Do you speak Estonian?

Samuel Hanafin

The leader of Estonia’s Centre Party, Mihhail Kõlvart, lost his job as mayor of Tallinn in April after a vote of no confidence. The party, whose electoral base of Russian speakers is concentrated in Tallinn and Narva (to the east), had run the capital for twenty years. Kõlvart was a controversial figure, whose decision to double down on his current voter base, rather than try to appeal to a wider constituency, split the party in 2023. But with or without him, the Centre Party may find its future in municipal government under serious threat. Isamaa, a conservative party, is calling for non-citizens to be stripped of the right to vote in local elections. They present it as a ‘national security’ issue, but electoral advantage is the goal.

Russian speakers make up about a quarter of Estonia’s population of 1.4 million. Roughly half of them are Estonian citizens; the others are either Russian citizens or stateless. In December 2022 the government passed a law phasing out the teaching of Russian by 2030. UN experts argue that the law is in breach of minority rights instruments to which Estonia is a party, while one local NGO speaks of ‘forced assimilation’, but the prime minister, Kaja Kallas of the Estonian Reform Party, is undeterred; over 90 per cent of ethnic Estonians support the measure, as well as roughly half of Russian speakers. Since the reinvasion of Ukraine, no major party has contested the need to move towards a one-language education system, but genuine enthusiasm is rare.

A young Social Democratic Party activist in Narva, fluent in Russian and Estonian, told me he thought the reform was too radical. In his view it borders on ‘assimilation’. Integration, he argued, would have meant preserving Russian schools while allocating more resources for Estonian language teaching. For others, the charge of forced assimilation will always have a hollow ring: Russian culture has solid foundations in Estonia; Tallinn has a large Russian cultural centre as well as a popular Russian theatre where performances are often sold out (Gogol and Bugalkov are top attractions). There are plans for education in Russian to continue, but only as an option alongside the Estonian curriculum.

When the Centre Party was part of a coalition government between 2016 and 2021, it froze any full transition to Estonian in the education system. But it isn’t just the Centre Party. Over the last thirty years, one reform after another has failed to desegregate the school system. As a result, Russian schools are effectively producing second-class citizens who don’t speak Estonian and can’t go to university, work in the civil service or access other higher-paying jobs. Some Russian parents are hoping to place their children in Estonian schools, but many Estonian parents are uneasy at the prospect. They want the Russians to integrate, just not with them.

Yana Toom, the Centre Party’s only MEP since 2014, and a staunch defender of Russian speakers across the Baltic States, opposes the policy. She claims it will create a Potemkin education system, desegregated only in name, as with previous reforms. Attempts to create a fully Estonian education system in the 1990s ended in compromise. After riots in 2007, integration became a ‘security’ priority, and a law was passed requiring at least 60 per cent of classes in all high schools to be in Estonian, but the threshold was never reached, mostly because there aren’t enough teachers.

Hundreds of teachers in Russian schools do not have the required level of Estonian to continue teaching. Teachers with some but not enough Estonian may soon be shifted onto yearly contracts until they pass the language exam. Those who show no sign of reaching a degree of fluency in Estonian risk losing their jobs. At the same time, low salaries have led to a shortage of teaching staff across the board, many are reaching retirement age, and younger Estonian teachers have been reluctant to move to ‘Russian’ Narva and its hinterland, the poorest part of the country.

Perhaps this reform will be more successful than its predecessors. The education minister, Kristina Kallas (no relation of the prime minister), has raised teachers’ salaries nationwide and plans further rises, along with a bonus scheme for those willing to relocate to Narva. Younger Russian speakers tend to be more attached to Estonia than their elders. They have grown up in the shadow of an increasingly aggressive neighbour and benefited, if less than ethnic Estonians, from the country’s economic success.

Even beyond 2030, the results of the reform may not be clear. But it could lead to higher naturalisation rates, which have remained low in part because of the mandatory language test for applicants. But language skills on their own won’t resolve the issue of statelessness. Stateless persons (6 per cent of the population), like Russian citizens, are disproportionately elderly, but waiting for them to die is not an ideal solution. Nor is disenfranchising another tranche of the population, as Isamaa proposes to do. Integration for Russian-speaking pupils is unlikely to work if their older relatives are left behind.

The next legislative elections in Estonia will be in 2027, and it would be a stretch to gauge the future balance of power from the results of yesterday’s European elections. Voter turnout is much lower than in national elections. Isamaa has emerged as the clear victor and is now well positioned, if it stays its current course, to steer future coalitions further to the right. More nationalist posturing at the expense of Estonia’s Russian-speaking communities will probably follow.


  • 11 June 2024 at 1:24pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    Most Estonians live in houses. Most Russians in blocks of flats. More Estonians go to university. Not just linguistic, ethnographic differences, not just post-colonial syndromes are at play here, but social class too. Many Estonians refuse to accept the existence of class difference, but they are as allergic to the Russian working class as much as any Knightsbridge householder is of an Eastender.

  • 13 June 2024 at 7:35pm
    whatnot says:
    'stateless persons like Russian citizens' could in theory try to claim asylum in the country they are citizens of, it's just across the river, but not, perhaps, before those 'posturing' Estonians try a more internationalist approach, it certainly did wonders for the aforementioned 'balast' back in the day - not only did your job come with a flat, but everyone and everywhere spoke Russian, and obligingly so. why would they now want to learn even basic Estonian? to expose themselves to more of this borderline assimilation? the 'not an ideal solution' just might be the best one there is.