Commissioner’s visit report (excerpts on employment and education), 2004




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:

CLRA recommendation 81 (2000) on the situation of local democracy in Estonia (excerpts)

The Congress,


Notes in particular that:


Aliens have the right to vote in local elections and that, according to the law, candidates in local elections should have Estonian proficiency; in certain areas of the country, the municipal council can work in the language of the majority;


Recommends therefore that parliamentary, governmental and other competent authorities of Estonia, in restructuring the local government take into account the following recommendations, suggestions and considerations:


With regard to transfrontier co-operation and the situation of Russian minority 2

2 According to the official data, Estonia’s ethnic distribution is as follows: Estonians 65.1%; Russians 28.2% ; Ukrainians 2.6% ; Byelorussians 1.5% ; Finns 0.9% ; others 1.7%


The stipulation of the Local Government Council Election Act requiring Estonian proficiency from candidates in local elections should be reconsidered before the next elections, including the possibility of providing information to the Public in other languages during an election;

The legislative and government authorities should examine the ways and possibilities to protect languages of local minorities including the right to use a mother language at local government council sessions as well where it is possible (e.g. where the Russian speakers are in majority);

Document data: 25.05.2000. Links: &

The Russian minority in the Baltic States and the enlargement of the EU (excerpts), 1999

The views expressed in this document are not necessarily those held by the European Parliament as an institution.



Russian influence has marked the Baltic’s political and historical development for centuries. Most of the Baltic territories were under Russian rule during the 18th and 19th centuries. After the First World War, the three Baltic States enjoyed a period of independence until 1940, when the entire region was illegally occupied and integrated into the Soviet Union. However, the three Baltic states remained among the most prosperous areas of the Soviet Union, as well as the most Europeanised. In the late 1980s, following the liberalisation reforms of the Soviet regime (glasnost and perestroika) introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Baltic States sought to regain their independence, with formal moves started early in 1990.

Russian rule was marked by two periods of intense assimilation, in the 1880s and during the communist era after World War II. During the Soviet occupation, an enormous influx of Soviet migrants, the majority of whom came to the Baltic because of the improved living-standards. Others were retired army personnel stationed there or prisoners who decided to stay after completion of their term because of the relatively good economic conditions. As a result, when independence was achieved again, there remained a significant Russian-speaking minority, which do not belong ethnically to the particular Baltic State. The largest ethnic Russian minority is in Latvia, then Estonia, and the smallest in Lithuania. A fuller statistical analysis can be found at Annex.

The treatment of the Russian minority in the Baltic States has the potential to destabilise the situation in those countries, and affect adversely the development of relations with the EU, NATO and Russia. Although Russia has stated that it has no fundamental objections to the Baltics joining the EU, the desire of the Baltics to join NATO in the longer term could potentially present problems. Equally, the Baltic States are keen to ensure that Russia should not have an effective veto over their future political relations.


In its Regular Report on Estonia, the Commission reaffirmed its 1997 opinion: Estonia present the characteristics of a democracy, with stable institutions, guaranteeing the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities, but further measures must be taken. Concerning the protection of Minorities, the Commission noted:

[…] it is regrettable that the Parliament has not adopted amendments to the citizenship law to allow stateless children to become citizens. Continuing attention needs to be given to the promotion of Estonian language learning among non-citizens.

Since the publication of the Report on 4 November 1998, the Estonian government has made concrete steps to improve the integration of the Russian minorities, taking note of the Commission’s observations

Estonia’s current policy towards non-Estonians has grown out of a climate dominated by the restoration of the independence of Estonia and its emergence from the Soviet regime. Under existing legislation, there are four legal categories of citizens – Estonian citizens, citizens of other states, persons with undetermined citizenship and undocumented persons. It should be borne in mind that for the Estonian government, the issue of non-Estonians appears to be primarily a question of immigration, as non-Estonians (primarily the Russian speaking community which represent just over 28% of the total population) are not considered as minorities within Estonia but rather as first generation immigrants.

i. Legal Situation

a. The Law on Citizenship
1. Citizens

Automatic citizens are all persons who held Estonian citizenship before June 16, 1940, and their descendants, and children of parents who possess Estonia citizenship. Ethnic Estonians who did not reside in Estonia before June 1940 do not automatically have citizenship.

