The excerpt making the rounds is the following, the Swiss paper asked Ilves why Russian wasn't an official second language of the Republic of Estonia, and Ilves deflected it with a short history lesson and a laugh. "Don't ask me ridiculous questions." I've heard this stuff before, a million times. Sometimes Estonian leaders deflect to Germany when these questions are tossed in their direction, "There are X many Turks in Germany" ... To which the German mind silently processes, "Yes, but they're Muslims ..." and then moves onto the next question. This time Ilves trotted out the Occupation rhetoric, but there was a gem in the rough.
Toome näiteks: me okupeerime teie maa ja pärast 50 aastat ütleme, et te peate eesti keele ametlikuks keeleks tegema.
"How about we occupy your country and after 50 years tell you that you have to make Estonian your official language."
Now that was splendid. One can imagine the Swiss journalist's mind silently processing, "Yes, but you are a small insignificant country that couldn't occupy another if it tried, well, maybe Latvia ..." but then conveniently moves on to the next question. It also got perhaps a few people to think about things a different way.
As president of Estonia, Ilves has to walk a tightrope when it comes to the "Russian question." On one hand, he's got the right wingers, not to mention segments of the exile community, who fervently resent the presence of Soviet-era migrants and their descendants on the holy soil of the fatherland. On the other hand, a plurality of those Soviet-era migrants and their descendants are Estonian citizens today, and their membership in the Estonian body politic does not need to be qualified, especially by their own president. So, basically, no matter what Ilves says, he's bound to piss off somebody.
Still, I think of these questions as opportunities missed. Why isn't Russian your second official language? Simple: because it does not need to be. First of all, Russians are an official minority -- go consult your Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities (1925, 1993). "National minority cultural autonomy may be established by persons belonging to German, Russian, Swedish and Jewish minorities and persons belonging to national minorities with a membership of more than 3,000." This names Russians as an official minority. It does not qualify them by what year they arrived to Estonia. Russian is the language of instruction of 20 percent of Estonia's public schools. And what are the first foreign languages most pupils, regardless of background, learn in school? Russian and English.
Honestly, I don't know who is Russian and who is Estonian anymore. A good number of my daughter's classmates have Russian surnames, and yet their parents seem as Estonian as one can be. Our publishing house has published books written by Andrei Hvostov, Vahur Afanasjev, Maria Kupinskaja: they're all Estonians too.
The arguments about protecting the Estonian language during the Singing Revolution were coached in terms of ethnic national survival. But in the 22 years since Estonia reverted to having one national language, Estonian has become the default language among those with Estonian and German and Swedish and Russian and Ukrainian and Italian backgrounds. The inhabitants of Estonia have in a way become Homo esticus. This is not a new process. Estonia has a way of luring people in and assimilating them. And if you stand on a hill in Harjuimaa on a breezy day, and put your ear to the wind, you can hear that giant sucking sound ...