Vikerraadio elections debate: Learning language key to integration

Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023.
Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In Vikerraadio's first pre-election debate on Tuesday, which focused on the issue of integration, all of Estonia's bigger political parties but the Center Party found that one of the best tools available for integrating the country's non-Estonian speaking residents is Estonian-language schools.

Participating in Tuesday's debate were Hendrik Agur (Isamaa), Piret Hartman (Social Democratic Party, SDE), Aleksei Jašin (Eesti 200), Meelis Kiili (Reform Party), Mihhail Kõlvart (Center Party), Ivo Loide (Parempoolsed) and Jaak Valge (Conservative People's Party of Estonia, EKRE).

Integration raises various issues

On the subject of bringing Estonian values closer to people with other native languages, Jašin noted that Estonia has made significant progress over the past 20 years.

"We still need to address other issues, however, such as contact between [non-Estonian speaking] people and Estonians, and the fact that old symbols need to be replaced by new symbols," Jašin said.

Valge, however, said that what would be best is if native speakers of other languages were to identify as Estonian instead. "Integration hasn't gone well," he said. "The share of mixed marriages is low, and it'll take us 350 years until half of Ida-Viru County city residents are Estonian."

According to Kõlvart, what's most important to the Center Party is ensuring everyone equal opportunities in education. "Free higher education was a good project, but its accessibility was reduced, and the number of university students fell," he said. "You can announce your ideas with slogans, but the system hasn't been prepared and there are no resources for it. Politicians are going to forget these issues following the elections."

Meanwhile, Kiili believes that integration is the preservation of Estonian culture and the preservation of Western values.

"We support minority peoples' identities as well; assimilation is not the way to go," he said. "I also don't agree that Russian-language education provides equal opportunities — rather the opposite."

Meelis Kiili (Reform) at Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Agur wants to invest in young people mastering Estonia's official language. "The problem will be resolved within a short time period once the transition to Estonian-language education happens," he said.

According to Hartman, the Social Democrats have very clear positions regarding integration. "There's no turning back from Estonian-language education," she said.

Loide likewise said that children must learn Estonian starting in kindergarten already. "We have no plans to invest in the older generation," he noted.

Russian media sphere a root problem

Kõlvart noted that one problem is that Russian-speakers in Estonia are treated as a problem.

"The majority of Russian-speakers support Ukraine; I've seen as much with my own eyes," he stressed. "Why aren't we talking about that? Moreover, all messages to Russian-speakers are associated with words like 'we're banning,' 'we're taking away,' and so on."

Hartman, meanwhile, cited as positive the growth of ETV+, ERR's Russian-language TV station, but Loide found that the problem is the media sphere.

"There are cable companies operating in Narva offering nearly 300 Russian-language channels, and it's two, three times cheaper than watching Estonian TV channels too," he explained. "If you stick a fork behind the TV, I can immediately watch five TV channels."

Mihhail Kõlvart (Center), Ivo Loide (Parempoolsed) and Jaak Valge (EKRE) at Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Valge noted that if one's surroundings are Russian-speaking, they won't integrate. He added that people who speak a different language at home need to be given chances to practice their Estonian.

"So ETV+ and Raadio 4 should increasingly be subtitled [in Estonian]," the EKRE candidate recommended.

"I don't like the slogan 'Let's be tolerant!' because if we're talking about integration, the foreign population has to integrate with us, and we have to be respectful of ourselves," he continued. "Our biggest problem is that we have to end mass immigration. We're carrying water in a sieve here."

Agur, meanwhile, called for tolerance in organizing Estonian language instruction for Russian-speakers.

Nonetheless, he also added that it's appalling to acknowledge when just one of 200 students in Ida-Viru County has ever been to Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn.

Kõlvart criticized talk once again going back to banning things. "'Let's ban our neighbor's channels and ETV+!' I propose we bring the cultural sphere and people closer to Russian people," he said.

