Sakari Neuvonen: Future of cultural autonomy of Finnish minority bleak

Sakari Neuvonen.
Sakari Neuvonen. Source: Private collection

The cultural autonomy bodies of the Estonian Swedes and Estonian Finns have made several proposals to amend the National Minorities Cultural Autonomy Act, Sakari Neuvonen writes.

The National Minorities Cultural Autonomy Act currently governs two cultural autonomy bodies that elect, among other things, representative bodies. The Estonian Swedes held their recent election in 2022, while the Estonian Finns will hold theirs in early October this year.

The current law provides that at least half of registered voters must vote in the election. Not enough Estonian Finns voted last time because of every new generation's weaker ties to their roots, as well as outdated legislation. Voter turnout failing to reach the required level this time would jeopardize the future of the Finnish cultural autonomy in Estonia.

What is cultural autonomy of national minorities and why do the Estonian Swedes and Estonian Finns find that the 1925 law, which was last amended in 1993, has become outdated?

Cultural autonomies are virtually unknown to the general public. The law provides that national minorities living in Estonia have the right to form cultural autonomy bodies, provided certain conditions are met. National minorities are made up of Estonian citizens who have "long-term, sound and permanent ties with Estonia" but who "differ from Estonians by their ethnic belonging, cultural characteristics, religion or language."

Another important aspect is for the group to want to maintain its national cultural customs, religion or language that form the basis of their common identity. National minorities' cultural autonomy bodies are like any other local government, They are "municipalities without municipality borders," while they are not political units or "states within a state."

Current integration difficulties aside, Estonia has widely recognized minority policy in the past. The National Minorities Cultural Autonomy Act gives four historical minorities the right to form a cultural autonomy body: Germans, Russians, Swedes and Jews. Other national minorities get the right to form a cultural autonomy body if they have over 3,000 registered members.

The Republic of Estonia has looked favorably upon minority rights. Mikko Lagerspetz writes in a Vikerkaar article from 2018 that passing the National Minorities Cultural Autonomy Act in 1993 supported Estonia's aspirations to join international organizations such as NATO and the EU. The author also finds that Estonians understand what it means to be a minority nation as they were one both in Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

Even though the implementing provisions of the act have still not been passed, the Estonian government allowed the Estonian Finns (2004) and Estonian Swedes (2007) to form national minority cultural autonomies. The Estonian Finns managed to gather over 3,000 members and elections could go ahead. While the Estonian Swedes only have a few hundred registered members, they are exempt from the membership threshold courtesy of being a historical national minority.

The Estonian Finns comprise two communities: the Ingrian Finns and Finnish citizens who have moved to Estonia over the last 30 years. A lot of Ingrian Finns moved to Estonia after World War II because Stalin did not allow them to return to their native home around Saint Petersburg. Data from Statistics Estonia reveals there were 369 Ingrian Finns and 7,589 Finns living in Estonia in 2011. A least a part of those who have registered as Finnish likely come from an Ingrian Finnish background and [have] Estonian citizenship.

Once the social situation started to become a little more relaxed in the 1980s, the Ingrian Finns were the first to establish cultural societies all over the Soviet Union. Around ten regional Ingrian Finns societies were quickly formed, as well as the Estonian Ingrian Finns Association that unites them, all of which have now come together under the Estonian Finns Cultural Autonomy Body Foundation.

While thousands of so-called Finnish Finns live in Estonia by today, most of them lack Estonian citizenship. Unlike Finland, Estonia does not allow double citizenship. However, children born to Finns living in Estonia are entitled to both citizenships. Their numbers are slowly growing.

The cultural autonomy bodies of the Estonian Finns and Estonian Swedes have made several proposals to amend the current law. While the citizenship requirement is politically almost impossible to abolish, it has been proposed that people who have spent a certain amount of time living in Estonia could register as national minority members.

The Estonian Swedes have been forced to leave to escape the occupation. Several Ingrian Finns who are also Estonian citizens have moved to Finland in recent years, even though many retain a close emotional connection to Estonia and want to take part in national minority activities. The Estonian Finns have also proposed lowering the cultural autonomy threshold from 3,000 members to 1,000.

The law mandates cultural autonomy body elections to be held every three years, which is a burden on national minority activists, which is why it has been proposed to have an elections cycle of at least four years. Organizing elections is also costly as elections by mail require an organizing committee responsible for making sure the elections are fair and democratic. A list of voters needs to be put together based on the list of national minority members and voters sent everything they need to cast their vote by mail, while their registered address might not be their actual address, meaning the information can fail to reach people.

Both the cultural autonomy body and voters have asked about the possibility of using e-voting as a modern solution, while the current law does not allow it.

Both national minorities also agree that the current turnout requirement of 50 percent is too high and could be lowered, for example, to 33 percent. Making the threshold has become more difficult because of population aging, while most younger members of national minorities are not yet of the voting age or do not know to identify as such.

The Estonian Finns Cultural Autonomy Body is working toward maintaining an active community and foster feelings of belonging in future generations. Making the election threshold is a vital issue for the fate of the cultural autonomy of the Estonian Finns, which every voter can help overcome, next to the legislator's willingness to modernize the law.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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