Tatjana Evas

FACTS: Estonian population is divided based on ethnicity as follows: 69% Estonian, 26% Russian and 5% other nationalities.

The issues of inter-ethnic relations in 2010 continued to attract considerable attention in Estonia as well as at the international level. Estonia has largely managed to avoid violent, ethnicity-based manifestations, with the exception of the 2007 Bronze solder events. At the same time, it is difficult to deny that ethnicity does play a role in the socio-economic and political opportunity structures, where belonging to an ethnic minority group is rarely an advantage. This chapter aims to highlight the main trends and some of the central problematic issues discussed in the Estonian society in 2010.[1]

INTERESTING FACTS: At the political level opinion leaders and Estonian mainstream media still seem to rely on ethnic stereotyping and consider ethnic diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity.  According to IMP report the percentage of ethnic Estonians (56,8%) who are of the opinion that politics of the Estonian government disturbs cooperation between ethnic communities has increased.

The 2010 Integration Monitoring Report (2010 IMP) identified a number of positive trends.  Thus, interactions between ethnicities and proficiency of ethnic minorities in the Estonian language during last five years have increased.[2]  The level of political activity among various ethnic groups has increased and the political values among ethnic groups have become increasingly shared.[3] The public visibility of cultural projects and support of cultural activities of various minority groups is also gradually increasing. Radical positions in the public sphere among ethnic groups are becoming less frequent. Conversely, the statistical data and surveys repeatedly indicate significant socio-economic gap between ethnic groups and a very low trust in political institutions by ethnic minorities.  Last year, in fact, a number of Estonian sociologists and political scientists including, Pettai, Hallik, Toomla, Vetik and Heidmets have publicly urged to re-consider the state policy on inter-ethnic integration and to take urgent steps to remedy growing socio-economic divide and the brain drain.

Legislative and Institutional Changes and Civil and Political Participation

The Citizenship Law and naturalization procedures, requirements on the language proficiency stipulated in the Language Act, as well as competencies of the Language Inspectorate, remain largely unchanged in 2010. The naturalization rate among ethnic minorities continued to fall in 2010 as well as the trust in political institutions and satisfaction with the state of democracy in Estonia.

INTERESTING FACTS: According to 2010 data on legal status of the population within the ethnic minority group: 24% of ethnic minorities are stateless, i.e. not holding citizenship of any country, 50% hold Estonian citizenship, 23% hold citizenship of the Russian federation and 3% are citizens of other countries’

Estonian Integration Programme 2008–2013 (EIP) is the central policy document determining the aims of the integration process. In the Russian language media, the EIP is strongly criticized.[4] Although proficiency in Estonian language is considered important by ethnic minorities they do not share a central assumption of the EIP that a mere improvement in the proficiency of the Estonian language would result in a more cohesive and less divided Estonian society.[5]

INTERESTING FACTS: Trust in political institutions  diminished further compared to 2008. Only 7% of ethnic minorities trust the parliament; 9% trust the government; 14% trust the president and 31% trust the police.  The trust in public institutions among Estonians is also rather low (respectively 18%; 32%, 67% and 60%) but still considerably higher than among ethnic minorities.

According to 2010 data 102,338 residents in Estonia (7,5% of total population) still do not have citizenship of any country and thus, do not enjoy full political rights. The rates of naturalization are increasingly falling since 2006 and the number of stateless residents is unlikely to decrease unless citizenship law is liberalized. In relation to the naturalization policy ethnic groups have opposite opinions

“most Russian-speakers still heavily criticize the naturalization policy as overly restrictive and as a violation of human rights, while ethnic Estonians think that the national citizenship politics are normal and adequate by international standards.”

Sociologist Klara Hallik, upon discussing the current citizenship policy concludes that the naturalization policy adopted in 1995 could largely be considered a failure because it resulted in a high number of minorities accepting Russian Federation citizenship or resorting to statelessness. Moreover, she points out that from the political point of view, the fact that naturalization rates dropped severely to the level where almost no naturalization took place is an indication of the protest that takes a form of a collective resistance to the state citizenship policy.[6] Hallik explains “We [Estonians] have imposed conditions for naturalization that are considered to be completely normal in all states, on those people that in fact are members of our society permanently living here”.[7]

Political attitudes among ethnic groups are “surprisingly similar”, as well as interest in national politics and levels of political participation.[8] At the same time, trust in political institutions and satisfaction with state of democracy in Estonia is drastically different.  While ethnic minorities assign high values to democratic freedoms in general, 2/3 of the ethnic minorities are disappointed with democracy in Estonia. Toomla concludes that this is a very alarming indicator and something must be done about it immediately.

