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Language Policy in Estonia,
by Mart Rannut


Together with the decrease of functional as well as regional areas where the Estonian language was used, the rapid rise of the status of Russian took place. It was caused by several factors, like Russian being compulsorily the sole language for several functional spheres, the construction of a Russian-medium network of plants, factories, offices, institutions and service bureaus, a parallel to the already operating Estonian-medium ones, as well as entertainment facilities and residence areas, providing full-scale education (including higher education, vocational schools etc) and services in Russian. These structures were filled with the regular massive influx of immigrants. As a result a Russian-speaking environment was created in Estonia with no contacts with Estonians and the Estonian language, hindering effectively possible integration.

Assimilation of third nationalities was one of the key elements in creating this Russian language environment in Estonia. According to the 1989 census, the ethnic composition in Estonia was as follows: 963,000 Estonians, 475,000 Russians, 48,000 Ukrainians, 28,000 Belorussians, 16,600 Finns, 4,600 Jews, 4,000 Tartars, 3,500 Latvians and 3,000 Poles. The group of third nationalities (ethnic non-Estonians and non-Russians) was mostly assimilated to the Russian language (in Estonia!). In this category belonged mostly ethnic Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Germans and Poles -- according to the 1989 census only 40% used their native languages as the first language, 52% were russified, and approximately 8% had switched to Estonian. The percentage of those claiming Russian as their native language was 78.4% among Jews, 67.1% among Belorussians, 63.4% among Poles, 56.5% among Germans, 54.5% among Ukrainians.

4. Language policy of Russification

Language policy in official documents was discussed implicitly under the disguise of ideology. The only exception seemed to be acquisition planning. The goals of the Soviet language policy in Estonia seemed to be:

  1. full-scale Russian monolingualism for Russians, with local titular language learning optional or formal, (with no lessons or even a teacher), backed by cadre rotation (for military personnel, Communist Party bureaucrats);

  2. minority bilingualism for other titular nations, with Russian-medium functional domains in expansion;

  3. assimilation of "third nationalities", mostly to Russian.

The Soviet language policy in Estonia was implemented through a favoured immigration pattern. In order to consolidate immigrants on the basis of Russian language, three steps were implemented:

  • Creation of a parallel Russian-medium environment, with no need to switch to Estonian;

  • continuous transfer of territorial and functional domains from Estonian to Russian, and

  • ideological incentives to prefer Russian over Estonian.

Against integrity of Estonian other activities were implemented:

  • expanding usage of Russian in administration and mass communication,

  • an extensive programme of translations from Russian,

  • massive programmeof Russian language teaching.

5. Language policy since 1988

The years from 1988 onwards reflect the biggest changes in Estonian society, influencing all domains. Therefore, language policy, based on an entirely different concept from the previous one, was one of the main cornerstones in the modification of Estonian society. Due to the heritage of the previous period, the renormalisation policy has been slow and difficult. In particular, the existence of two mobilised linguistic groups, the Estonian-speaking and the Russian-speaking ones, both identifying themselves as the majority in Estonia and representing opposite views on several crucial issues, has made solutions difficult to find. The conditions of perestroika, providing more freedom, enabled the mass mobilisation of these groups, causing gradual increase of tension and conflict. This was accompanied with the diminishing central power, especially in the domain of ideology, channelling the struggle for the redistribution of power on the axis of the centre (Moscow) and the republic (Estonia), with the leadership of the republic losing its dependence on Moscow and coming more and more under the influence of the population of Estonia.

The functional domains that went through rearrangement (banking, real estate) or re-established anew (Estonian Army), or were highly profitable (and legal, like information technology), were Estonianised. While those vast former Union-subordinated factories and plants that did not correspond to these criteria, continued to operate in Russian, with only thr control and management structure shifting to Estonian.

The Baltic republics took the avantgarde position in perestroika, being most receptive to perestroika; however the Baltic peoples wanted to go much further than Moscow reformers were prepared to allow (Smith 1994:139). Thus, having no powerful control at their disposal, they took two main directions, which were not desired by the incumbent political leaders, namely the restoration of the national sovereignty of Estonia, and the restoration of the right of existence for the languages and cultures of Estonians and other discriminated ethnic groups.

The two corresponding laws were the Declaration of Sovereignty and the Language Law. The Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR passed the Declaration of Sovereignty on 16 November 1988, declaring the supremacy of Estonian laws over Soviet ones. The proclamation of Estonian as the official state language in Estonia, and its legalisation as such by a corresponding Constitutional amendment, was passed by the Supreme Council on 6 December 1988.

Several additional pro-Estonian steps were taken: the legalisation of the national colours, the restoration of the name of the Republic of Estonia, the declaration of Estonia as being in a period of transition towards independence (restitutio ad integrum), and the establishment of immigration quotas. A number of measures were taken in order to restore the Estonian language to its rightful status. In August 1990 the Estonian Government decided to repeal all acts which discriminated against the use of Estonian and to create a body empowered to supervise the implementation of the Language Law. On 23 November 1990 the National Language Board was established. It was the main body responsible for implementing language planning in Estonia, monitoring the use of Estonian, the official language, both as a native language and as a second language, and also supporting and regulating minority language use among the adult population. Its work was based on the relevant articles of the Constitution, the Language Law, the Law on Education and the Law on Cultural Autonomy as well as on the international human rights standards. The primary functions of the Board were the elaboration of language policy and language planning strategies, including the organisation, supervision, and analysis of the implementation of the Language Law, the improvement of language teaching methods, the supervision of normative terminological and onomastic work, and the conducting of sociolinguistic studies.

