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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Russian roots and an Estonian future
Pupils at Narva's language-immersion school
Narva's immersion school course has been running since 2000
In the second of a series of reports from Estonia, the BBC News website's Patrick Jackson looks at how well Russian-speakers have integrated, 16 years on from independence.

The authorities' relocation of a Soviet war memorial late last month sparked angry protests by ethnic Russians in the Baltic republic.

"If I had the time, I would go off to a village for six months and learn the language, but I have to work so..."

Yevgeny Ashikhmin, Narva correspondent for Estonia's leading Russian-language newspaper Molodyozh Estonii, can get by with a smattering of the national language.

More than that he does not really need because Russian is still the lingua franca of Narva, the country's third city, perched on the border with Russia and geographically closer to St Petersburg than Tallinn.

If the Baltic state closest to the old "occupier" is to succeed in bringing aboard its ethnic minorities, which make up 31.4% of the population (January 2006 figures), Narva and the north-east pose the greatest challenge.

The city is only 3% ethnic Estonian, with 83% of people Russian and the rest from across the former USSR, from Ukraine to Uzbekistan.

In fact, the city is de facto 100% Russian-speaking because local Estonians have to follow suit for practical reasons, Mayor Tarmo Tammiste notes.

That the two tongues are chalk and cheese does not help, but an imaginative educational approach appears to be paying off on a small scale.

Degrees of loyalty

Narva's Old Town School, one of 11 in the town, currently has 314 pupils aged between seven and 14 from Russian-speaking families.

Yevgeny Ashikhmin, Narva journalist
The overwhelming majority [of ethnic non-Estonians] are loyal to the state but some show super-loyalty
Yevgeny Ashikhmin, Narva journalist
They follow the national educational curriculum but all subjects are taught in the Estonian language by Estonian and Russian teachers, using a technique developed in Canada.

It is the country's only "language immersion" school though elements of the approach are in use at others.

Russian is still the language the children speak at home and there is a definite skills gap developing with their parents, though the state helps by funding courses in Estonian up to the level required for acquiring citizenship.

On his travels around Estonia, Yevgeny Ashikhmin has noticed such phenomena as Russian families on the western island of Saaremaa where the children now only know Estonian, with the deliberate encouragement of their parents.

And there are Russians who Estonianise their surnames, Mr Ashikhmin says.

On a recent visit to Lake Peipus, he was in a village where most of the people belong to an ethnic Russian community going back centuries, and he asked to meet the local elder, who had an Estonian surname.

"I thought I would be meeting an Estonian and imagine my surprise when I met a Russian - he told me that he had changed his Russian surname to an Estonian one.

"I asked around and was told it didn't happen often but that there was also a doctor there - he had a name like Petrov or Ivanov [typical Russian surnames] - who had changed his for the sake of his career."

In his opinion, the overwhelming majority of Russians, Ukrainians and other non-Estonians are loyal to the Estonian state but "some show super-loyalty".

Motivating people

Urve Palo, Estonia's population affairs minister, has barely been in the job for three weeks and has three aides at hand for the interview about integration, her department's responsibility.

Urve Palo, Estonian population affairs minister
If we give just anyone citizenship, there is very often no motivation to learn the language
Urve Palo, Estonian population affairs minister
She springs a little surprise towards the end, merrily explaining that all three - apparently fluent speakers of Estonian and English - are from Russian-speaking backgrounds.

Actually it is the kind of thing you expect in cosmopolitan Tallinn, where Estonians make up only about 55% of the population, and often only the name badges on hotel staff, for instance, give a clue that the person speaking in Estonian in front of you grew up speaking Russian.

Perhaps just as important as language for the non-native population is the issue of citizenship.

"If we give just anyone citizenship, there is very often no motivation to learn the language," says the minister.

Of the country's 400,000 Russian-speakers, about 120,000 have Russian citizenship and 100,000 have none - or "undetermined citizenship", to use the government's phrase.

Non-citizens recently got a boost when other EU states began allowing them to visit with their ID cards only, but they cannot get work permits.

Nor do they have a vote in parliamentary elections and the right to serve in the army - though the latter is hardly an issue, given the age of most of them.

Asked if the citizenship laws make any exception for Russian-speaking pensioners, who are unlikely to be able to pass the state language and constitutional awareness tests, Ms Palo answers with a flat "No".

Go east, young man

tag Estonian months of the year on a classroom wall
Narva Old School's classrooms are covered in vocabulary
Asked about people who Estonianise their names for their careers, the minister says such a thing is "not systematic" and "the name doesn't help you, it's you yourself who matter".

Her aides give their favourite examples of how, after years of intermarrying, you can meet Estonians with Russian names and vice versa.

The government does not run any job quotas and other forms of positive discrimination which might help ethnic non-Estonians. But it points out that many Russians have an educational advantage in the job market because they are multilingual.

Does the Reform Party-led government, elected in March on a ticket which included the hugely divisive removal of Tallinn's Soviet war memorial, have any fresh thinking on integration?

Apart from trying to persuade more language teachers to move to the eastern region, which the aides suggest is a struggle, there will be an internet-driven campaign next year to encourage Russian-speakers to take holidays in the south of Estonia and the islands to mix with local people.

In pictures: Estonia clashes
27 Apr 07 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Estonia
30 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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