Candidates on Estonia's Russian-speaking population: Important to meet, discuss, listen (1)

Presidential debate on ERR's Vikerraadio. L-R: Mart Helme, Allar Jõks, Marina Kaljurand, Siim Kallas, Mailis Reps. Sept. 22, 2016. (Vikerraadio /ERR)
9/23/2016 9:20 AM
Category: News

During Thursday's presidential debate broadcast live on ERR's Vikerraadio, every candidate present seemed to agree on one point in particular — that Estonia's next head of state must work on forming a stronger bond with the country's Russian-speaking population, and that the only way to do so is via constant communication.

Among other listener-submitted questions, Kristina Kallas, director of University of Tartu Narva College, wanted to hear the five candidates' opinions on Estonia's Russian-speaking community: how they relate to it, what role the development of relations and ties to this community plays as well as what the hotspots are that the head of state should be addressing.

Mart Helme stressed that Russians are a people who do not want to join the Estonian cultural space as their own is many times more powerful.

"The president can meet with them, speak with, listen to them and explain things to them," said Helme. "But one must communicate in such a way that you show some backbone, not that you try to bend to their will and their views. Russians respect a proud and courageous person."

Mailis Reps noted that she visits Russian-speaking schools very often and that, in her opinion, the situation is nowhere near as bad as it is made out to be. "These schools' student bodies and teachers are very motivated to learn Estonian and other foreign languages," she said. "They are interested in being Estonian citizens."

She noted that it is the president's duty to respect all peple living here, but that mutual respect must be earned. "This depends upon how and how often you communicate," she explained. "The president should be above speaking to the Russian-speaking population about just one or two topics. They do not wish to speak about just HIV and drug addiction. They likewise have family issues, education issues, and security. They likewise want peace in Estonia. They often suffer from a lack of information, however. The president's task is to meet, meet and meet again."

Marina Kaljurand was asked if she considered it a problem if a Russian-speaking schoolteacher in Estonia was of the opinion that Crimea belongs to Russia.

Kaljurand replied that it was normal to discuss different political and foreign policy-related topics in school. "I have also visited schools in Ida-Viru County and had to explain why the occupation of Crimea isn't right," said Kaljurand. "It's not about who Crimea belongs to but rather how Crimea was occupied. I believe that if this is all calmly explained, then it is understood as well."

Kaljurand also seconded Reps' stance in likewise agreeing that the president must be president to all people living in Estonia. "For me it makes no difference what a person's native language or cultural background is. What is important is that they respect the Estonian state, culture, language and people."

Kaljurand noted that she can be a personal example as well — that an Estonian citizen and patriot with Russian roots can be Minister of Foreign Affairs and even a presidential candidate.

Allar Jõks recalled the fact that when he became Chancellor of Justice, on his first day of work he went straight to Narva in order to establish a representation of the Chancellor of Justice there — and thereafter another one in Jõhvi as well. "That is one way to bring the state closer," Jõks explained. "The president could shine a light on those issues that are cause for concern in Ida-Viru County."

Jüks noted that the issue of citizenship isn't a burning topic at all — rather, what is, is how to overcome the ongoing issue that the region is one of Estonia's poorest. "We have so many state plans, but they have not been implemented," said Jõks. "The president could host roundtable discussions and bring [these plans] to life."

Siim Kallas did not take part in the discussion involving this subject, as he was nearly 30 minutes late in arriving to the debate.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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