In Estonia a sophisticated set of problems of democracy and human rights had to be disentangled, among which were the expanding confrontation between the two linguistic communities. Estonians had the right to end occupation and oppression, including linguistic oppression. Simultaneously, those who in-migrated during the occupation, did not expect the occupation to come to an abrupt end, meaning that they had to face obligations connected with language and citizenship, lowering their competitiveness in the employment market and worsening their relative living standard relative to the indigenous population.

Thus, two key issues of Estonian transformation emerged for which the popular movements had to take a stand: sovereignty of Estonia, on the one side, and the Estonian language protection and other cultural issues, on the other.

6. Language Law of 1989

The Language Law was passed on 18 January 1989 by the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was a provisional one in its content, matching the needs of the transformational process underway in Estonia. Though it described Estonian as the sole official language, due to political expediency, the main principle was based on the requirement of Estonian-Russian bilingualism, which required that holders of certain jobs had proficiency in both Estonian and Russian (in most cases the knowledge of 800 words were sufficient). To reach the required level a 4-year delay was introduced in the law, so that it became effective in 1 February 1993. The Law was in force until 1995, when the Law on Language of 1995 declared it null and void.

The Language Law of 1989 should be seen as a remedy to language problems at that time. The main problem had been a catastrophic growth of Russian monolingualism, reasons being demographic changes, low status of Estonian in several functional and regional areas, and non-integrative education. Language laws in this context should thus be regarded as the response to the considerable threat to local national and linguistic autonomy.

The law was guided by the following principles:

  • The principle of bilingualism of services and state agencies, with the right of customers to choose the language of communication, introduced constraints on monolingualism of shop assistants and service personnel, which, taking the situation into account, meant restrictions for Russians –overwhelmingly monolingual at that time– on upward mobility and on employment in positions of public contact.

  • Language requirements instead of ethnic criteria. Language as a vital element of national identity and national survival was non-negotiable. Simultaneously the issue of ethnicity was less significant, with the Estonian population accustomed to minorities. Thus, no ethnic preferences in legislation and administration were introduced, but instead, language requirements, while providing clear language rights for speakers of other languages (Ozolins 1994: 168).

  • Language law with progaganda effects, rather than for implementation. Several articles of the Law had no legal meaning, or their implementation was beyond the reach of a democratic state. Thus, these should be considered as signals for a change of direction. Simultaneously, implementation of the law was secondary, and politically sensitive, demanding some postponement in the future. This may be the reason why the office set up for implementation of the law, the National Language Board, was established only in 1990. This has been noted by Maurais (1997: 158), who regards the lack of a state agency entrusted with all the practical aspects of implementing the switchover from Russian as a major flaw.

  • Visible signs of the new language policy. (Maurais 1997:152) has emphasised the necessity of visible change in some language policy domains, in order to reduce uncertainty about the future of the language through visible, concrete manifestations of language. In the Estonian case these may be public bilingual signs and information, and language requirements for employment.

  • Language law as power redistributor. The Language law caused the mobilisation of groups based on linguistic interests. However, the anxiety was not the content of the law, but the political factors behind the law. Maurais (1991) who analysed the Estonian Language Law in comparison with Quebec and 4 other republics, noted that the language question conceals power struggles in a given society, as it has been noted repeatedly, extralinguistic factors play their part in language planning (Maurais 1991:119).

From the formal point of view, the Estonian Language Law of 1989 did not alter the former situation substantially, but rather maintained the status quo by granting the right to receive education in one’s native language, with Estonian enjoying higher status among Estonians and Russian among Russians (cf. Taagepera 1990). Ozolins (1994), however, considers these modest language policies of the Baltic states as a crucial element in national reconstruction and transition from the Soviet system. The Language Law redefined Estonian language from a de facto acquired minority status to a full national status as the language of state and administration, and of most social discourse (Ozolins 1994: 161).

In this way, the adoption of the Law signalled the redistribution of power and together with it, the formation of new elites in Estonia. Due to the insignificant formal changes for most of the Russian-speaking population (the Law did not concern the main bulk of that population directly), the ambiguity of the situation with the two endo-majorities remained, thus causing several further conflicts and offering grounds for outside political influence. Ozolins supports the view that Estonia has, in the short period since independence, been able to substantially realise its language policy aims. (Ozolins 1994: 161).

However, the main scope was laid on short-term visible programmes, while long-term programmes like educational and integrational schemes, were not given adequate attention or were even neglected. Thus, the new emerging situation was still not a satisfactory one, and it needed a further qualitative step to be made in order to improve the linguistic situation in Estonia.

Thus, Estonian language functions in four different types of language environment. However, Estonian is the sole language spoken all over the Estonia in various combinations of environment. Firstly, it provides the sole linguistic environment in a major part of the Estonian territory, with the exception of major cities, the urban areas of Harjumaa and Ida-Virumaa and the western shore of Lake Peipsi. Secondly, it competes successfully with Russian in the environment of stratified linguistic pluralism in most cities with the Russian community present (Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu, Haapsalu, Kehra, Loksa, etc.), Estonians form a minority in 6 urban areas and 4 communes. Thirdly, in the western shore of Peipsi (Mustvee, Kallaste) peaceful bilingual coexistence of Estonian and Russian language environments seems to be in place. Finally, Estonian is marginalised in some towns and cities of Ida-Virumaa (Narva, Sillamäe, etc.).

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