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Language Policy in Estonia,
by Mart Rannut


7. Current status planning

Language planning in Estonia is implemented through legislation, comprising the Constitution, over 400 laws, lower legal and normative acts. The Estonian Constitution provides the basis for future strategies concerning language. Language issues are regulated in several articles of the Constitution. Estonia’s nation-building task as a nation-state appears to be quite balanced in the Constitution, envisioning the common language policy through the introduction of Estonian as the official (national) language, a system of hierarchisation and regulation for minority languages, and, as a counterbalance, language considered as a human right, providing linguistic protection for individual and collective aims. The Constitution proclaims Estonia as a nation-state and a politically unitary state (Article 2), so that ethnically autonomous regions are unconstitutional. The two main characteristics of nation-building, namely the requirements for the introduction of the common language and the hierarchisation of languages, lead to the two language regimes introduced in the Constitution, which are (Rannut 1997):

  • Estonian monolingualism throughout the whole Estonian territory;

  • Estonian-minority language bilingualism, reflected in two different forms:

    - territorial autonomy;

    - cultural autonomy.

In addition to this, functional regimes concerning foreign language use may be introduced by the Estonian government.

Monolingual regime is based on two different foci: administrative requirements based on instrumental needs of a state (official language, information, translation, etc.) and specific linguistic rights, sustaining the Estonian language environment. Linguistic human rights are based on various fundamental principles, including the non-discrimination principle (equality before the law), the communication rights (freedom of expression). The most important domestic human right, the right to communicate in the Estonian language throughout the whole territory of Estonia, is provided in article 4 of the Language Law. It implies Estonian-language environment, placing obligations to all institutions and artificial bodies before any person. The law does not differentiate between public and private legal persons and subordinate-superior position in these. In order to fulfil this obligation, Article 5 of the Language Law (Requirements for knowledge and usage of the Estonian language) delegates the establishment of requirements for the knowledge and usage of the Estonian language by employees of state institutions and local governments, as well as of institutions, enterprises and organisations, in work-related dealings with the public to the Government of the Republic to be regulated through regulations.

Measurement and testing of the Estonian language proficiency is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. According to this, competence in Estonian is divided into three broad categories:

- basic level, corresponding to the levels of A, B, C of the previous system.

- intermediate level (previous D)

- advanced level (previous E, F)

8. Bilingual territorial language regime

In order to protect linguistic and ethnic minorities in Estonia, two bilingual regimes are provided. Bilingual territorial regime is based on the Constitutional articles 51(2) and 52(2), according to which in localities where at least half of the permanent residents belong to an ethnic minority, all persons shall have the right to receive answers from state and local government authorities and their officials in the language of that ethnic minority and local government authorities may use the language of the majority of the permanent residents of that locality in internal communication.

This right of the council of a local government to propose the language other than Estonian for internal administration was used by Narva and Sillamäe City Councils in 1995. However, these proposals were declined by the Estonian government for two reasons: firstly, although most of the residents in Narva and Sillamäe are of Russian origin, they do not constitute a Russian minority according to the Article 2 of the Law on Cultural Autonomy, which adheres minority to the condition of belonging to the Estonian citizenry. The second reason was the condition of use of an additional language, meaning that the members of the Council should be able to conduct the work in Estonian. As this condition was not fulfilled (most of the work was done in Russian) the Government did not consider it necessary to make a favourable decision in this case.

The second bilingual regime is based on cultural autonomy. Article 50 of the Constitution assures ethnic minorities "the right, in the interest of their national culture, to establish institutions of self-government in accordance with conditions and procedures established by the Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities."

In 1993 the Estonian Parliament adopted the Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities. This is the legal successor of a similar law dating back to 1925. This 1925 law was considered by the League of Nations to be a model text for the cultural autonomy of national minorities. The new law, which has been given a generally favourable appreciation by the experts of the Council of Europe (Bratinka et al.), revitalises and simplifies the old one. It follows Capotorti’s definition in determining national minorities. The Law considers as national minorities citizens of Estonia, who:

- reside in the territory of Estonia;

- maintain longstanding, firm and lasting ties with Estonia;

- are distinct from Estonians on the basis of their ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic characteristics;

- are motivated by a concern to preserve together their cultural traditions, their religion or their language which constitute the basis of their common identity.

Estonia’s position on the definition of minority was confirmed through the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 21 November 1996 by the Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament, who made a declaration according to which the Republic of Estonia understands the term national minorities, which is not defined in the Convention, exactly as provided above.

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. Members of a national minority have the right:

  1. to form and support cultural and educational institutions and religious congregations;

  2. to form ethnic organisations;

  3. to practise cultural traditions and religious customs if this does not endanger public order, health and morals;

  4. to use their mother tongue in dealings within the limits established by the Language Law;

  5. to publish ethnic language publications;

  6. to conclude agreements of cooperation between ethnic, cultural and educational institutions and religious congregations;

  7. to circulate and exchange information in their mother tongue.

Thus, the Law grants the citizens of Estonia who belong to a national minority the right, in particular, to set up their own cultural and educational institutions and religious congregations and use their own language in both private and official communication in accordance with the Language Law. Moreover, it provides for the establishment of cultural councils by the national minorities entrusted with the organisation and co-ordination of the activities of cultural autonomy institutions.

The law also guarantees to non-citizens, those who reside in Estonia and belong to a national minority, the right to participate in the activities of the national minority’s cultural and educational institutions, thereby reducing, in practice, the difference between citizens and non-citizens.

The restablishment in October 1993 of the Law on Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities has had a modest effect so far, due to other laws providing those rights in more detail. By 2003 more than 70 different associations had been registered. The Estonian Union of Nationalities, an umbrella organisation for over 30 cultural societies represents 21 ethnic minorities alone.

As a result, Ingrians are pioneering here currently, holding elections for cultural self-government body.

There are also other mechanisms supporting ethnic maintenance and inter-ethnic tolerance. In order to promote mutual understanding and dialogue among different groups, as well as provide access to political decision-making, representatives of ethnic minorities were invited in July 1993 to join a permanent roundtable consultative body under the aegis of the President of the Republic.

9. Foreign language regime

The foreign language usage is regulated in the Constitution and, in more detail in the Language Law. The governing principle is based on mutual agreement, based on the choice of language suitable to all parties. Exceptional cases are delegated to the Government, providing flexibility: Governmental Decree No. 32 from 29 January 1996 deals with two cases, for transmitting information, and for communication during employment. For employees this means the requirement of competence in the foreign language concerned. The domains specified are international transport and tourism, customs, information bureaus, export requirements and international events.

10. Citizenship laws

The main challenge to normalisation of the language environment and effective nation-building has been the non-integrated Russian-speaking community in Estonia. The legal status of this population group is connected with the question of succession of the Russian Federation to the rights and duties of the former Soviet Union. The Minsk Agreement of 8 December 1991 and the Alma-Ata Protocol of 21 December 1991, which founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (below: CIS), did not solve the fate of Soviet citizens outside the CIS. The successor of the USSR —the CIS–, decided to change the naturalisation laws from jus sanguinis to jus soli, thus depriving citizens of the former Soviet Union of their previous citizenship and leaving them "stranded".

Unlike the republics forming the CIS, succeeding the Soviet Union, Estonia is (like Latvia), according to its Constitution and international law, the rightful and legal successor of the Republic of Estonia, declared on 24 February 1918 and forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union on 6 August 1940. Estonian citizenship is based on ius sanguinis principle, according to which a child by birth acquires the citizenship of their parents. With the restablishment of Estonia's de facto independence came the de facto restablishment of its citizenry.

Estonia has followed a consistent inclusive policy to integrate those residents, who are not Estonian citizens. Since 1992 Estonia's governments have held to a firm position on the right of these people to choose their citizenship, and have maintained the belief that citizenship cannot be forced on anyone. Estonian citizenship is not based on ethnicity. All persons, including those belonging to ethnic minorities, who held Estonian citizenship before 16 June 1940, and their descendants, received Estonian citizenship automatically. According to 2000 census there were ca 170,000 non-citizens in Estonia and 83,000 Russian citizens. The number of both groups is diminishing at a rate of 6,000-9,000 annually.

In 1992, the Estonian Supreme Council passed a Decree On the Application of the Law on Citizenship, (1) which reactivated an amended version of the Citizenship Law of July 1, 1938. This divided the population into two groups: citizens, i.e., those who were citizens of the pre-war Republic and their descendants, and everyone else. Others could obtain it through a naturalisation process, with a short residence requirement and basic proficiency in Estonian. The Decree lists those who have no legal right to naturalisation: active duty, foreign military personnel, former employees of Soviet security/intelligence organs, individuals convicted of serious felonies or repeat offenders, and those without a steady income.

The Law on the Estonian Language Requirements for Applicants for Citizenship (2) was adopted in 1993, and the current citizenship law in 1995. Under this Law one is expected to have Estonian language proficiency at A2 level. It also provides for special examination guidelines for persons born before 1 January 1930, and persons who are considered to be permanently disabled or who were unable to complete an examination in the usual way due to their disability. The current Estonian language curriculum in Russian-medium basic schools fully covers the Estonian language requirements established for citizenship applicants.

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