"This has to be systemic; schoolchildren take field trips all over Estonia, people from other counties visit Narva, etc," he continued. "There isn't a single Russian[-language] school that wouldn't want to twin with Estonian[-language] schools. But there aren't any partners."

Jašin likewise found that Isamaa's proposed fines and punishments are hampering integration efforts.

"When integration is discussed in Estonia, what they're actually talking about is assimilation," he highlighted. "A shared cultural space hasn't sufficiently been established in Ida-Viru County; only cultural figures have managed to do so."

Estonian-language schools requires more teachers

According to Kõlvart, a long-term program must be launched that would ensure more teachers in Estonia.

"This is a ten-year program," he said. "In that time, we need to find 7,000-8,000 new teachers. The transition means that the language immersion program has to be abandoned; that was a special method that meant that teachers could teach consciously when a student wasn't learning in their native language. We're not going to solve this problem by offering teachers €3,000 salaries in Ida-Viru County; that will draw teachers away from elsewhere."

Piret Hartman (SDE) at Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Jašin argued with Kõlvart that language immersion should actually be used more, not less, as teachers at Estonian-language schools need methodic support as well.

SDE's goal, meanwhile, is integrated schools.

"Our goal is that kids in schools are integrated; that they aren't divided by school and by language," Hartman explained.

"The new arrangement will affect all schools, and teachers must be prepared for the fact that they will have multilingual students," she continued. "It's easy to organize multilingual schools in Tallinn and Tartu; it's harder in Ida-Viru County, where the majority of kids are Russian-speaking."

EKRE isn't in favor of integrated schools. Valge said, however, that not having an integrated school doesn't mean that there's no contact.

"We don't agree with students who speak Russian at home attending Estonian[-language] schools," he explained. "We're seeking for teaching to take place in Estonian in existing Russian schools, otherwise Estonian students will suffer. We have to ensure a better position for the Estonian language than its current one."

Agur criticized Valge's talk of banning Russian-speaking children from Estonian-language schools as appalling.

"You hear Russian spoken in our Kohtla-Järve school too, but we have a fully Estonian-language school," he highlighted. "Two new state high schools are opening in Narva next year that will likewise be fully Estonian-language."

Valge claimed that boys and girls had been segregated in education for centuries, but that didn't mean they didn't have any contact with one another.

"I agree that the teacher shortage is a problem, but teachers also have few rights," the EKRE candidate said. "The left-wing liberal educational concept has to be broken."

Hendrik Agur (Isamaa) at Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

As of this January, Estonia's population stood at 1.3 million — marking an increase of 2 percent on year attributable primarily to the influx of war refugees from Ukraine.

Kõlvart noted that the Ukrainian community in the Estonian capital has actually been growing since 2014 already.

"Now another 44,000 Ukrainians came to Tallinn," he continued. "Many of them even want to go back, but have nowhere to go. So we have to operate based on the fact that human resources are the biggest resource we could possibly have — and how we can give it potential."

Valge, meanwhile, said that Estonia is seeing mass immigration. "Social benefits in Estonia are exceptionally high, and the danger exists that people are only coming here because of them," he claimed. "EKRE would impose a location census."

Loide, meanwhile, found that by helping refugees from Ukraine, Estonia is forming a military-eceonomic bloc with Poland, the Baltics and Ukraine.

"Helping Ukrainian refugees isn't just altruistic; it's also pragmatic as well," he said. "They're a good ethnic group that will improve our internal competition. We shouldn't treat them as a threat."

Jašin likewise said that he was very proud of Estonia's Ukraine-related foreign policy.

Aleksei Jašin (Eesti 200) at Tuesday's pre-election debate on Vikerraadio. January 31, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The 2023 Riigikogu elections, in which all of the Estonian parliament's 101 seats are up for election, will be held on Sunday, March 5.

MPs are elected to the Riigikogu for a four-year term.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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