2. Naturalisation procedure

It is possible for all residents legally residing in Estonia to apply for and to obtain Estonian citizenship. Since independence more than 100,000 people have been granted Estonian citizenship through naturalization.

The law provides that a person who wishes to receive the Estonian citizenship must be at least fifteen years of age, have lived in Estonia on the basis of a permanent residence permit for no less than five years prior to the date on which an application for Estonian citizenship is submitted and for one year from the date following the date of registration of the application. This does not apply to persons who lived in Estonia before 1 July 1990 and who applied for a residence permit before 30 April 1996 as specified by the Citizenship Act.

The applicant must also have knowledge of the Estonian language in accordance with the requirements of the Citizenship Act. The new language test for acquiring Estonian citizenship was standardised according to the recommendations and advice of European experts. Information regarding language requirements is freely delivered by the National Examination and Qualification Centre, where everyone who wishes can take a pre-test and have a free-of-charge consultation. A free handbook is also available to teachers, applicants and examiners. The language requirement at a minimum conversational level and tests listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing ability and speaking ability. Special provisions are set out for applicants born before 1 January 1930, who are exempt from the writing ability section, and for handicapped candidates. Applicants who have acquired elementary, secondary or higher education in Estonian are also exempt from the language exam. Applicants must have knowledge of the Estonian Constitution and the Law on Citizenship, in accordance with the Citizenship Act ( 1).

Applicants must have permanent lawful income sufficient to support himself or herself and his or her dependants (unemployment benefits are also considered a lawful income). They must swear an oath of allegiance to the state of Estonia, which states that “In applying for Estonian citizenship, I swear to be loyal to the constitutional state system of Estonia”.

It is also possible to acquire the Estonian citizenship because of special service performed for the state of Estonia. However, the award of citizenship on such a basis may be given to no more than five people in any one year.

3. Stateless children

New amendments to the Citizenship Act adopted by the Estonian government on 8 December 1998 make it possible to obtain Estonian citizenship through naturalisation for children under the age of 15, who were born in Estonia after independence was reinstated and whose parents, single parent or adoptive parents have lived in Estonia for no less than five years, and who do not enjoy the citizenship of any state.

4. Non-citizens

Clear legal status for non-citizen is provided in Estonia’s Constitution and laws, such as the Aliens Act, which guarantees their human rights. Furthermore, non-citizens can apply for a resident permit, temporary or permanent. An amendment to the 1997 Aliens Act makes non-citizens who applied for temporary residence permits before 12 July 1995 eligible for permanent residence permits starting from 12 July 1998. People who have lived in Estonia on a temporary permit for at least three years, with permanent accommodation and regular income will be eligible for a permanent residence permit.

ii. Current social issues

In recent years the political scene has evolved somewhat. The approach to issues involving non-Estonians has developed, with attitudes have become more tolerant and open. In April 1997 the Estonian government appointed Mr Evgueni Golikov (Russian speaking) as counsellor for ethnic and cultural questions. A committee was also set up to oversee the amendment of the existing laws on citizenship, languages and aliens. More recently, the government has started discussions on a national programme aimed at increasing the integration of non-Estonians, the programme is hoped to be ready for March 1999. In the meantime, the Foundation for the Integration of Non-Estonians granted in 1998 financial support (4.4 million Estonian kroons) for 76 different projects aimed at facilitating the integration process.


In a statement in February 1998, the Estonian government made clear that key to its integration policy was improving language education in schools. Ongoing efforts, supported by the Phare programme, are being made to improve the teaching of Estonian as a foreign language in public schools and universities. Recently, the Ministry of Education has also introduced a number of innovations to increase the effectiveness of language teaching and to improve coordination of foreign aid given for language studies. Among the noted positive developments are:

  • Amendments to the Education Act in November 1997 to establish a new “State language teacher” post.
  • Amendments to the Basic and Secondary Schools Act to extend the existing system until 2007/2008 and ensure the public funding, with no time limit, of Russian elementary schools covering the period of compulsory education in Estonia.
  • In April 1998, the adoption of a language strategy document for non-Estonian speaking people

However, in December 1998, amendments to the Languages law were adopted stipulating that elected representatives must have sufficient proficiency in the Estonian Language to participate in the work of governmental bodies and to understand content of legal acts. These amendments which will come into force on 1 May 1999 have been criticised by the OSCE Commissioner of Ethnic Minorities Max van der Stoel.

