallinn’s court justified its decision by reference to the judgment of the European court, which recognizes the right of the state to protect its national language in order to preserve national identity and development. However, in the capital, schools operate with classes in English and Finnish.(4) The four schools in Tallinn have appealed and it seems the fate of Russian schools in Estonia will be decided by the Supreme Court.(5)

Various gymnasiums are taking the complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, which in the case of Cyprus vs. Turkey, ruled that the failure to give Greek children the option to graduate from high school in Greek was a violation of Article 2 of the First Protocol to the Convention, which guarantees the right to education for all.

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Administration of Tallinn and Narva wanted to circumvent the ban on the establishment of private activities of Russian gymnasiums financed from the city budget. The Minister of Justice of Estonia stands against this, because according to the Constitution of Estonia, primary schools must provide education in Estonian. He also pointed out the contradiction with the principle of equality.(6)

Keskerakond (the Centre Party) is in power in Tallinn, which is in opposition to the ruling Reformierakond (the Reform Party). The Municipal Administration of Tallinn called for an amendment to the law on private schools. If a state or local government acts as founder, owner or shareholder of a private school, the same rules apply to this school as for local schools and the educational language is Estonian. Teaching in another language (eg. in Russian) is only possible if the government approves it.(7)

The Council of Association “Russian School of Estonia,” urged the Government of Estonia, the High Commissioner OSCE and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights to assist in the implementation of the principle of equality in Estonia. According to them, the process of integration shows features of assimilation. The laws of the Republic of Estonia include several articles that give the right to education in their mother tongue, so the law prohibiting teaching in Russian is in conflict with the law about the primary schools and secondary schools.(8)

The Ministry of Education and Science said that it considers the application for the conservation of education in Russian as unjustified, because in accordance with the law and with the Russian school itself, it planned for the transition of teaching from Russian to Estonian. They can, however, still negotiate about the future of Russian schools.(9)

The Minister of Education said that he would not be against schools which are supported by Russia, as there exists schools in Estonia which are supported by Finland and Germany. The Tallinn German Gymnasium even received an exemption from the Ministry of Education and has part of the educational instruction in German. In Estonia there is also an English College and German and Jewish gymnasiums. “I have nothing against the fact that such an agreement was signed and supported by the Russian Federation and that this school in particular would be really in depth with their teaching of the Russian language, literature, culture, economy,” said the minister.(10)

In the meeting with advisors of the High Commissioner OSCE, “The Russian School of Estonia” presented evidence confirming that educational topics and themes of the Russian minority in Estonia are highly politicized.(11) High Commissioner OSCE Knut Vollebæk noted that the process of integration in Estonia is developing in a positive direction, and representatives of all nationalities, including non-citizens want to integrate into the Estonian society. Vollebæk would like to see a deeper integration much more quickly. Commissar upholds that the knowledge of the national language is an important factor of integration. However, opportunities for education in the minority language should remain adequate. According to the Commissioner, it’s not only the facts which are important, but also how the problem is perceived by society. (12,13)

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Nowadays, over 300,000 Russians are living in Estonia, which is 25% of the population. In Tallinn, non-Estonians constitute 66.1% of the population. In Narva, which is the industrial area in the northeast of the country, they account for about 97% of the population. One of the conditions for the application for citizenship is perfect competence of the Estonian language, which is a problem for the older generation. Moreover there is legislative pressure of the government on a minority – Citizenship Law, the Law on Education in Russian Schools – is counterproductive and causes resistance to the integration into the society in which they live. The School reform has taken place despite mass protests of Russian-speaking citizens and their grievances to the courts and legislative bodies of the European Union. Russian minorities, as well as all other residents from within the European Union, have the right to fight for their rights and for equality. Russians in Estonia are not against the teaching of the Estonian language, but they do not want to lose their roots, culture and language.

The topic of the Russian minority in the Baltic States has always been very sensitive, though of course, the Russian political representation is in favor of the rights of its people, and seeks support in international institutions.

