Ministry calls for assessing local councilors' Estonian language levels

Lea Danilson-Järg.
Lea Danilson-Järg. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Ministry of Justice says it wants to introduce an Estonian language test aimed at local councilors, while the issue of Estonian-language proficiency among candidates running in next spring's general elections also requires attention.

At the same time, on city council chair, Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE), who heads up Tallinn city council, says municipalities nationwide have not made best use of the existing rules on the topic

Justice Minister Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) told ERR that her ministry is also considering checking the Estonian language level of candidates both before and after the general election next March.

She said: "There is a pre-check for certain individuals, for example, who did not acquire their education in the Estonian-language education system, but if this is not revealed in the pre-check, it would become apparent during the course of their work, in which case it is possible to carry out a follow-up check."

Ilmar Tomusk, chief director of the Language Board (Keeleamet),says a now defunct piece of legislation that was in force until 2001 could be re-utilized. "In that case a certain number of activities which a council member must be able to perform in Estonian were entered into the law, and when applying, every person would put checkmark to that effect – saying that I can manage this."

"In that case, it could likely be something along the lines of this procedure, whereby a person is chosen based on their word, where the state that they have sufficient knowledge of the Estonian language."

"And if it turns out in the work of the council that he can't do it, that he demands an interpreter , then, for example, the language board could assess his language skills and pass this opinion on to the election commission of the republic, which will then process it further," explained Tomusk.

Danilson-Järg said that if the state has established such a requirement for candidates to have Estonian-language knowledge, then the withdrawal of their mandate (won at an election- ed.) due to insufficient knowledge of the national language would be justified, on the grounds that the candidate had provided false information about themselves.

"The preliminary check would be more effective in this sense, since the individual has not yet applied to run in the election at that point, making it possible to vote for someone else instead," she said.

Jevgeni Ossinovski, chair of Tallinn city council, says municipalities and their chairs have not sufficiently used the opportunities that are already available to them under current law, which, he said, should be used more vigorously by councilors and council chairs.

Under that law, a council chair – the speaker of a local council in other words – can call a halt to any address made in council chambers in a language other than Estonian.

According to the law, the chairman of the council can interrupt a speech in a foreign language or decide not to speak at all.

"The council and its chair must ensure that the work is carried out in Estonian. A person who does not know the working language of this institution cannot represent their constituents," Ossinovski continued.

On the other hand, requiring a certain level of language can lead to controversy he went on, saying: "How would we assess what level of language skills is sufficient to cope with this job? I think it's better to solve this problem through the way the law provides today sees."

Ilmar Tomusk said he is also not in favor of a set language level requirement. "This definitely won't happen, since there are so many nuances in proving language skills, and we wouldn't be able to process all these things," he said.

The Justice Ministry's bill is due to reach the Riigikogu council in December.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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