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5 May, 2007 19:34

30% of Estonia's Russians can't speak Estonian

30% of Estonia's Russians can't speak Estonian

The recent riots in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and the split in society that it revealed has shocked the country. Many of the ethnic Russian community blame legislation that bans them from being citizens if they cannot speak Estonian.

Less than 20 years ago, following the Soviet Union's attempts to Russify the Baltic States, Russian was the common language. But times have changed. Estonian is now the mother tongue with English taught as the first foreign language.

With 120 different languages spoken in Estonia, every third person there speaks something other than Estonian.

To ensure that Estonian is widely spoken the language inspectorate was formed, overseeing its common usage for instance among schools, businesses and the police. But its work has highlighted, and some believe exacerbated, the divide in society.

If you fail its tests you can't get citizenship and the rights that come with it.  You can't hold be a state or municipal employee and you can even be dismissed from your job.

The inspectorate's work has been criticised by human rights group, like Amnesty International, that say the language requirement has been too rigorously applied. They say that the implementation of the law on language is not only ineffective but has also created a fear of state institutions and perceived job insecurity.

30% of the Russian community in the Baltic state are unable to speak Estonian and say they are disenfranchised.

“Non-citizens in Estonia are people that don't have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, participate in the country's political life. Even though I was born here in Tallinn, and lived here for 39 years, I don't have citizenship just because my Estonian is not good enough. Language courses require a certain amount of money. It is not too big, but having three kids I just can't plunk down $ US 300 to $ US 500,” says Alexander Churbin from the Russian community.

But for the younger generation of ethnic Russians the future is brighter.

The majority from the local Russian community are taught all subjects in Estonian apart from maths and Russian literature. They say they understand all the benefits both socially and economically.

Many Estonians do still speak and understand Russian but outside of the ethnic Russian community it is on the decline.  And many here can not understand why Russians people do not just learn Estonian. But for those who grew up only speaking Russian and who overnight in 1991found themselves unable to communicate in the new mother tongue, they say they are not only without citizenship, but also without a voice.