Political participation for non-citizens

Residents without Estonian citizenship are not totally excluded from the political process. They have the right to vote in local government elections, if they are permanent residents and have applied for their residency permits before 12 July 1995. Estonia is one of a limited number of states where such an opportunity exists.



As has been alluded to earlier, the European Union has encouraged the integration of minorities in the Baltic States through Phare assistance. In its political statements, the Council of Ministers has encouraged the governments of the countries to apply European norms for the treatment of minorities, and to resolve any disputes with neighbouring countries, principally Russia.

The European Parliament has stressed the need for applicant countries to meet the political criteria for enlargement laid down by the Copenhagen summit. In its resolution on the Communication from the Commission ‘Agenda 2000 – for a stronger and wider Union’ (A4-0368/97), the Parliament called for accession negotiations to be started with all applicants, while raising specific concerns. On Estonia, the Parliament stated “that efforts have to be sustained fully to implement the acquis, to improve the quality of public administration and to further extend citizenship to members of minority groups”. Since then on 15 April 1999, the Parliament adopted a resolution on the Regular Report from the Commission on Estonia’s progress towards accession (A4-0149/99). The resolution “welcomes the amendments to the Citizenship Act adopted in December 1998, which brought Estonia’s laws into compliance with OSCE standards, and notes the important contribution which the new citizenship law will make towards the further integration of Estonian and Russian speakers into this multicultural and multiethnic society.”




Estonian 946,646 65.11
Ukrainian 36,929 2.54
Tatar 3,271 0.22

Source: Statistical Yearbook of Estonia 1998


Document data: Briefing No. 42 03.05.1999 Link: Also available in French

Resolution on Honouring of obligations and commitments by Estonia (excerpts), 1997


The second problematic area relates to the treatment of the “non-historic” Russian-speaking minority, which has given rise to some concern in the last three years, especially as far as the granting of residence permits and citizenship (and the language test that has to be passed in order obtain the latter) are concerned


8. The Assembly thus urges the Estonian authorities to:

  • [..];
  • 8.2. seek to integrate those members of the “non-historic” Russian-speaking minority, who so wish, by improving the teaching of Estonian as a foreign language in public schools and universities, and in adult education by offering language courses free of charge or at a reduced rate to applicants for Estonian citizenship (especially in Russian-speaking areas);
  • 8.3. amend the 1993 Law on Education so as to allow the continued functioning of the Russian language state-funded secondary schools as long as there is a sufficient demand by parents;
  • [..].

9. Considering that the most important obligations and commitments have been honoured by Estonia, the Assembly has decided to close the monitoring procedure opened on 29 May 1995 under Order No. 508. It resolves to continue to follow developments, in particular with regard to the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, the “non-historic” Russian-speaking minority, as well as conditions of custody and detention and the abolition of the death penalty.

Document data: 30.01.1997. Resolution 1117 (1997) Link:

Situation of human rights in Estonia and Latvia, 1992

The General Assembly,

Guided by the principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights,

Reaffirming that all member States have an obligation to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all and to fulfil the obligations they have undertaken under the various international instruments in this field,

Being convinced that respect for human rights is an inalienable component of maintaining and promoting good-neighbourly relations between States,

Taking into account the complaint of alleged violations of human rights with respect to the Russian-speaking population in Estonia and Latvia,

Noting the conclusions and recommendations made by the United Nations fact-finding mission that visited Riga in October 1992 at the invitation of the Government of Latvia,

1. Notes with concern the existence of certain problems which involve large groups of population in Estonia and Latvia;

2. Welcomes the cooperation that the Government of Latvia has extended to the United Nations fact-finding mission;

3. Also welcomes the invitation of the Government of Estonia to receive a similar United Nations fact-finding mission and its intention to extend to it its cooperation;

4. Calls upon the States concerned to intensify their efforts on the bilateral level aimed at resolving concerns with regard to the situation of the Russian-speaking population on the basis of generally accepted norms of international law in the field of human rights;

5. Requests the Secretary-General to keep Member States informed of the progress in the field of human rights in Estonia and Latvia and to report to the General Assembly at its forty-eighth session under the item entitled “Situation of human rights in Estonia and Latvia”.

Document data: resolution 47/115 , 16.12.1992. Link: