I THE PROTECTION OF MINORITIES
Issues relating to the use of the Estonian language in the education system and the labour market
16. Improving the knowledge of the Estonian language is one of the corner stones of the Estonian integration programme. It became evident to me that there is a strong willingness among the minorities to learn the Estonian language, even in the regions predominantly inhabited by Russian-speakers. An important element in the process of enhancing the knowledge of the language is the provision of education in Estonian at schools.
17. According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools’ Act, the language of instruction in the upper secondary schools (classes 10 – 12) shall be Estonian, which in practice means that at least 60 percent of the instruction shall be in this language.11 In order to allow the schools to prepare for this requirement, the law stipulates that the transition to instruction in Estonian shall be started not later than the academic year 2007/2008. Moreover, in March 2002, an amendment to the legislation was adopted, which gave the upper schools’ board of trustees the right to apply for exemption from the language requirement.12 I was informed, however, that the possibility of exemption continues to be criticized and questioned by some politicians. For reasons explained below, I find it very important that this possibility is maintained.
11 See Article 9 of the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools’ Act.
12 According to Article of the above law, “Permission for instruction in another language shall be granted by the Government of the Republic on the basis of an application by a local government council. A corresponding proposal shall be made to the local government council of the board of trustees of an upper secondary school based on the development plan of the school”.
18. During my visit, I was informed that one of the main problems is the lack of teachers in Russian-speaking schools with a sufficient knowledge in Estonian. The Mayor of Narva felt that, due to lack of resources, it would be very difficult to fully implement the reform in northeastern parts of the country by 2007, and therefore the possibility of progressive implementation must be ensured. It was stressed that there is a strong willingness within the Russian-speaking population to adopt the reform, but significant further investments are needed to ensure its success. The authorities have recognised these challenges and the Ministry of Education is currently conducting a detailed analysis on the feasibility of this language reform, the results of which will be finalised shortly.
19. In order to respond to these challenges, special institutions have been established where education of the Estonian language is provided for Russian-speaking teachers. I visited the Estonian Language Immersion Centre of the Integration Foundation in Tallinn, which was established for the purposes of coordinating language education programmes especially for Russian-speaking teachers. Whilst many good results have been achieved, it was felt that reaching the 2007 goal would be very difficult with the resources currently available for teacher training. It was also emphasised that it is imperative to better prepare the students for the reform through increased provision of education in Estonian in preschools and in primary schools. The legislation requires that teaching of Estonian language is provided at all levels of schooling, including pre-school, but the lack of preschool teachers with sufficient command of Estonian remains a serious problem.
20. Significant further investment into the language training programmes is imperative in order to prevent the potential risks that the language reform in upper secondary schools might carry particularly to those students whose command of Estonian is not at the academic level. Difficulties in learning in their second language might increase the rate of school dropouts and failure in the final exams, which in turn amplifies the difficulties in accessing higher education. It may also carry an increased risk of social exclusion.13 Emphasis should be placed on analysing the potential risks and on designing programmes to prevent them.
13 For a detailed analysis on the potential risks, see Paul Downes, Living with Heroin – Identity, Social Exclusion and HIV among the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia, Tallinn 2003, published by the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights, Tallinn and Educational Disadvantage Centre, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin.
21. The Minister of Education brought to my attention a serious concern relating to the reform of the language certificates required for employment, which had the potential of jeopardising the employment of thousands of Russian-speakers, including a large number of Russian-speaking teachers at the beginning of year 2004. The Law on Languages requires that all employees of the public sector and many employees in the private sector pass a language exam if they have not graduated from Estonian-language schools. A new system of language certificates was introduced in 1999, which required that everybody had to retake the language exam according to the new criteria. The new exam system had received wide criticism for being too demanding. For instance, it was brought to my attention that passing the new system of exams at the highest level had proved difficult even for Estonian native speakers. The old language certificates were supposed to become invalid by 2002, but the deadline was later postponed to January 2004.
22. According to the Minister of Education, there were, however, still several thousand people who have not acquired the new language certificate, and were therefore under the threat of becoming unemployed. I was very pleased to learn that, since my visit, this problem has been resolved by the Estonian Parliament, which adopted on 10 December 2003 amendments to the Law on Languages recognising the “old” language certificates to be valid after January 1, 2004. This is a very welcome development, and indicative of the prevailing spirit. I was, however informed by non-governmental organisations that the Language Inspectorate continues to have the possibility of verifying the Estonian language proficiency, irrespective of whether the person has a valid language certificate, and of imposing sanctions for those who fail.14 I encourage the Language Inspectorate to adopt an approach, which better reflects the sprit of these amendments.
14 Reportedly, ten teachers have already been punished by the Inspectorate with a fine of 2.500 EEK, which is very high as compared with the average monthly salary of 4.169 EEK of personnel working in the education field.
Preservation of minority languages, identities and cultures
25. Increased attention should also be placed on the preservation of the distinct identities and cultures of the numerically smaller minorities, including those who might use Russian as their mother tongue, but do not belong to the Russian minority. Also, a member of the Roma community noted that there is not sufficient recognition of the Romani culture or language in Estonia.16 He emphasised the importance of improving access to education by Roma children, since school non-attendance and school drop-outs remain a serious concern, and informed of an initiative to establish a commission for this purpose, which I welcome. It was also stressed that further measures are needed to improve access to employment, since the unemployment rate is extremely high among the Roma population, and many are disproportionately affected by poverty. I encourage the Government to take further measures to address the situation of the Roma, and in this respect, would like to refer to the recommendations of the Round Table on Roma in the Baltic States organised by the the Council of Europe Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies in year 2000 in Estonia, which inter alia, called for the establishment of “an effective consultative/communication body between the national authorities and the Romani representatives in order to encourage Roma participation in all decision-making processes and to ensure the sustainability of policies and projects launched by the authorities”.
16 According to some estimations, there are approximately 1000 Roma in Estonia, while in the 2000 population census, 542 persons, including 263 Estonian citizens, declared themselves as the Roma.
61. Since its accession to the Council of Europe in 1993, Estonia has made commendable efforts in respect of human rights promotion and protection. It is, moreover, evident that the authorities remain committed to undertaking further efforts in areas where problems persist. In order to provide assistance to Estonia in promoting the respect for human rights, the Commissioner, in accordance with Article 8 of Resolution (99) 50, makes the following recommendations:
2. Increase investment in language training programmes in order to ensure that the language requirements for upper secondary schools do not have detrimental effects for students with native language other than Estonian;
62. This report has been presented to the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies of the Council of Europe on 12 February 2004. At the end of this presentation, and in the light of the comments brought to by the Permanent Representative of Estonia, the Commissioner decided to add the following information about recent progress relating to issues dealt with in the report:
3. A number of initiatives have been taken for the preservation of the distinct identities and cultures of the numerically smaller minorities – e.g. all minorities’ cultural associations, Sunday schools etc. are subsidised by state; since 2003 a new initiative was introduced whereby on parents’ request children may receive teaching in mother tongue in certain number of lessons at schools, where study language is not their mother tongue; teachers of mother tongue of different minority languages have received training; there is also state funding for media in minority language (§ 25).
63. The Commissioner welcomes these developments.
Document data: 12.02.2004; CommDH(2004)5 Link: https://rm.coe.int/ref/commdh(2004)5