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Russian education with deferred sentence in Estonia

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Russian education with deferred sentence in Estonia


Alla Berezovskaya

The situation with Russian schools in Estonia can be compared with a volcano that woke up due to external interferences. Over the past 30 years, it has either waned or reawakened. Earlier this year, the local National Reform Party got back to the ruling coalition and raised its favorite, albeit thrice-told agenda - a plan to completely transfer school education into the Estonian language.

The fact that has practically become a reality in neighboring Latvia is still under discussion in the Estonian ruling establishments. The Russian-speaking residents of Estonia that make at least 25 percent of the local population are still a little more fortunate in this regard than their fellow tribesmen in Latvia. According to the Education Act of the Republic of Estonia, pupils of minority schools still have the right to study up to grade 9 in their native language.

The poster says: "I want to study in Russian!" Photo credit:

From grade 9 to grade 12, more than 60 percent of school subjects should be taught in the state language. But in some cases, this proportion can be changed at the parents’ request.

For example, in Tallinn, where more than half of the residents do not belong to the titular ethnic group, some Russian gymnasiums get permission to continue education in their native language in the upper grades. According to Mihhail Kõlvart, the Mayor of Tallinn and a representative of the Centrist Party, the main task is to improve the quality of education, including learning the Estonian language but not to the detriment of other subjects. And until recently, the balance struck in the school issue was basically a win-win for everyone.

Variety of schools is essential

Unfortunately, it was Kersti Kaljulaid who began to make negative statements about the Russian language and Russian education with increasing frequency. And thus, the volcano awakening process started this year. According to the president, all children in Estonia must study in the state language regardless of the language spoken in the family. “There is one state language in Estonia, it is Estonian, and so we are not obliged to bring up children in any other language. For example, Germany does the same - all education is conducted in German there,” the head of state said recently answering journalists' questions and hinting that it is necessary to start with kindergartens. Although even in the distant pre-war times, local schools in Estonia taught children not only in Estonian but also in German and Russian.

As for Germany, here Ma'am President is either deliberately disingenuous or demonstrates unforgivable ignorance. Since 1955, Danish-language schools have been successfully operating in the state of Schleswig-Holstein in accordance with an agreement between Denmark and Germany. In turn, governmental German schools have been set up for children from German-speaking families in Denmark.

Although, the example of neighboring Finland with education in Finnish and Swedish would, of course, be more relevant for Estonia. Do you want more examples? Belgium has French and Dutch schools, while Italy has Italian and German ones. Luxembourg offers education is in Luxemborgian, German, and French. Canada provides a full cycle of studies in English and French…

However, the advanced countries are not role models for Estonians. And if the president herself suddenly spoke out against Russian education, then it is simply a crime for state authorities to stay aside! The Ministry of Education immediately announced its readiness to start developing a detailed plan for the complete transition of the education system into Estonian. A working group was formed for this purpose. It undertook enhanced commitments to deliver the plan by November of this year.

More languages - more knowledge

At the very first closed meeting, it was announced that the Estonianization of Russian schools is expected to be completed by 2035. And it is to be done in accordance with the existing program for the development of the Estonian language. But, according to the Minister of Education, in some places, this may happen even earlier, which can only be saluted. As usual, all the innovations are explained solely by the concern for Russian children, who cannot enter Estonian universities due to their poor command of the state language. And the Russian language was expelled from the universities a long time ago, apparently for the same reasons…

The state has promised to cover expenses for additional classes for Russian students studying in Estonian. Well, in 2018, the Russians of Latvia already heard similar promises from Nils Ušakovs, the leader of the Harmony party. He did his best to dissuade the Russian community from fighting for their schools. On behalf of the Riga City Council, he also promised them paid extended learning activities where Russian children would be able to discuss and figure out things if they did not understand them in Latvian. But the ex-mayor moved to the European Parliament a long time ago, and there are still no classes he promised for Russian schoolchildren. There is only one state language...

So our compatriots have not believed the beautiful promises of the Estonian government for a long time now. Moreover, everything happens in violation of what is declared in both the Constitution of the country and the pre-election promises of politicians. The number of Russian schools in Estonia reduces with every year passing by. Despite the pleas of parents and children, protests, and petitions of teachers, Russian educational institutions have been closed or are on their way out in many small Estonian towns, including Keila, Kiviõli, Kallaste.

The proportion of Russian speakers in the entire population of Estonia (according to the 2000 census). Photo credit: DVoit/

Parents, together with teachers, keep trying to save their schools in courts in some locations, but they have almost no chance of winning. Estonianization is making huge leaps across the country. Newly opened schools in the North-East of the republic offer the entire curriculum in Estonian only. At the same time, everyone is well aware that not all children from non-Estonian families will be able to study successfully in a foreign language.

