I don't have a lot of time to write this, but the ideas are fresh in my head and I want to get them out there. For about a month now, especially after the riotathon in Tallinn a few weeks back, and also in light of last year's Amnesty International report, I have been scratching my head over how to deal with Estonia's so-called minority issues.
I say so-called in that it is abundantly clear that Europe today faces integration problems from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. Some of the minority issues are longstanding -- Roma in Slovakia. Others are newer -- Muslims in Denmark. And some are agewise in between -- Russian-speakers in Estonia. Because of general European convergence these issues are being pushed to the foreground at a time that the absolutist nation state ideal is being tested by the formation of a supranational organization in Europe -- the European Union.
But the question is, how can Estonia act locally in the quest to both preserve its language and make its minorities feel wanted and comfortable and, well, integrated into a larger social whole?
I would like to start this discussion by pointing out a few facts. The first fact is that no major international organizations take issue with Estonia's unilingual state language policy. The fact that the sole official language of Estonia is Estonian is not an issue. It is not even an issue in the Amnesty Report, which endorsed this tenet of Estonian language policy at the same time as critiquing some of its repercussions -- like the existence of the language inspectorate.
A second fact is that no major international organizations take issue with language reform in the Estonian school system. No one is willing to argue that a certain of percentage of schooling in Estonian language is wrong. They critique its implementation, but not the philosophy behind it. Why? Because it is acceptable. The Germans, French, and others know full well that they would do the same when put in a similar situation. So it's not an issue.
However there are several issues that seem to hover unaddressed, and perhaps now is the time to discuss them. One is the idea that Russian-language speakers are not a recognized national minority in Estonia.
My proposal to handle this situation would be to emulate the Swedish model. That is, declare any number of minority languages to be "official minority languages". In Sweden there are five official minority languages -- Finnish, Meänkali, Sami, Romani, and Yiddish. The "test" for determining a minority language rests on the presence of that language in the country for a period of longer than 100 years.
So an Estonian "declaration of minority languages" could follow a similar pattern. Russian, Swedish, Võru, Setu, and other minority languages would receive official recognition of their existence. I think it is correct not to give preferential treatment to one minority group over another depending on size. They all should be treated the same and given similar measures of official recognition.
This will also benefit Estonia in the international environment. It's pretty obvious that Russia's anti-Baltic posturing is used to deflect criticisms about its own dismal human rights situation. By taking such steps, Estonia would be shown to be proactive and the EU would be able to deflect that criticism. And who would argue with the same language policies that they have in Sweden, the greatest country on Earth (TM)?
Secondly, there is the issue of a lack of higher education in Russian. This was one of the central points in the Amnesty report. To handle this policy, I believe that Estonia should look outside of its borders because it is unrealistic to expect that a country of 1.3 million people will be able to support a full higher education system for the benefit of 340,000+ people. It's not feasible.
During the Soviet era, Russian-language instructors could easily be relocated from within the Soviet Union. Now that Estonia is an EU country, it's probably easier to find English language instructors than Russian ones. So the solution here is to form active partnerships with Russian universities. Rather than importing instructors to build a university system for the benefit of 340,000 people, Estonia should work to export its students to universities in St. Petersburg, for example. Make it easy for them to go in terms of getting a visa and sending transcripts. That makes more sense to me. Maybe this option already exists, but, hey, I'm just a blogger.
Finally, on condition of employment and political rights, especially in Ida-Virumaa cities like Kohtla-Järve and Narva, I think that any two speakers of a minority language should have the right to communicate with each other in that language. It's a bit silly to say this because the fact is that this is a right that is already taken. People in Narva aren't preventing from getting a cab in Russian just because of Estonian language policy.
In fact, I believe that this kind of behavior is already protected. But that doesn't matter because sometimes useless acts of political niceness go a long way in making people feel like they count. Never underestimate the value of feel-good statements from politicians. Therefore Toomas Hendrik Ilves should continue making speeches about how "we're all in this together" and "Estonia needs you." It doesn't change much officially, but it helps set the tone.