|Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)|
|7. From centre-periphery conflict to the making of new nationality policy in an independent state: Estonia|
The national language has been of great importance for Estonian society. Historically, this derives from the fact that for centuries Estonians were disenfranchised, both economically and politically. To Estonians, the preservation of their own language and national culture has meant the preservation of the viability of the people. This awareness accounts for the rapid rise of national culture and the heightened cultural activity in the 1920s and 1930s. During the Soviet era also, regardless of the changes in the content of culture, the national tongue of that culture generally persisted.
This situation started to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when official schemes for the forced development of Estonian-Russian bilingualism threatened the integrity of the national tongue. The resolution of the Communist Party of Estonia Central Committee dated 19 December 1978, in reaction to the all-Union regulations "On further improvement of mastering and teaching Russian," became pivotal for local language policy in Estonia. This not only planned an improvement in Russian language instruction but also envisaged extensive measures to promote the propagation of Estonian culture. As a corollary to its move to spread the Russian tongue, the central government issued a decree raising the salaries of Russian instructors, as well as the grants offered to students of Russian philology.
All these developments took place in a situation where the official language policy of the Soviet Union and the ideological conditioning of the people were unambiguously oriented towards Russian-ethnic bilingualism, with the unlimited privileged expansion of the functions of Russian. Command of foreign languages has always been held in great esteem in the Estonian cultural tradition as an indicator of a high level of general culture and a necessary business asset. However, the over-politicized and ideologized propaganda of Russian, aggravated by administrative excesses, created widespread antagonism. The campaign was seen as a step back to the worst Russification practices of the Tsarist regime. Indeed, these fears were justified, because there had already been such a differentiation of the functions of the Estonian and Russian languages that the Estonian language had been relegated to a position of secondary importance. At a certain level of one's career it was essential to master Russian, whereas the ability to speak Estonian was not required. As a result of territorial localization, the Estonian and Russian languages were in different situations in the urban areas and in the countryside, compared to 100-150 years ago. Finally, these languages had become quite different in functional terms. Science, much official management and documentation, and the railway, trade, medical, and communication services used mainly Russian. The Estonian language started to recede into the sphere of traditional ethno-cultural usage and everyday life. This discrimination against Estonian is the main reason why Russians and other nationalities who had migrated have not picked up the local language. Second-rate and doomed to perish gradually, Estonian was not prestigious in either Russian schools or in the Russian community as a whole.
The situation of languages in Estonia today is anything but satisfactory. According to statistics gathered in the 1989 referendum, the Estonian language is spoken by 67.1 per cent of the whole population, but the share of those who have mastered the language shows a tendency towards a constant decline (72.8 per cent in 1970, 69.4 per cent in 1979, 61 per cent in 1989). Finnish immigrants have integrated with the Estonians most of all (33 per cent speak the language), then Jewish and Gypsy immigrants (26 per cent). Among Latvians and Hungarians, one-fifth state that they speak the language. The majority of the members of the small groups of nationalities have acquired Russian. There are, in fact, two rival languages in Estonia's language system, while the integrating force in alien tongued groups is nearly three times stronger than that of Estonian.16
The dominant position of Russian throughout the Soviet Union as the socalled language for communication between nationalities was established in every republic and even in private communication. Only 13.7 per cent of the Russians who live in Estonia have mastered Estonian. This situation is changing very slowly because of the difficulties in learning and teaching, as well as negative attitudes. For decades, people had been used to the complacency of Estonians regarding their own language. The language barrier was always crossed from the Estonian side.
Estonia was the first of the then Soviet republics to enforce a language act and give the native language the status of an official language. That step was conditioned by the necessity of protecting the national language. But attempts to reinstate the Estonian language strained relations among the various nationalities, leading to an unprecedented campaign in the Soviet press. After Estonia's independence, one of the most complicated problems in regulating language relations has been how to start "joining" the divided halves of society. Without this, it will be difficult to stabilize society and democratize state powers. "A society divided into two hostile classes is presumably ripe for a revolution, but a society divided into two hostile status groups - nations, for example - is threatened by secession.''17