Until recently, more adequate Estonian politicians were not afraid to even speak about it publicly, but now they are almost silent. Although it was them who admitted that the children’s performance after being transferred to Estonian schools declined sharply in most cases, which often caused emotional scars.

Will Europe help?

Alisa Blintsova is the co-chairman of the Russian School of Estonia, a non-profit organization, and human rights activist. She is a mother of four children, the youngest daughter is just over a year old, the eldest one will finish school next year. For more than ten years now, Alisa and her associates have been defending the right to educate children in their native language.

Alisa Blintsova

Two years ago, largely due to her persistence, the then OSCE Commissioner for National Minorities visited Estonia and personally studied the situation with the rights of Russian-speaking residents in the country. After that, Estonia received another batch of recommendations from European inspectors and ignored them again.

And now the government has decided to get even tougher. At the request of the Russkiy Mir, Alisa Blintsova commented on the plans of the Estonian authorities to eliminate Russian education:

- Estonia follows a softer path in the field of education than Latvia. The latter managed to deal with Russian schools in just three years. The Estonian program for the transition to the state language of education is designed for the period until 2035. Most likely, they want the Russian school to die naturally in 10 to15 years. I think it was a kind of compromise between the centrists and reformists. The former were allegedly fighters for the preservation of Russian education, the latter were their opponents. In order to stay in power and not disappoint their electorate, the parties agreed not to rush, but also not to give up the object in view, i.e. to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds…

In the meantime, the commission of the Estonian Ministry of Education has already begun to work on the implementation of plans to transfer schools to the state language. Do they invite representatives of the Russian community, such as parents, public activists, for discussions?

– All decisions concerning national minorities in Estonia are taken behind the scenes. No one invites anyone for discussions. I know that Latvia practices such an approach. There are even advisory councils under the Ministry of Education and under the President. But this is not the case here. And now a dedicated group has been created to solve the most important issue for the Russian-speaking residents of the country. But no one is interested in their opinion at all. Yes, the Constitution and the Law "On Education" stipulate that the right to choose the language of the instruction remains with the parents. They all proudly refer to this stipulation and ... do everything possible for the Russian school to self-destruct.

How is it supposed to happen?

– There are lots of methods even now. For example, school principals can be replaced with more compliant and "correct" ones; the relevant efforts can be made toward gymnasiums’ administrations by inspections. Furthermore, Russian schools are suppressed through financial mechanisms. Minority schools receive additional funding for each new subject that is transferred into the Estonian language of instruction. The more Estonian there is in the school, the more funding it gets. Then there is one smart scheme: under the guise of integration, optimization, or for deeper language immersion, the Estonian and Russian schools are united beneath the same roof. And then, within a year or two, the Russian classes are eliminated. In such a way, 3-4 schools have already been quietly removed in almost all cities.

And how do parents now feel about the announced plan to eliminate Russian education?

– Since the execution of the sentence has been deferred until 2035, there is still no particular concern in society; everyone understands that in 15 years a lot of things will change. Although reformists are trying to reach now Russian kindergartens, absolutely nothing is prepared for their Estonianization. Furthermore, there are Estonian parents who oppose the unification of schools and kindergartens. Apparently, their concern is educational disempowerment for students of the titular ethnic group. So far, these are the political declarations only. Nevertheless, our NGO has already transferred the relevant information to international human rights organizations. Recently, we held an online meeting with the new OSCE High Commissioner for the Rights of National Minorities, Kairat Abdrakhmanov. We drew his attention to the pressure put on representatives of national minorities, told him about the recent groundless arrest of Sergei Seredenko, our human rights defender who used to serve as Russian ombudsman for many years. And, of course, we discussed the problem of Russian education

How did the new commissioner react to your appeal?

– He listened to us very carefully. As it was clear from his words, the OSCE is interested in finding the right solution that will help avoid confrontation. We were asked to think about how we could preserve Russian schools ensuring the involvement of young people in the life of the country. In turn, we asked the Commissioner to lobby for our participation in these processes. We have a lot of our own ideas and suggestions, but the Estonian authorities do not want to listen to us at all. We are not able to voice our plans and wishes; here, in Estonia, no one is interested in them.

Do Russians of Estonia hope that Europe will help them?

– At the local level, our capabilities are limited, so we keep in touch with international and European institutions. To be honest, we do it without hope, although continue our cooperation. However international human rights institutions do not really have any mechanisms to make the authorities comply with their decisions and respond to the comments. Estonia has long understood it; therefore, they are not going to eliminate discrimination of national minorities referring to the received European directives as to non-regulatory ones. Until Russia insists that the rights of Russians living abroad are equally observed, as Poland and Hungary do for their people, nothing will change.

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