TALLINN - Two months after rejecting a highly critical Amnesty Inter- national report on language discrimination, the Estonian government has adopted one of its key recommendations. On Feb. 8 the government moved to clarify the rights of people to communicate with officials in a minority language 's- namely Russian -'s in certain regions.
The move was one recommendation given to the government by Amnesty International in its report "Linguistic Minorities in Estonia: Discrimination Must End," released on Dec. 7, 2006.
The report harshly criticized Estonia for ignoring the human rights of its Russian community by restricting the use of their language.
"In addition to encouraging Estonia to recognize its de facto Russian-speaking minority as a linguistic minority, Amnesty International recommends that the Estonian authorities allow Russian to be used in communications with the authorities," the report said.
Such legislation already existed in Estonia, but Amnesty argued that it required further clarification to ensure minority groups could communicate with authorities.
One amendment to the Law on Language made in 2002 made it possible for people to use a "foreign language" in oral communication with authorities if both parties agreed to do so. According to Amnesty, this was not adequate protection.
Similar demands were made by the Council of Europe's Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which in 2005 recommended that Estonia ensure that people belonging to national minorities be able to use their minority language in relations with administrative authorities.
"The right for Estonia to promote and preserve its language cannot be at the expense of the linguistic minority to access their fundamental human rights. These people have rights as well, no matter what language they speak, and their rights have to be better balanced in Estonia," one of the report's authors, David Diaz-Jogeix, said at the time.
The report proved highly inflammatory 's it was criticized by politicians and the media, who branded it inaccurate and pro-Russian.
Yet on Feb. 8, parliament passed a raft of amendments to language-related laws.
The amendments clarify the rights of minority groups to communicate with state and local institutions in their language in areas where the minority made up at least half of permanent residents. They also allow for the minority language to be used on public signs, in announcements and advertisements, provided Estonian text stands first.
A government spokeswoman denied the changes were made in response to the Amnesty International report.
"The Estonian government does not pass legislation because Amnesty tells it to," the spokeswoman said.
She said the amendment was merely a clarification of already-existing legislation, and was made to bring Estonian law into line with European standards.
"It made more concrete the position of certain persons. It was already clear, but now it is more clear and in accordance with European law. It is to ensure the correct understanding of the law. It was not in response to the Amnesty report, which was very impartial," the spokeswoman said.
Amnesty International declined to comment on the move.
A spokesman said Amnesty preferred to deal with the government directly rather than through the media.
He said the human rights group would analyze the changes and would issue a media statement at a later date.
Also on Feb. 8, the government passed legislation that strengthened the rights of the Language Inspectorate to carry out crackdowns on workplaces.
The laws give more powers to inspectors to test, fine and fire workers who do not meet the requirements of their language certificates.
Such powers were already in force but were legally ungrounded.
The move raised the ire of the Constitution Party, which largely represents Russian residents of Estonia.
The party said it would file complaints with the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations protesting the law.
Constitution Party chairman Andrei Zarenkov said the amendments violated the human rights of minority groups.
"From now on language inspectors have the right to visit private and public institutions without prior warning, be present at meetings, examine documents, demand copies and excerpts, and issue precepts to employers for the dismissal of employees," Zarenkov told BNS.
"If an inspector has doubts [regarding] your proficiency in Estonian, he may demand a repeat of the language exam and invalidate the language proficiency certificate."
He said that giving the Language Inspectorate wider powers could potentially make it an instrument for political suppression.