Narvans propose equal status for Russian language

  • 2001-08-16
  • Sergei Stepanov and Erik Kalda
NARVA - The United People's Party faction of Narva City Council has proposed that the idea of making Russian the second official language of the public administration be put to a vote within the Council, which is to sit down and discuss the issue on Aug. 28.

The faction is trying to take advantage of an article in the constitution that gives such a right to a municipality if the national minority makes up over half of the total population in a town or county, as the Russian minority does in Narva.

The population of Narva consists of over 60,00 Russians, about 3,000 Estonians and some 3,000 people of other nationalities.

The four United People's Party members behind the idea, including Vladimir Homyakov, deputy head of Narva City Council, claim that most of the population in Narva are Russian speakers irritated by the current domination of the Estonian language.

However, the national government stands in the way of any changes. It must approve the status of a second language after approval by a city government.

Homyakov said he thinks the idea of multilingual public administration comes from the Bible, and was later enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

"The situation is paradoxical, when many people cannot use their mother tongue in the public sphere. This is not normal and has to be changed,"said Homyakov.

Gennadi Afanasyev, deputy mayor for education and integration issues, said the project is based on Chapter 51 of the constitution and Chapter 11 of the law on language.

He added that the bill also accords with the widely acknowledged European Union's charter on national minorities.

Homyakov said that the most unpleasant stress Russian speakers in Estonia have had to deal with in the last decade has been related not to economic problems but to psychological trauma. "I think our new move toward official bilingualism is as necessary as a dose of fresh air,"he exclaimed.

This is not the first stab at a special bilingual status for Narva. In 1995 the City Council filed a bill on rights for Russian to the national government, but it was turned back as some documents were formed incorrectly.

"We talk too much about integration. While the Russian community in Estonia is always ready to do something for integration, the Estonian majority looks rather indifferent when it comes to specific actions,"Afanasyev said.

If such a proposal were approved by the government in Tallinn, which seems unlikely, the bill would oblige all officials in the region to be able to speak and use Russian as well as Estonian. That should not be a problem, suggested Afanasyev, as all officials in Narva and the country's northwest have a proper command of Russian.

Bilingualism would change the face of the city as well. Street names and ads would appear in both languages. Locals would be able to submit official applications and other documents in Russian, something they are barred against doing at the moment. Many cannot speak Estonian.

Homyakov said the initiators of the proposal are certainly worried the national government and the capital's bureaucrats will hamper the bill.

"For example, for (right-wing Pro Patria Union MP) Mart Nutt it will be like a red cloth for a bull. But we hope to win the support of Western political forces that have already experienced realizing bilingualism in their own countries,"noted Homyakov.

Nutt commented that he did not exclude the possibility that politicians from Russia may be involved in pushing the idea of the bill.

One of the figures behind Estonia's current acts on law and citizenship, Nutt suggested that the proposal to give Russian equal status with Estonian was meant to attract attention of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to stir up a fuss and the prolong OSCE observers' stay in Estonia.

"Some sources in the U.S.A. say that a country under OSCE attention cannot receive an invitation to NATO,"Nutt summed up, adding that there are too many coincidences in this case.

Viktor Andreyev, MP and chairman of the United People's Party, dismissed such reasoning. "I don't see any 'hand of Moscow' in this case,"he said, adding that he backed the bill because it would help Russian speakers gain access to more official information.

However, some politicians and officials working in the northeastern region have expressed doubts regarding the necessity of Russian becoming a second official language.

Valdek Murd, the chairman of Sillamae City Council, said that in every institution in his town a person can receive any information either in Estonian or Russian. Sillamae also has a majority of Russian speakers.

Minister of Ethnic Affairs Katrin Saks said that in order to make Russian the formal language in the northeastern region of Ida-Virumaa its officials have to prove they have no problems with Estonian.

"In Narva it has always been possible to have things done in the public sphere in Russian, while command of Estonian has always been a major problem there,"she said.

Elsa Sukainen, the chair of Narva City Council, does not believe the city administration will pass the bill and send it on to the national government. "I have no idea what sort of political forces would have to exist here before that kind of bill is endorsed,"she said.