Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 1

On January 1 Estonian President Lennart Meri signed into law a bill requiring parliamentary deputies and members of elective municipal and district councils to be able to read and speak Estonian. The parliament had passed the bill on December 15 in the form of amendments to the laws on parliamentary elections and on local elections. Only the five Russian delegates had voted against the amendments, which stipulate that candidates for parliament and for municipal and district councils must know the Estonian language at a level sufficient to participate “in the assembly’s work and [understand] the contents of legal acts.”

The amendments take effect on May 1, 1999, which means that they do not affect candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7. Russian politicians in Estonia will thus have had at their disposal a decade, after the end of the Soviet occupation, in which to learn the language of the land.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) high commissioner on national minorities, Max van der Stoel, objected to the amendments. In a message to Meri, as reported in Tallinn and in Moscow, van der Stoel maintained that the language proficiency requirement constituted discrimination and violated the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights, which forbids “discrimination on the basis of language” and to which Estonia is signatory (Radio Tallinn, Itar-Tass, January 1).

Last October and December the Latvian and Estonian parliaments liberalized the respective citizenship laws by enabling the locally born offspring of resident aliens (mostly Russians) to receive citizenship without a language test (see the Monitor, October 5, December 9). Van der Stoel had strongly urged that change and declared himself satisfied when it was made. Moscow itself seemed temporarily appeased. Riga and Tallinn stated at the time that the liberalization of the citizenship law was the last in the series of special concessions demanded of them in the area of ethnic policy. That expectation might have been premature, judging from the OSCE High Commissioner’s criticism of Estonia’s electoral law amendments, which only set a language requirement considered normal in democratic countries.