Language problems in local Estonia

  • 2002-10-31
  • Sergei Stepanov

A recently adopted law on local councils in Estonia has thrown several municipalities into a quandary, leaving councilmen unsure about what language to speak during meetings.

The law, which went into force Oct. 21, the day after nation-wide local elections, states that Estonian is to be the working language of local councils and governments.

A previously approved law on elections, however, says that a candidate is not obliged to speak the official language.

Estonia's parliament approved the bill last autumn in order to abolish language proficiency requirements for national and local election candidates, and was subsequently one of the reasons the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe closed its mission in Estonia in December 2001.

The law, which provides for levying fines on violators, casts doubt on the working ability of numerous local councils across the country. Only eight out of 31 members of the newly-elected city council in Narva, for example, have sufficient command of Estonian.

The Language Inspectorate is not going to leave the issue unattended. Ilmar Tomusk, head of the inspectorate, said every local council in areas where over 50 percent of the residents are non-Estonians will be checked.

"It is not a problem of Narva alone, but of about 14 local councils," he said. "The official working language is Estonian, and we will control whether the paperwork is in Estonian. Furthermore, we will attend the sessions, too," said Tomusk.

In order to avoid fines, the Narva council said it is preparing to adapt to the new rules.

Nadezhda Sinyakova, member of the Center Party faction in Narva City Council and director of the Krenholm textile factory, does not speak Estonian. "Of course we have to follow the laws. But having local council sessions in Estonian in a town where 97 percent of the population are Russian-speakers is ridiculous," she said.

Not only the council members, but visitors as well, will have problems, Sinyakova claimed.

Previously Sinyakova lobbied for making Russian the second official language in Russian-dominated regions of the country.

"Finland, for example, has a small group of Swedish-speakers, but the Swedish language is official along with the Finnish. I do not understand our politicians who are afraid of the Russian language," said Sinyakova.

The Life Power faction of Narva city council, consisting of three members of the United People's Party and two of the Moderates, stated it has two persons with fluent Estonian, so in effect there would be no problems working under the new rules.

Mihail Stalnuhin, an MP and member of Narva city council, said he thinks the new rules pose no problem. "We would have less blabbering during the council sessions," he said, adding that the council members will have to prepare to the sessions more seriously and work on every possible question.

Not only the documents must be in Estonian, but also the speeches of council members, said the Language Inspectorate's Tomusk. "But there is no prohibition on interpreting into any other language, for example, Russian," he said.

The council must decide on its own whether to interpret or not, and organize the necessary services, Tomusk explained.

"Hence we almost have no conflict between the law on elections and the law on local councils," he said.

Tomusk said the maximum fine for breaking the language regulations is 12,000 kroons (766 euros). "However we are not interested in imposing fines, but in making people follow the law," he said.