Socio-Economic Conditions and Educational Reform

The socio-economic gap between ethnic groups continued to grow, coupled with the rather pessimistic outlook among ethnic groups for the economic well-being and the quality of life in the future.  Against the general consensus, the consensus among ethnic groups on the necessity to reform the current educational system and to improve the proficiency in Estonian language is a conflicting one, especially regarding the methods and the necessary conditions for the success of the reform. Proficiency in Estonian language among ethnic minorities continues to grow.  However, the number of ethnic minorities who are fluent in Estonian language is still rather modest.  Interest in language learning among ethnic minorities is high.

The survey measuring self-evaluation of personal economic hardship found that only 6% of ethnic minorities live well with the current income and are able to save money (in comparison to 21% of Estonians).[9]  On average, income of ethnic minorities is considerably lower.[10] In this context, the most disadvantageous group is that of female ethnic minorities earning only 55% of the average Estonian man.[11]  The unemployment rate is very high.

Sociologist Iris Pettai, upon discussing high proportion of ethnic minorities among unemployed stated:

“As a solution to this problem Russian speakers are repeatedly offered to learn the language [Estonian].  However, on the example of the youth, that have excellent skills in Estonian language but are still not competitive on the Estonian labor market, it is evident that this is not a solution.  More than that, talented Russian youth do not feel needed in the country where they live and prefer to go to work abroad.  In my opinion – it is a tragedy.”[12]

This air of warning and disappointment is equally supported by the findings of the 2010 Human Capital Report.[13]  This report identified a growing tendency of young Russian school graduates to continue their studies abroad and leave Estonia.[14]  This is coupled with a quite widespread and a pessimistic understanding among ethnic minorities that on the labour market employers tend to prefer ethnic Estonians and their very low self-confidence.[15] The Human Capital Report warns that the leaving of young Russians from Estonia is a serious threat to the Estonian society and the economy.[16] Against the growing socio-economic disparities among ethnic groups and low representation among the public elite this tendency is not unexpected and is most likely to continue.

FACTS: More than 30% of the ethnic youth consider themselves to be on the lowest rung in the society (in contrast with 12% of the ethnic Estonian youth. Marju Lauristin, upon commenting on this statistical data pointed out that “the fact that there is such a large group of people with low self-esteem is actually the result of very many factors – teachers, parents and the local environment, as well as the media and the views among Estonians”.
The current parallel system of education is clearly unsatisfactory (among other factors) because it is not able to adequately secure the sufficient proficiently of the ethnic minority youth in Estonian language. The decisions in educational policy that do not adequately consider the results of the scientific studies and the position of the ethnic minority groups could lead to more social problems than solutions. In the opinion of the author, the problem is not the lack of motivation but rather the lack of the qualified personnel and teaching materials, which would allow for a smooth and gradual transition to the quality language learning, especially in the regions with high density of ethnic minority groups.[18]The educational reform in 2010 was actively discussed in Estonian and Russian media as well as by the politicians. Gradual transition to the Estonian language of instruction started in Russian language secondary and upper secondary schools from 2007. The responses to the transition to the Estonian language of instruction in Russian language schools are mixed.  Although it seems that there is a general consensus among ethnic communities, especially among the youth, that proficiency in the Estonian language is an important asset the means to achieving this goal are debated.[17] While majority of Estonians support the current educational reform, the ethnic minority community insist on a more balanced and gradual transition.

The recent study on educational inequalities among the ethnic groups points to growing differences in the educational levels of the ethnic groups.[19] Some of the reasons for growing inequalities are the institutional conditions and political choices adopted after 1991:

“instead of a gradual change in the education system the government chose to start a quick transition to teaching in only Estonian language in higher education. At the same time the quality of Estonian language instruction in Russian secondary school was rather poor … it means that Russian speaking school leavers find themselves at a disadvantage in access to higher education. […] We suppose that the termination of public education in the Russian language at the secondary level as well as decreasing follow ups to higher educational institutions has contributed to the lowering of the educational level of young Russians.”[20]

The close monitoring is necessary to evaluate whether currently ongoing upper secondary education reform would not contribute even further to the educational inequalities among ethnic groups.[21]

The latest statistical data suggest that roughly 50% of ethnic minorities can understand, read, communicate and write in Estonian on medium and advanced levels.[22] Free of charge language courses, as for example in other EU countries are, however, still not widely available, although there is apparent need for them among ethnic minority groups. [23]

Assessment of the developments in Estonia by human rights international monitoring bodies

In 2010 there were three periodic reports by international human rights monitoring bodies that addressed the issues of inter-ethnic relations in Estonia: European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)[24]; UN Human Rights Committee[25] and UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)[26]. All three reports, while acknowledging a number of positive developments, had a rather critical tone.  The responses to the criticism and recommendations of the international reports have been mixed. Ranging from heavy criticism, especially by some political leaders expressed in the Estonian language media to support by Russian language media and representatives of the NGOs.