President of RF Putin writes in his article, “In the strongest terms we will enforce that the governments of Latvia and Estonia adhere to a series of recommendations from reputable international organizations, and many recommendations from authoritative international organizations related to a compliance with generally recognized rights of national minorities. It is not possible to tolerate the existence of the disgraceful term of “non-citizen”. How can we accept the fact that every sixth Latvian resident and every thirteenth citizen of Estonia is a “non-citizen”, deprived of basic political, electoral and socio-economic rights and the ability to freely use the Russian language?”(14)

The aforementioned minority rights are guaranteed by article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights EU, the Constitution of Estonia and by a bilateral agreement between Estonia and the Russian Federation. Rights are adjusted by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995), the Document Copenhagen session of the Conference on Human Rights, OSCE (1990), the Hague recommendations regarding the rights of national minorities to education (1996), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992). These documents extend the rights of minorities to preserve their identity by the protection of their mother tongue.(15)

Since 1993, the OSCE mission in Estonia oversaw the promotion of integration and understanding between communities. High Commissioner for minority rights has given many recommendations regarding the laws on citizenship and language laws. Resolving minority issues was one of the conditions for the entry of Estonia into the EU. Estonia is considered as a European country and a democratic state. Nationalism and insensitive treatment are reasons why deep ethnic division of the company has remained. Unresolved disputes with RF burden the cooperation between countries.

Around 100000 citizens of the Russian Federation are living in Estonia, who, according to the Constitution of Russian Federation, have the right to study in Russian. The government of the Russian Federation together with the Government of the Republic of Estonia signed an agreement on cooperation in education in 1994. The Agreement recognizes the right of everyone to receive an education, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. States are committed to provide organizational, pedagogical, methodological and financial support to all schools which are teaching in the language of the other country. Each of the states committed to enable and promote its territory to persons belonging to linguistic and ethnic groups and to different social associations to establishing educational institutions.

This means that by the prohibition of teaching in Russian in the Russian gymnasiums, Estonia is in fact breaching the agreement. The agreement gave the Russians in Estonia the right to establish schools under Estonian Law on Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities.(16) Recently, the Government of the Russian Federation and Estonia decided to sign a new agreement, which invalidates the original legislation. The preamble of the new agreement focusses on the cooperation within higher education. The agreement does not mention elementary school and high schools.(17) The civil association “Young Estonia” and “Russian School of Estonia” officially warned the government and the Ministry of the Russian Federation of this fact and expressed concern about the consequences. (18,19)

As well as Estonia, Finland is also solving the issue of Russian minorities. There are only 60,000 Russians living there, but the question of teaching in Russian is also discussed at a government level. The Minister of Justice of Finland is not opposed to the idea that communities with a large minority will self-organize the teaching in Russian. Finland has a large Swedish minority, so Finnish students from 7th to 9th grade are taught Swedish for three years without exception.(20)

We will see how this complex problem will be addressed further.

Sources :

  1. http://www.vz.ru/news/2013/7/15/641403.html
  2. http://www.baltinfo.ru/2013/07/13/Russkaya-shkola-Estonii-Otkaz-russkim-gimnaziyam—eto-borba-s-konstitutcionnymi-pravami-366781
  3. http://vz.ru/news/2013/6/20/638057.html
  4. http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/1553870.html
  5. http://baltija.eu/news/read/31907
  6. http://webkamerton.ru/2013/04/russkaya-shkola-estonii-vtoroe-dyxanie/
  7. http://lenta.ru/news/2013/04/18/schools/
  8. http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/estonia/sovet-russkih-shkol-pravitelstvu-estonii-i-komissaru-se-po-pravam-cheloveka.d?id=36929325
  9. http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/estonia/ministerstvo-nakonec-otvetilo-sovetu-russkih-shkol.d?id=40003083
  10. http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/estonia/video-aaviksoo-ya-ne-budu-protiv-esli-rossiya-budet-podderzhivat-v-estonii-russkie-shkoly.d?id=56840076
  11. http://slavia.ee/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6412:-l-r-&catid=154:2010-09-27-15-23-43&Itemid=276
  12. http://www.dzd.ee/465746/pajet-v-sohranenii-bolshogo-chisla-negrazhdan-vinovata-rossija
  13. http://www.dzd.ee/465730/komissar-obse-reformy-ne-dolzhny-polozhit-konec-obrazovaniju-na-jazyke-nacmenshinstv
  14. http://www.mn.ru/politics/20120227/312306749.html
  15. http://www.lichr.ee/main/assets/School-Rus.pdf
  16. http://www.iarex.ru/news/39143.html
  17. http://government.ru/media/files/41d4700659901ce77342.pdf
  18. http://www.iarex.ru/news/39143.html
  19. http://baltija.eu/news/read/32295
  20. http://www.newsbalt.ru/detail/?ID=12117
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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.

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