New challenges: Politics of minority integration in Estonia Jana Krimpe Tallinn Pedagogical University Department of Government Narva Rd. 25, 10120 Tallinn, Estonia

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NEW challenges: Politics of minority integration in Estonia

Jana Krimpe

Tallinn Pedagogical University

Department of Government

Narva Rd. 25, 10120

Tallinn, Estonia

A paper presented at the ninth NISPAcee Annual Conference

Riga, Latvia, May 10-12, 2001

New challenges: Politics of minority integration in Estonia
The purpose of this presentation is to describe and analyze the Estonian policy in the field of integration. This presentation is mainly based on the “Integration Program of the Estonian Society 2000-2007”. This program is an action plan for governmental agencies and other institutions, adopted by the Estonian Government on 14 March 2000.
In my presentation I will try to considerate on the theoretical part of this Program, which is clearly based on a multicultural approach to societal organization, and practical part, where I’ll bring out the main problems in the main spheres of this Program.

  1. Estonia as a multicultural society

As I said before the state program is based on a multicultural approach. “Integration in Estonian society means on the one hand the harmonization of society – the creation and promotion of that which unites all members of society – and on the other hand the opportunity to preserve ethnic differences – the offering to ethnic minorities of opportunities for the preservation of their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness. What is of significance here is that integration is a clearly bilateral process – both Estonians and non-Estonians participate equally in the harmonization of society…”1

The main author of the theoretical part of the program, Raivo Vetik, (Director of Institute of International and Social Studies, Tallinn Pedagogical University) is describing the Estonian model of democratic multiculturalism, pointing out three essential elements of a Estonian multicultural society::2

  • Cultural pluralism

Non-Estonians living in Estonia have been guaranteed the possibilities for preserving their language and cultural peculiarities above all through receiving mother-tongue education and promoting the activities of cultural societies. This also involves the introduction of their cultural peculiarities and its achievements in Estonian society. Thus, one of the objectives of integration is the adaptation of the cultures of different ethnic groups into Estonian society, not their assimilation into Estonian culture. Distinction of integration from linguistic and cultural assimilation lies in two simultaneously occurring processes: the preservation of the language and cultural heritage of the ethnic group on the one hand and integration around a strong common ground in Estonian society on the other.

  • Strong common ground

A multicultural society can function effectively only if its members share a sufficient common ground. A common ground creates a basis for mutually enriching communication and apprehension of common interests and also contributes to a situation where individuals from different nationalities feel themselves secure in Estonia. The main content of the state program is to promote the integration of individuals around a strong common ground in Estonian society. Strong common ground of Estonian society is territorially defined with Estonia and rests upon a common language – Estonian language that is the basis for the functioning of the institutions of the public sphere. Integration of individuals in Estonian society around a common ground takes place through achieving the main goals of linguistic-communicative, legal-political and social-economic integration. Proceeding from the latter, a strong common ground of the Estonian society consists of the following elements of the public sphere:

  1. General humanist and democratic values;

2. Common information field and Estonian-language environment;

3. Common state institutions and democratic values;

4. Knowledge of the main facts of Estonian history, valuing being Estonian citizen and acknowledging the multiculturality of Estonian society.

Phenomena of the private sphere like language of the ethnic minorities, education in minority languages, ethnic traditions, religious beliefs, family traditions and private lifestyles are not treated as belonging to the common ground of Estonian society. The mentioned phenomena do not have to be common to all members of a society because they fall under the private interests of every individual.

  • Preservation of the Estonian cultural space

All cultures existing in Estonia are equal in the public debate. However, in relations with the state the status of Estonian culture differs from that of minority cultures as one of the major aims of Estonian statehood is the preservation of Estonian cultural space. Estonian society is multicultural and due to that that state has to create conditions for the cultural development of ethnic minorities, but in the sense of a common cultural space Estonia is and will remain Estonian.

