TALLINN - The minister for population Urve Palo, who presented the new integration program this week, announced he planned to keep the number of people who can become Estonian citizens in check,
Under the previous integration program which ran from 2000 to 2007 only 5000 people a year became Estonian citizens out of a population of nearly half a million people who are not ethnically Estonian. At present Estonia has 115,672 stateless residents who represent 9 percent of the population.
Palo defended the government stance not to speed up the process whereby stateless people could become citizens. He said that integration was an ongoing project which had to be consistently continued and it was not possible to say at any given moment of time that the integration process was complete.
The program is aimed at increasing communication between ethnic and non-ethnic Estonians which is still strained. According to statistics from the Ministry in 2007, 39 percent of non Estonians did not have any friends who were ethnic Estonians, 65 percent of Estonians meanwhile did not have any personal friends who were not Estonian.
To try to improve matters the ministry wants Estonians to get involved in civic associations. At present membership of associations is low both with Estonians and non Estonians,
Palo said that learning Estonian would be a key plank to the programs agenda.
The inability to speak Estonian is a major stumbling block to integration between ethnic and non-ethnic Estonians most of whom are ethnically Russian. In 2005, for example, according to government figures only 22 percent of non-ethnic Estonians described their knowledge of the language as good whereas fully 54 percent of non-ethnic Estonians spoke it badly or couldn't speak it at all.
Palo put a positive spin on new developments in broadcasting. Estonian Television recently launched a Russian language site ETV2. Palo said that this might actually help integration because non-ethnic Estonians can now get news and information about the country in their own language.
The programs aim is to assimilate children at a very young age. Population ministry adviser Eva-Maria Asari said the integration program was setting the concrete goal of having 80 percent of non-ethnic Estonian children studying in Estonian language kindergartens by 2010.
She also said that by 2010, 80 percent of non-Estonian middle school graduates should have a good command of the language.
The ministry also aims to educate teachers. A course in Estonian will be offered to 200 Russian middle school teachers. A further 400 teachers are to take intensive courses. By the end of this year there will be 62 schools offering immersion courses for teachers.
There are a limited number of free courses available. Only 750 non-Estonian speaking unemployed and 129 key workers can take free course at the present.
The new integration program is likely to be endorsed by the Government in the next weeks and will be implemented soon after that.