TALLINN - Language issues dominated the headlines this week, particularly in Narva, as municipal officials were denied the possibility to use Russian as a working language after an appeal for permission to do so earlier this year, while in an unrelated development.
Narva authorities reportedly decided to shut down their education department, a move which would effectively deprive all education officials able to speak Estonian of their jobs, the regional daily Pohjarannik wrote.
"Legitimization of conducting official business in the Russian language without a guarantee of official business in Estonian would lead to Estonian being forced out from the official business of the city and reduce motivation of municipal employees, employees of municipal institutions, including headmasters and teachers, to learn Estonian," the Education and Science Ministry wrote in response to the Narva City Council's request.
A ministry spokesman told the Baltic News Service that the argument that persons belonging to ethnic minorities felt they had the right to use their language in private and public life was irrelevant.
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, the ministry explained, it was permitted, by mutual consent, to use languages other than Estonian with state and local government institutions.
"This ensures communication for persons with no command of Estonian in a language suitable to them," the ministry wrote.
The Narva municipality has proposed amending the Local Government Organization Act so that City Council meetings could be conducted in Russian. An earlier version of the act did not regulate the language of sessions, but under the Local Government Organization Act, which went into force in 2002, the language of both council and government sessions must be in Estonian.
In light of the present language situation in Narva, the ministry concluded, this requirement should be met in full.
At the same time the Education and Science Ministry said that a decision concerning the use of spoken language at council sessions where the majority of the members speak a minority language could be given to the council.
However, the law should clearly stipulate the obligation of making legal acts, minutes of the meetings and decisions, as well as reports and speeches in Estonian.
The ministry pointed out that it was not clear how Narva officials planned to ensure parallel use of Estonian, the first language of official business.
The city government of Narva has asked for working language rights for Russian on two earlier occasions – in April 1995 and November 2002. Both times the proposal failed to win support.
According to the press, the Narva City Council holds double sessions – the first unofficial one in Russian, where the main decisions are discussed – and then the formal one where decisions are officially worded in Estonian.
Meanwhile, the city has decided to close its education department, ostensibly to save money.
Maie Bragina, head of the education department that previously coordinated Narva's 44 educational institutions, said that the City Council wanted to layoff ethnic Estonian officials.
"My understanding is that they simply want to get rid of me and my three Estonian co-workers. The rest of the layoffs are just for the company's sake," said Bragina.
She explained that since several school principals on the City Council feared they might be unqualified for their jobs due to their insufficient command of Estonian, the council was keen to settle scores with the education department.
"The employment contracts of several school leaders are about to expire, and [the council] wants to make sure that when new headmasters are hired, it's done under their control," Bragina said.
Deputy Mayor Galina Moldon, who is responsible for educational affairs, said that the education department was being reorganized for budget purposes.
"Functions that the education department doesn't have to perform will be taken away. The structure of the department has remained unchanged for many years, whereas laws concerning schools are changing all the time," Moldon explained.
The education department's troubles began after a disagreement with the council's plan to close two Narva schools, said Bragina. The council settled the argument with its decision to merge the education department with the municipal department for culture – a smaller unit in charge of only four institutions.
Bragina said that after the education department has been closed and unqualified council officials have been dismissed, the city will rehire Mikhail Mikhalchenko, who was dismissed from his post as Narva High School principal when his Estonian-language skills were found to be inadequate.
The principal's dismissal caused a wave of protest in the Russian media and prompted the Center Party's Narva chapter to consider barring Bragina from the party earlier this month.
Center Party spokeswoman Evelyn Sepp told the Baltic News Service that the opposition party would handle the motion in early August, adding that the issue would most likely be referred to the party's court of honor.