The next step is under the discussion now. The working group, which is leaded by Raivo Vetik, trying to define empirical indicators of the integration process in Estonian society, or another words, how we can suggest that Estonia is moving in the way of multicultural democracy with the aim of integration? The main integration model is presented at the next figure:



integral cultural space



Common ground

in the public sphere

  1. Social institutions

  2. Democratic values

  3. Language

  4. Educational system

Majority nation

Ethnical groups




The model consists of two parts: the unitary of society in public sphere and the preservation of cultural differences in private sphere. The main idea is that in the center of the integration is person and state relationship, which is close with state and ethnical groups, person and ethnical groups relationships.

This is very shortly about the integration program’ theoretical part. Generally, there is no opposition to this part of program among national minorities. The next parts of the program bring up a lot of debates among minorities.

  1. Critics of the Program

The whole integration program is divided into three main areas:

  1. Linguistic-communicative integration, i.e. the re-establishing of a common sphere of information and the Estonian language environment in Estonian society under the conditions of cultural diversity and mutual tolerance.

  2. Legal-political integration, i.e. the formation of a population loyal to the state of Estonia and reducing the number of persons without Estonian citizenship.

  3. Socio-economic integration, i.e. the achievement of a greater competitiveness and social mobility in society regardless of the ethnic or linguistic attribute.

Based on these main areas I would like to bring up the main problems in each area.

The main critics of the program based on the opinion, that the program is mostly concentrated on the first issue: linguistic-communicative integration.
The main aims of the State Program have led to the objectives, which the following four sub-programmes corresponded to:3

  1. Sub-programme “Education” - pursuant to the objectives:

A “Basic school graduates are socially competent and have a medium level command of the Estonian language”

B “Secondary school graduates have the command of the Estonian language necessary for everyday life and work and are capable of continuing the studies in Estonian”.

  1. Sub-programme “The education and culture of ethnic minorities” – pursuant to the objective

“Ethnic minorities possess opportunities to acquire education in their mother tongue and preserve their culture”.

  1. Sub-programme “The teaching of Estonian to the adults” – pursuant to the objective

“Opportunities have been created for non-Estonian adults to improve their knowledge of Estonian and raise their socio-cultural competence”.

  1. Sub-programme “Social competence” – pursuant to the objective

“The population of Estonia is socially competent”:

A “Individuals participate actively in the development of civil society”

B “Attitudes of the Estonians and non-Estonians are favorable to the achievement of the main aims of the State Programme”

C “Improvement of the situation among the groups with serious social needs”.

In this aspect I would like to concentrate my attention mainly on the first sub-program.

  1. Education

Elementary and gymnasium education

As we all can understand this issue, of course, is very important in the integration process, because it concentrates on the young growing generation in Estonia today, on the future nation. This part of the program has been under critics for all time. Mostly I concentrate my attention in my paper on the question of Russian-speaking education in Estonia.

