Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) said she will introduce an amendment to require local government council elections candidates to speak Estonian at least on the B1 level by the next local elections.
"Delegates will be required to demonstrate their language skills. We will be seeking B1 Estonian proficiency in the bill. Producing proof of having graduated from an Estonian school is enough," the justice minister told Russian ETV+ morning show "Kofe+."
She said that everyone looking to run in the 2025 local elections will have to demonstrate their Estonian proficiency, adding that the ministry would receive the relevant information from the Language Board.
Danilson-Järg said that because local elections are three years away, everyone will have enough time to get their language skills up to par.
Descriptions of activities in Estonia to be added to the elections law
Director of the Language Board Ilmar Tomusk told ERR that the Ministry of Justice wants to complement the Local Government Council Election Act with a list of activities a council member should be able to perform in Estonian, similarly to the 2001 regulation. They include understanding the content of legal acts, giving presentations, answering questions, expressing their opinion, communicating with voters. The ministry's plan would complement the law with the B1 language proficiency requirement.
"While the B1 level is rather modest, including it in the law helps candidates to decide whether they are capable of performing these actions in Estonian. As the minister said, elections are several years away, and everyone can work on their language skills in the meantime," Tomusk remarked.
Narva delegate: B1 level not enough
"B1 is rather modest language proficiency. It is not enough for fully taking part in the work of the council, communicating with government ministers. But the requirement would change nothing for Narva. Every student who graduates in free Estonia has at least the B1 proficiency level. It would be preferable for delegates to sport a better level of Estonian, Deniss Lartšenko (Eesti 200), deputy chairman of the Narva City Council, told the rus.err.ee portal.
"Work in the council goes beyond attending sessions that should be in Estonian. There are behind the scenes meetings, committee meetings where it is possible to converse in Russian. But I would like the city to be represented by people who speak Estonian in the future. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visited us in August. I was embarrassed to admit that we needed an interpreter at the meeting," Lartšenko added.
"Should the B1 language proficiency requirement be ordered on the level of legislation? I find it pointless as it is not enough to fully participate in the council's work where even committee meetings take place in Estonian," Lartšenko said.
Possible clash with Constitution
Narva city council chair, independent Vladimir Žavoronkov found that delegates could ideally have C1 Estonian proficiency, while the problem lies elsewhere. "Such a law would be fundamentally unconstitutional," he emphasized.
Section 52 of the Constitution provides that state agencies and local governments use Estonian as the language of public administration. "Regions where most residents do not speak Estonian can use the language spoken by the majority of local residents as the administrative language in cases and pursuant to procedure provided by law. The use of foreign, minority languages in state agencies, court and pre-trial proceedings is provided by law," the Constitution reads.
The Constitution Annotated says that the Supreme Court has held language requirements for members of representative bodies to be fundamentally justified, at least in the case of local governments, and decisions by electoral bodies to register delegates have been overturned over lack of language proficiency. The European Court of Human Rights has also found language to be a valid qualification.
However, the document goes on to mention that current legislation does not prescribe language qualification, which has been the case since 2001.
Editor: Marcus Turovski