In addition to the state reports in 2010 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rendered three decisions concerning complaints by Estonian ethnic minorities.[27]


Positive indicators of 2010 have been: a rather peaceful coexistence among main ethnic groups, improving Estonian language proficiency, as well as increasingly strong and constructive opinions voiced in the Estonian media by academics calling for reforms of the current integration policy.

Negatively, the socio-economic distance between ethnic groups further enlarged, the trust in political institutions further dropped and representation of ethnic minorities among decision makers remained weak.

Thus, if developments in the sphere of cultural-linguistic integration are positive, then developments in the socio-economic and civil-political spheres are negative.

The reactions of the political elites on the criticism of international monitoring bodies indicate, inter alia, that ethnic issues are still perceived to be highly politicized and emotional. This lack of self-critical assessment of the integration policy on the political level (but not on academic level) is regrettable and could lead to long-term economic development problems and social conflicts.


–          Consider numerous analyses and surveys from the field of social sciences and apply them in processes regarding integration and minorities.

–          Increase integration by changing the approach centred on Estonian language into a two-way dialogue.


[1] The term ethnic minorities is defined for the purpose of this chapter as all permanent residents, irrespective of their citizenship, whose mother tongue and/or ethnicity is other than Estonian. Note, however, that under Estonian law, one of the main conditions is also Estonian citizenship.

[2] Vetik, Raivo et.al. (ed.) (2010). Uuringu Integratsiooni Monitooring 2010 Raport [Report on survey of monitoring integration]. Rahvusvaheliste ja Sotsiaaluuringute Instituut, Tallinn, pages 3–21.

[3] Toomla, Rein (2010). Mitte-eestlaste ühiskondlik-poliitiline aktiivsus ja osalemine [Social and political activity and participation of non-Estonians]. Tartu: University of Tartu, Riigiteaduste Instituut.

[4]The EIP is often considered as a mere rhetoric rather than a real attempt to promote a real sense of integration in the Estonian society. It is argued, that integration in practice is reduced to the imposition of majority language and historical understandings on ethnic minority groups with insufficient efforts to foster two-way integration process. For strong criticism see for example Kablukova, Irina (2010). В гробу я видела такую интеграцию! [I saw integration in a coffin!]. День за Днём, 3.11.2010. Available at http://www.dzd.ee/?id=336155. See also Boroditš, Deniss (2010). Deniss Boroditš:tundmatud naabrid [Deniss Boroditš: unknown neighbours]. Postimees, 25.05.2010. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/?id=267422; – (2010). Интеграция умерла! Да здравствует Интеграция! [Integration is dead! Long live integration!] Internet Forum Podmoga, 5.11.2010. Available at http://www.baltija.eu/news/read/13405.

[5] Integratsiooni Monitooring 2010, pages 19–21.

[6] Hallik (2010).

[7] Hallik (2010). See also the opinion of Estonian historian David Vseviov quoted byHallik.

[8] Toomla (2010).

[9] Integratsiooni Monitooring 2010, p 142. See also Pors, Merje (2010). Narvalanna: parim amet Eestis on eestlane [The best occupation in Estonia is as an Estonian]. Postimees, 13.12.2010. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/?id=356478

[10] Immigrantrahvastik Eestis (2009); see also Integratsiooni Monitooring 2010, p 139.

[11] Immigrantrahvastik Eestis (2009).

[12] Pettai (2010).

[13]Estonian Cooperation Assembly (ed.) (2010). Eesti inimvara raport (IVAR): võtmeprobleemid ja lahendused [Estonian human resources report: key problems and solutions]. Tallinn: Säästva arengu komisjon.

[14] Pages 26–27; see also Tänavsuu, Hille (2010). Ainult keeleoskusest lõimumiseks ei piisa [Language skills are not enough for integration]. Postimees, 11.12.2010. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/?id=355648; see also Kosmõnina, Tatjana (2010). Üha enam vene noori eelistab edasi õppida Venemaal [More and more young Russians prefer to study in Russia]. ERR News, 25.07.2010. Available at: http://uudised.err.ee/index.php?06210548.

[15] Integratsiooni Monitooring, p 144–149; Similarly according to the EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey 2010, 59% of ethnic minorities in Estonia believe that discrimination is widespread in Estonia – EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (2010). Data in Focus 5 – Multiple discrimination. EU-MIDIS European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey. 2.02.2011. Available at: http://www.fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/attachments/EU_MIDIS_DiF5-multiple-discrimination_EN.pdf

[16] Pages 26–27.