However, Russian-language education has recently been the source of extensive tension where Russian-speakers have expressed their feelings about oppression. The tensions have arisen because government has decided to establish unified Estonian-language tuition on secondary level in state and municipal schools. According to secondary school law this should have happened by the year 2000. As the preparations for the transition were inadequate, the deadline has been postponed until 2007. There is a lot of controversy about the planned changes; and unfortunately the whole process has been strongly politicized.4 The Presidential Round Table of National Minorities in Estonia5 on March 30 organized the conference: “The Estonian Education system and minorities”. At this conference the representatives of educational specialists, researches proved that at the year 2007 there are impossible to go over on Estonian language tuition because of lack of teaching recourses, human recourses and etc. However, I find that the state should implement different types of educational systems for minorities in Estonia, giving them to choose among different possibilities. Also according to state program all Russian language schools since school year 2007/2008 have to establish the Estonian language tuition at least up to 60%. Again one more political decision in our educational system: no statistics, no research about this decision, why 60% not 70%. But if we account all this %-s in according to educational programs we’ll see that system: 60%/40% does not leave much room for intensive studying of the third language.
Various studies claim that there exist correlation between regional peculiarities and the demands for certain type of schooling models.6 The correlation is following: those regions where minorities are more numerous, stronger educational models are needed. Stronger educational models should be understood as the models, which could guarantee better results in active bilingualism. Those regions, where minority group is small or scattered, the main expectations are related to the preservation of their particular culture and mother tongue. In latter case, strong bilingual schooling models are not supported because minority children could very likely obtain the second language by living in environment where official language is mainly used.7
According to my opinion, our educational policy should take into consideration the diversity of schooling models, which is necessary to maintain in longer perspective since it could take into account demographical, socio-economic and regional peculiarities. On the one hand, these models should include stronger educational models like language immersion programs, which is successfully were working out according to our circumstances with the help of specialists from Canada. On the other hand, weaker educational models are necessary to establish which could provide an additional support to the minorities who are willing to study in Estonian-medium schools. Simultaneously, more flexible education system could be guaranteed, and the needs of population could be met in better way. Anyway, I suspect that in areas, mainly inhabited by the Russian-speaking minority groups, minorities should have the possibility for the education in their native language until graduation from secondary school even in longer perspective. However, the very precondition is that they have obtained fluency in writing and speaking of Estonian language at graduation, which suspects that state should guarantee the Estonian language teaching on a high level. Freedom to choose between different schooling models should be the hallmark of educational sector. Consequently, Russian-speakers’ contribution to the development of the state and society might grow. Heretofore, the training of teachers, who could face the new content of educational policy, obtains an immense importance.
In generally the education system should guarantee the active bilingual education: with studying of mother tongue it is also very important for minorities to know the state language. With all this reforms we should forget that the education in own language is one of the right of minorities.

  1. Legal-political integration, i.e. the formation of a population loyal to the state of Estonia and reducing the number of persons without Estonian citizenship.

  1. Socio-economic integration, i.e. the achievement of a greater competitiveness and social mobility in society regardless of the ethnic or linguistic attribute.

As I said before this two parts of the Integration program was under the strong critics. One of the reasons is that language is not the main aspect of the integration. It is very important in all this integration process in country to solve the problems with citizenship, unemployment, illegal persons, etc.

Ethnic composition of the population 

at the beginning of the year

Ethnic nationality








1 565 662

1 571 648

1 491 583

1 453 844

1 445 580

1 439 197

Other ethnic nationalities

14 095

14 303

12 372

12 003

11 934

11 757

As of 1 January 2000 Estonia had a population of 1 439 197 of whom 939 310 were Estonians, i.e. 65,2 % of the total population of Estonia. Thus other nationalities made up 499 887 or 34,8 % of the total population of whom 403 925 or 28% were Russians, 36 467 or 2,5 % were Ukrainians, etc.

In 1992 the composition of the Estonian population was as following:

- Approximately 1 050 000 citizens of the Republic of Estonia (by birth)

- Approximately 494 000 aliens (at that time still if intermediate citizenship).

In 1992, 75 000 non-Estonians automatically obtained the citizenship of the Republic of Estonia without additional conditions because their parents or grandparents had been Estonian citizens. This number is not reflected in the number of those who have received Estonian citizenship through naturalization. 115 000 persons received Estonian citizenship through naturalization between 1992-2000. 110 000 persons have defined themselves as the citizens of some other country.

In 2000 the composition of the Estonian population is as follows:

- Approximately 1 115 000 citizens of the Republic of Estonia (estimated number) of whom 115 000 have receives citizenship through naturalization;

- 285 000 aliens with residence permits of whom approximately 110 000 are citizens of other countries and about 175 000 are persons of indeterminate citizenship;

- Approximately 30 000 – 40 000 (estimate) illegal aliens.

In the period of 1992-2000 the number of persons with indeterminate citizenship has fallen from 494 000 to 175 000 persons, i.e. almost threefold.

Generally as we can conclude from this statistical data, approximately 25 % of Estonian population does not have Estonian citizenship and approximately 17 % have no citizenship at all. Therefore the problem is: how to increase the number of people with Estonian citizenship and reduce the number of illegal persons.

