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Language board chief: Law must require local politicians speak Estonian

A Narva city council chambers session in progress.
A Narva city council chambers session in progress. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

Sessions at Narva council chambers which were held this week regarding the removal of the controversial tank monument were mostly conducted in the Russian-language rather than in Estonian, a situation which baffles Ilmar Tomusk, Director General of the Estonian Language Inspectorate (Keeleinspektsioon).

This is the result of contradictions in legislation, he added, which need to be ironed out.

Even during normal times in Narva, council sessions are sometimes held in Russian-only, Tomusk says, while when his organization has been present at sittings, although they have been held in Estonian, translations have been provided in Russian.

He said: "There has also been practices whereby ahead of an official sitting in Estonian, where nothing is decided, but instead only formalized, an informal meeting is held in Russian, at which things are gone over in a language everyone can understand."

Tomusk also says he sees a contradiction here between two pieces of legislation, the Local Government Organization Act and the Local Government Council Election Act, though Section 41(2) of the first of these acts states that local legislatures and local governments hold their sessions in Estonian. 

While in 1996, the language requirement for council members was established on the basis of the Language Act, while this component was later to be transferred to the Local Government Council Election Act.

In November 2001, he said, the national legislature, the Riigikogu, annulled a requirement whereby politicians at local level should be proficient in Estonian, however.

" I do not understand how politicians who do not know the Estonian language should cope with a council's work, when conducted in Estonian," he went on.

The requirement should therefore be reinstated, he added, to the extent that they can understand all legislation and take part in debates and other aspects of public life.

Language level would also need to be proven, he added, though at the same time he would ditch the practice of issuing fines to those who do not know Estonian to the level their role requires – which he said was wholly ineffective.

The current requirements for obtaining Estonian citizenship include certified B1 level in the Common European Framework of language levels. The language requirement for customer-facing jobs such as store assistant had in the past been set at B2, in practice considerably higher than B1 insofar as the exam goes, but the requirement has fallen by the wayside.

Narva city government consists of the electoral list of Mayor Katri Raik, a native Estonian speaker, along with Eesti 200. The opposition includes the Center Party.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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