Ever wonder what might happen to your country should an alleged "Kremlin stooge" come to power? Just look at Ukraine. Since President Viktor Yanukovich took office in February, Kiev has made nice with Moscow on many fronts after years of acrimony.
On every one of Putin-Medvedev's pet issues, NATO membership, historical revisionism, the future of the Black Sea Fleet, Yanukovich's Ukraine has seen eye to eye with the Russian Federation. There is even talk of deeper integration between the two countries' energy sectors, though any deal will respect Ukraine's sovereignty, of course.
Some call Yanukovich a traitor, others see him as a wily leader who is duping Moscow into giving Kiev more than what it receives in return. But one election pledge that Yanukovich has failed to make good on so far is the elevation of Russian to the status of an official state language.
Russia has a bit of a fetish for official languages. While external observers tend to describe the linguistic situation for many of its minority languages as dire, the Russian Federation maintains a policy of retaining official status for minority languages in certain republics, so that in Mari El, the official languages on paper are still Russian and Mari, though the UN, for example, has criticized the actual treatment of the Mari linguistic minority. As you can imagine, when Yanukovich promised to make Russian an official language of Ukraine, the Kremlin-controlled media swooned.
But there's a problem. In order to make Russian a state language, Yanukovich has to change the constitution, and even he and his mighty coalition of the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and the Bloc Lytvyn, still can't do that. So, instead of mirroring Russia's federal republics, where Russian and the "titular" language are co-official on paper, he's decided to peddle Ukraine down the European route by implementing laws that protect the use of Russian under the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Most countries in Europe have adopted the charter. In this part of Europe, there are three notable exceptions: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Finland ratified the charter in 1994. Sweden ratified it in 2000. Poland ratified it last year. In fact, one of the 15 languages protected by Poland is Russian. But the Baltic countries have yet to ratify this charter, which was the main suggestion of Amnesty International following its controversial critique several years ago.
Language policies continue to be the third rail of politics in the Baltics and, obviously also in Ukraine, because of Soviet language policies, memories of tsarist-era Russification campaigns, and in some places, demographic conditions that would make it difficult to receive any services in the national language at all without state enforcement. So it's a headache, but, in the case of Estonia, I have to ask, had the country not been occupied and annexed in 1940, had it not withstood mass Soviet "population transfer" -- as it is termed -- would it still not have opted to adopt the charter, this same charter that its neighbors have adopted?
There is this idea out there that minorities have no official status in Estonia. This is not true. The 1918 manifesto that proclaimed Estonia's independence specifically mentioned Estonia's minorities: "All ethnic minorities, the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, shall be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy." It's actually the second principle in the manifesto, right after, "All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, shall enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic. "
The Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities, passed first in 1925 and again in 1993, similarly enshrined minority rights. Under the guidelines of the law, national minority cultural autonomy could be established by persons belonging to "German, Russian, Swedish and Jewish minorities and persons belonging to national minorities with a membership of more than 3000."
The problem for the Russian minority in this case is that, with about 340,000 potential "members" in Estonia, it's kind of hard to elect a cultural council that represents everybody's interests. This is not the case for smaller groups like the Estonian Swedes or Ingrian Finns, both of which elected councils based on this law in the last decade. State authorities have noted the trouble for Estonia's Russians in applying the autonomy law, but no consensus has been reached.
So it seems that, in Estonia's case, the adoption of the charter might not actually be a bad option. But should some "Kremlin stooge" come to power in Tallinn and try to adopt the law, would the session end with eggs and smoke bombs on Toompea? Would the politicians who passed such a law be seen as a traitors or wily leaders, "solving" the minority issue once and for all by giving Estonia's minorities freedoms they actually already enjoyed? I don't know. It is reassuring to know that, with Estonia's historical narrative strongly supported in the West, and the country deeply integrated into NATO, there are relatively few opportunities for any sea change in future policies, regardless of who holds power.