One possibility, which was created by government, is to unit the citizenship exam with the civic and state language exam in school. This will give the opportunity for young people to obtain the citizenship with the school finishing.

The Presidential Roundtable of National Minorities gave the proposal to Estonian parliament to ease the citizenship exam conditions for older people, who over 60.

Also it is very important to mention in my paper that all above-mentioned problems are not just under state attention, but also Local Government and other institutions are actively participate in the mentioned process.
In Tallinn (capital of Estonia), where ethnic composition of the population is about 50% all above-mentioned problems are very painful and actual. So this year in February Tallinn city Government created the new Department of Safety and Integration. The main task of this Department is to deal with the integration in the city, safety problems, drugs using and AIDS. These two words are very close to each other in the context of our city and country at all, because as statistic shows there are more young people, who use drugs among non-Estonians, the unemployment rate is also bigger among non-Estonians. All this shows very clear, that socio-economic integration is very important in the integration process in our country. In the framework of the current department was created the City Integration Commission, which is working out the city integration program, where are going to prepare the action plan in the field of minority education, unemployment, citizenship and third sector. Successful socio-economic integration depends not just intensified language teaching, but also on implementing regional policy that has been prepared through research. We should avoid the situation where, for example, wealth and poverty of success and failure on the career ladder would be strongly bound to the ethnic features.8

If we come back to our theoretical part of my paper, it will be important to answer the question: how we should tolerate something what is different in multicultural society? Tanel Mätlik in his paper: Tolerance: its assumption and limits, discuss about three types of toleration:9

a) Repelling attitude towards differences, but at the same time, expressing also resignation and reconciliation with de facto situation;

b) Ignoring attitude towards differences, calmly indifferent;

c) Recognition of differences, respect for differences together with mutual criticism.

Analyzing these types of toleration, we can conclude that second type of tolerance may lead to separation in multicultural society, it bring the creation of “close groups” without any real dialog between them. And third type is too idealistic for our society. It is possible to bring up a reasonable type of toleration, which can be a mix of second and third type.

Generally the aim of this paper was to bring up the different problems, which we should solve and find the solution together. On the one hand Estonia, like other new independent countries in a lucky position because it has the possibility to learn from other countries’ successes or failures, but on the other hand the situation in Estonia is rather or sometimes completely different and we should try to find out the new methods and theories how to reach a truly multicultural democratic society. And our task today at this conference is to exchange experience and to turn our attention on the very important problems in our societies, not ignore them or try to draw a nice picture of success.

1 Governmental Program “Integration in Estonia Society 2000-2007.”

2 Governmental Program “Integration in Estonia Society 2000-2007.”

3 Governmental Program “Integration in Estonia Society 2000-2007”.

4 Sulg, Ülle, Education system and minorities in plural societies, Tartu 2000. p.72.

5 The Presidential Roundtable of National Minorities was established in 1993 as a consulting institution at the President’ Office. The Round Table consists of the representatives of ethnic minorities, politicians and researches. The main task of the Round Table regularly discusses matters of political and public life, including societal, ethnic, economic and social-political issues, participates actively in the national minorities policy of the state, gives the recommendations to the government and Parlament, and monitors the implementation of the State Integration Program.

6 Soll, Maie, Rahvusvähemuste hariduskorraldusest, Tartu Ülikool. OÜ Vali Press 1999. p.34-35.

Vassiltšenko, Larissa, Mitmekultuuriline Eesti: väljakutse haridusele, Tartu 1998. p.160.

7 Sulg, Ülle, Education system and minorities in plural societies, Tartu 2000. p.73.

8 Vetik, Raivo, Democratic Multiculturalism : A New Model of National Integration, Aland Islands Peace Institute 2001. p.21.

9 Mätlik, Tanel, Eesti Sotsiaalteaduste Aastakonverents I: Tolerance: its assumption and limits, TPÜ Kirjastus 2001. pp.103-104.

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