[17] For differences in the attitudes and expectations among ethnic groups related to the education reform see i.e. Lindemann, Kristina and Saar, Ellu (2010). Educational careers of Estonians and Russians in Vetik, Raivo. and Helemäe, Jelena. (eds.) Segregated Disparity: the Russian Second Generation in Two Estonian Cities, Amsterdam University Press, 2010; Raitviir, Tiina (ed) (2009). Rahvuste Tallinn. Statistilis-sotsioloogiline ülevaade [Tallinn of nations. Statistical-social overview]. Eesti Avatud Ühiskonna Instituut; Kirss, Laura (2010). Eraldatud haridus – eraldatud kodanikud? [Separated education – separated citizens?], PRAXISe Toimetised No. 1/2010; Masso, Anu and Kello, Katrin (2010). Implementing Educational Changes: Teachers. Attitudes Towards Transition to Estonian as a Language of Instruction in Russian-Medium Schools in Mikk, Jaan; Veisson, Marika and Luik, Piret (eds.) Teacher’s Personality and Professionalism, Peter Lang, 2010.

[18] Similarly see for example Kirss, Laura and Vihalemm, Triin (2008). RIP 2008–2013 Vajadus ja teostatavusuuringu lõpparuanne, II osa Hariduslik integratsioon  [RIP 2008–2013 Concluding report of survey on need and applicability, II part Educational integration]. Tartu: Institute of Baltic Studies.

[19] Lindemann, K and Saar, E, (2010); See also sociologist Elena Helimäe as quoted in article – (2010). Уровень образования у второго поколения русских в Эстонии ниже, чем у первого [The quality of education for second generation Russians in Estonia lower than that of the first generation]. День за Днём, 07.12.2010. Available at: http://www.dzd.ee/?id=353594.

[20] Lindeman and Saar (2010), p 21.

[21] The topic of education is also discussed in chapters 8 (prohibition of discrimination ) and 10 (right to education).

[22] Integratsiooni Monitooring 2010, p 3.

[23] There are two main programs that aim to facilitate language learning among ethnic minorities.  Both reimbursements are limited by the amount of 302 euros and can be claimed only post factum based on the proof of successful results of the language exam. According to the estimation provided in the Human Capital Report (p 27), the amount of reimbursement is calculated considering 120 hours of teaching hours while in practice number of hours actually necessary to learn the language for the next level of proficiency, depending on the student, is on average 240 hours and more.

[24] The ECRI recommends to Estonian authorities to ratify Protocol No. 12 to the ECHR (non discrimination protocol); to ensure provision of free of charge good quality of Estonian language courses irrespective of the success in language exam; establish monitoring mechanisms involving Russian speaking minorities on the work of the Language Inspectorate; enhance provisions of the Criminal Code to strengthen punishment for all racist crimes; ensure quality of education and respect for cultural identity in undertaking educational reforms; raise awareness on the compliance with the Equal Treatment Act and protection provided by this Act; take measures to reduce statelessness and enhance consolations with the representatives of ethnic minorities and combat racism and racial discrimination in policing; to adopt a law on the rights of national minorities. European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2010). ECRI Report on Estonia (fourth monitoring cycle), CRI(2010)3. Available at: http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Estonia/EST-CbC-IV-2010-003-ENG.pdf. See also chapter 8

[25] The HRC focused on inequalities on the labor market; low trust among Russian speaking residents in the State and its public institutions; lack of initiative on the side of the Estonian state to consider collective reparation for persons deprived of their liberty following the 2007 Bronze Solder events. The HRC recommends state authorities to further strengthen active labor market measures aiming at the professional and language training as well as to take steps to increase confidence and trust of the of Russian speaking minorities in the State and its public institutions. – UN Human Rights Committee (2010). Concluding observations: Estonia, CCPR/C/EST/CO/3 (4.08.2010

[26] The CERD heavily criticized the “punitive elements in the language regime”; The CERD Committee recommends to “adopt a non-punitive approach to the promotion of the official language and revisit the role of the Language Inspectorate”. Furthermore, the Committee called to consider “a dual language approach as regards delivery of public services, particularly in light of the prohibition of discrimination in access to public goods and services as provided for by the State party’s legislation.” CERD also considered the extremely low trust in State and public institutions, recommending theState to “redouble its efforts to ensure greater participation by members of minorities in public life, including in Parliament, and take effective steps to ensure that they participate in the administration at all levels.” – UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2010). See also chapter 9.

[27] In case of Mikolenko v. Estonia concerning the right to reside in Estonia of the former Soviet military servicemen the ECHR found that Estonia violated Article 5 § 1 of the Convention and awarded non pecuniary damages to the complainant. ECHR judgment 8 October 2009. Application no. 10664/05. In Tarkoev and Others v. Estonia see chapter  9.Finally, the ECHR found party admissible collective complaint Aleksandr Korobov and others v. Estonia, by seven individuals related to the Bronze Solder events. ECHR judgment 14 September 2010.Application no. 10195/08 .