Erik Gamzejev: Estonian not heard in council elected by Russian citizens

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Delegates of Ida-Viru County cities should demonstrate their willingness to be a part of Estonia in the broadest possible sense and to introduce the country's values into the hearts and minds of their voters more often and more clearly. This would help the cities' development, support and understanding by the rest of Estonia, Erik Gamzejev writes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

One of the guardians of Estonianness in Narva, Rein Annik, recently told [local paper] Põhjarannik that back in the early 1990s, when the Narva City Council tried to oppose Estonian independence by whatever means possible, its Estonian delegates, who numbered seven in addition to Annus, stood firmly against such attempts.

"The current council does not have a single Estonian," Annik worriedly said, describing the situation in Narva 31 years after Estonia regained its independence. What is more, Narva council sittings are still held in Russian, even though the Language Act has been in force for over 33 years.

It is especially paradoxical how almost all governments have been saying over decades how they are increasing Estonia's presence in Narva and the entire Ida-Viru County.

While it might have been possible to turn a blind eye and try to understand that mastering Estonian was too much for elderly delegates during the first years of re-independence, the people who currently make up the Narva and Sillamäe (where the situation is very similar) city councils were either young or middle-aged 33 years ago.

A city council should consist of the local elite, people with broad horizons capable of learning quickly. Lacking proper Estonian makes it impossible for them to fully participate in the Estonian legal environment, culture, history and information space. Seeds of a conflict of values with the rest of Estonia are planted automatically in such a situation and currently manifest in the question of the tank [monument] and other symbols of war. But a delegate with scarcely a command of Estonian also cannot successfully represent their voters.

Of course, we could point the finger at Estonia's education system. More than a few Narva and Sillamäe delegates who cannot communicate in Estonian have graduated from our general education schools and even universities since independence was restored.

But diplomas cannot make anyone understand Estonian or the true significance of the battles of Võnnu and the Blue Hills or the Letter of 40. They cannot make anyone know Jaan Kross, Arvo Pärt, Tõnu Kaljuste or Ragnar Klavan. The delegates' own interest and desire to be a part of Estonia in the broadest possible sense and to introduce its values into the hearts and minds of their constituents should be the main thing.

The heads of almost all leading parties should also take a look in the mirror. A large part of delegates with no Estonian have been elected from the lists of major parties. Their heads have surely known that people who are unfit to serve on municipality councils are running in their ranks. So far, no one has cared, as long as the votes keep rolling in.

It is all the more peculiar to see members of the government now exclaiming in surprise: "Wow! Estonian is not used in the Narva City Council..."

Estonia is among states looking to restrict Russian citizens' access to Europe. At the same time, Russian citizens living in Estonia can participate in local elections. Citizens of aggressor states participating in elections is bound to affect election topics.

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise has pointed out that voter turnout has been very low among Russian citizens, less than 10 percent, meaning that they do little to affect results. However, their relative importance is much bigger than that in Narva and Sillamäe. Parties and election coalitions looking to score votes in those cities consider the group's interests. Sometimes more than they should and overlooking the interests of Estonian citizens.

When non-citizens were given the right to vote at local elections in the mid-1990s, it was suggested the latter mostly deal with local public services. In truth, Russian education and language have been paid more attention at elections in Ida-Viru County cities than, for example, Estonia and Estonianness.

Ida-Viru cities began to integrate more closely with the rest of Estonia when they got pro-Estonian leaders following the restoration of independence. This process slowed in the second half of the 1990s, when non-citizens were given the right to vote and local power changed.

It is possible that taking away a right once given could create new tensions and is best avoided at this time. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) recently said that Russian citizens' right to vote will not be stripped despite coalition partner Isamaa's corresponding bill.

But perhaps we could introduce a deadline for when that right will be taken away. Perhaps it could motivate those interested in voting to make the Estonian citizenship effort. Non-citizens do not have the right to vote in all European countries. It is a privilege in Estonia.

Narva City Council delegates would do well to understand that suing the government over the [T-34] tank relocation will neither bring it back nor help the prosperity of their city. The tank was removed because the Russian leadership, executing its Rashist and bloody policy of conquest, has done everything to make sure these monuments acting as ideological weapons are despised in the West. This is something Narva council members could take the time to patiently and convincingly explain to that part of their constituents still missing the tank monument.

As tends to happen in crises, Narva and Ida-Viru County are being paid more attention than usual by the rest of Estonia. We should make more fruitful use of the situation this time to strengthen the economy, general well-being and Estonian language and sentiment in the area. However, this required the good will of local councils.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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