TALLINN - Education Minister Tonis Lukas has suggested that Russian schools be phased out of existence, sparking fresh accusations of governmental discrimination towards Estonia's Russian minority. The minister made the controversial statement on Friday Oct. 10, suggesting on an ETV news program that the Estonian education system should operate exclusively in the Estonian language.
The minister, who is currently drafting an Estonia-China study exchange program in Beijing, expressed his desire to enact the changes immediately, but conceded that it would take time to find enough teachers to fill the gap created by Russian schools.
While widespread integration of the Estonian language has been a stated long-term goal of the government, Lukas envisions a rapid transition, believing the policy will boost the integrity of education in Estonia. The minister said he would enforce the changes tomorrow if he could, the dramatic statement prompting concerns of discrimination and a breach of the constitution.
Katrin Saks, the vice-chairman of the Social Democratic Party and member of the European Parliament, was among those who spoke out about the minister's comments. "[Lukas] gave the impression that Russian childrens' possibility to get an education in their native language will disappear. In my opinion the Minister of Education saying such statements not only contradicts legislation, but is also heating up hostility among nations," said Saks.
According to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages 's which Estonia refuses to sign 's minority languages must be protected and made available for citizens dependent on them in terms of education, contact with judicial and administrative authority and the provision of public services.
Failure to acknowledge this legislation has provoked ongoing international criticism over Estonia's treatment of its Russian minority. According to Amnesty International much of Estonia's Russian community, which comprises nearly a third of the population, is de facto excluded from the labor market and education system.
In addition, both the European Centre for Minority Issues and the U.N.-backed think-tank 'Development and Transition' have previously launched allegations of state enforced inequality, the latter arguing that Estonia employs a "sophisticated and extensive policy regime of discrimination."
While Lukas was unavailable for comment, the ministry's Deputy Secretary General of Education, Katri Raik, told The Baltic Times that his statements originated from a political discussion club held in Tartu.
Raik said the topic being addressed was the discontinuation of Russian kindergartens, suggesting that Lukas was venturing his own opinion by conveying his desire to see an across the board transformation. She defended the kindergarten policy on the grounds that it is the most effective strategy to further implement the Estonian language.
"It's very important to have Estonian taught in kindergarten, because it's true that small children can learn language very quickly," Raik said.
Former Minister of Education Mailis Reps offered a different opinion, saying: "the transferal of kindergartens to Estonian language education will only cause confrontation in society."
According to Reps many see the discontinuation of Russian kindergartens 's due to be implemented next autumn 's as the first step towards a unilateral education system which would disadvantage the Russian minority.
"European practice shows that more and more rights of minorities are taken into consideration, and it wouldn't be the right decision to simply ignore minorities in Estonia," said Svetlana Luneva-Osipova, head of studies at Tallinn's Mustamae School.
"As to completely educating in the Estonian language, I would say that everyone should have the possibility of getting education in their native language, because this is the only way to get quality education," she said.