TALLINN - Amnesty International has called on Estonia to address discrimination against its ethnic Russian residents who suffer from lower employment prospects and poor access to human rights, according to the organization.
On Dec. 7, Amnesty Inter-national released the report "Linguistic Minorities in Estonia: Discrimination Must End," in which it called on the nation to recognize Russian speakers as an official minority language group, and to view their concerns as a human rights issue rather than a social or political matter.
The criticism has reopened an old societal wound and drawn angry response from politicians who attacked the report for being false and out-of-date.
Local media also reacted negatively to the report, with one major daily newspaper refusing to publish its information, instead only giving voice to the criticism of it.
The youth wing of one political organization even went so far as to suggest the report itself would generate "Russophobia" among Estonian youth.
In its 46-page document, Amnesty International said that although steps had been taken to integrate Russian speakers 's who make up almost one third of the population - more had to be done to protect their fundamental rights.
"Persons belonging to this minority enjoy very limited linguistic and minority rights, and often find themselves de facto excluded from the labor market and educational system," the report said.
"Many from this group are effectively impeded from the full enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights."
Primary amongst its recommendations was that ethnic Russians be officially recognized as a linguistic minority, a move that would bring them under the protection of a number of international rights charters.
It criticized the prohibitive cost of Estonian language courses, and recommended that lessons be given for free, rather than made reimbursable only to those who pass the exams.
Amnesty International also recommended changes to labor laws which dictate that employees must speak a certain level of Estonian, even in Russian-dominated areas. The legislation currently contributes to a higher rate of joblessness among Russian speakers.
The report was critical of the language requirements of Estonia's citizenship application process and the large number of residents living on 'gray passports.'
And it called for ethnic Russians to be legally allowed to communicate with authorities and courts in their native language, particularly in areas where Russian is more widely spoken than Estonian.
"We recognize that Estonia has a right to promote and preserve its own language, but this cannot be at the expense of the linguistic minority to access their fundamental rights," said Amnesty International Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, David Diaz-Jogeix.
Diaz-Jogeix said he hoped Estonians would begin to see the problems of Russian integration as a human rights issue.
"Up until now this debate has been buried under emotion because of history. This needs to be seen as a matter of human rights, not as a social or a political problem," he said.
The Ministry of Population Affairs said Amnesty International had relied on old data in its report, while more recent figures painted a better picture in terms of employment and education.
It said it would be incorrect to classify Russians as a minority, as many were relocated during the Soviet occupation and were not a long-established ethnic group. To do so would be the equivalent of Germany accepting its Turkish immigrants as national minorities. "It is not justified to mix the concepts of 'Russian-speaking community' and a 'national minority," the Ministry said.
Steps have been taken to provide more accessible language courses, and free programs were on offer to assist people to pass their citizenship exams, the Ministry said.
Population Affairs Minister Paul-Eerik Rummo said Estonia had long been working toward better integrating its Russian speakers.
"It has been widely agreed that Estonia has ensured all minority rights in accordance with internationally recognized principles," Rummo said.
Although Amnesty International held several meetings with Ministry officials during the report's preparation, Rummo's office said it was not given adequate time to prepare a detailed response to the group's criticisms.
A Ministry spokeswoman said a more detailed point-by-point reply to the report would be prepared over the coming weeks.