Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Friday, 27 July 2012 23:41
Laas Leivat - Estonian Life No. 30 2012
Yevgeni Kristafovits of Russian heritage, also a member of the movement 'Vaba ismaaline kodanik' (Free Patriotic Citizen) has recently published his observations on the protracted standoff between Estonian government language policy and certain Russian language schools fulfilling the dictates of the Centre Party.
In blunt language Kristafovits says that the political environment of Russian language schools in Narva and Tallinn is similar to 1941 (after the annexation of Estonia by the USSR) – "Estonian-minded school principals are being dismissed while the rest are being coerced into working against the Republic of Estonia".
Kristafovits lays the blame squarely at the foot of the Centre Party (Keskerakond). Edgar Savisaar-appointed vice-mayor of Tallinn, Mihhail Kõlvart has dismissed the director of the Ehte Humanities high school Anasztassia Valužina. She has candidly explained to the media how the Centre Party through local school trustees has torpedoed the transition to Estonian language instruction in schools. Arno Timoškin suffered a similar fate in Narva for helping to prepare a foundation for Estonian language instruction.
Both Narva's and Tallinn's school trustees are battling it out in the courts. Russian-language trustees are set to block the instruction of Estonian in Russian language schools. Fourteen of the fifteen schools have received financial support from 75,000 to 750,000 Euros to assist in the change to Estonian language instruction.
Kõlvart, member of parliament Yana Toom (former Tallinn vice-mayor also appointed by Savisaar) and M.P. Mihhail Talmnuhhin (also Centre Party) insist local schools that have a substantial proportion of a minority language represented has the right to choose the language of instruction. By this they actually are referring to schools with a sizable number of trustees opposing transition.
Government policy, the application of which has been delayed for years, aimed for a switch to Estonian language instruction this past school year. The transition so far has been gradual and incremental. Government policy sets the requirement that 60% of the subjects be taught in Estonian in the upper grades. Essentially this will transform the schools from a Russian-speaking school to a bi-lingual one.
Kristafovits sees the opposition of Russian-speaking school trsutees in Tallinn and Narva to be a boon for the Centre Party. The party's support of this stance help them gain votes within the Russian-speaking electorate, even though these voters are not unanimous about the 'benefits' of opposing Estonian language instruction. Russian-language media is strictly guided by party-line propaganda. PBK, a Russian-language TV broadcaster receives hundreds of thousands of Euros from the Tallinn Centre party-controlled government to keep up the anti-Estonian language stance.
The current confrontation over language policy, the question of the primacy of indigenous languages and the role of Russian, has been a passionate narrative for several hundred years. Both the czars and the Soviet Union mandated that Russian be the official language of the lands they dominated. That was meant to unite disparate peoples and ensure loyalty to a central authority. Local tongues such as Estonian were oppressed.
Former Soviet-occupied countries who are asserting their national identities by bolstering their native languages are targeted aggressively by Moscow. (Witness the language referendum in Latvia and the physical confrontation in the Ukrainian parliament.) The Kremlin, painfully aware that a locally diminished Russian language could seriously affect Moscow's influence, has loudly protested laws that support the primacy of indigenous languages.
Just recently the Ukrainian parliament has passed legislation that leaves Ukrainian as the state language but upgrades the Russian language to official status in areas where the Russian speaking population exceeds 10% (sic. – ed.). Ukrainians stress that this was done at the urging and active support of the Russian government.
Observers say that Russian embassies in the near-abroad have not only deployed cultural attachés in these campaigns but also other personnel using diplomatic cover to help organize local resistance to native language instruction.
An actual example of Moscow's interference: Impressum is a Russian language media club in Estonia that brings in prominent personalities in Russian media and politics for public appearances. The forum that Impressum provides has in the past approved the behaviour of Stalinist Soviet regimes, denied the existence of the occupation of Estonia and has called into question Estonia's territorial integrity and independence. Impressum has also actively organized petitions against language reform in Estonian education. It is noted that because local fund-raising for Impressum has been meagre it must receive financial support from a foreign source.
It is currently Moscow's intention to label all non-governmental organizations in Russia who receive foreign financial assistance as 'foreign agents' (in Russia a very derogatory term). Russia's direct interference in the Estonian language reform program via local organizations, is not just limited to financial support. It's a seemingly effective application of 'soft power' in international relations at least in harnessing the Russian electorate in Estonia. (Reminder: voters in Estonia's municipal elections need not be citizens.) But the 'soft power' goal is traditional power, the restoration of Moscow's influence in areas it has lost.