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Erik Gamzejev: The Italian strike in switching to teaching in Estonian

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Mirtel Kõue Gamzejev.

The transition to teaching in Estonian could be dragged out over several years in some cities should Estonian citizens continue to make up the minority among local government council voters, which has been the situation for over quarter of a century, Erik Gamzejev finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

An Italian strike is one where people continue working but only do so seemingly or very slowly. For example, how the local governments in Narva and Kohtla-Järve have for years tried to merely make it look like they consider speaking Estonian to be important and pretended to make efforts to have it used in schools.

The reality of the situation is that most young people who graduate from basic schools in the area have not learned enough Estonian to attend Estonian high or vocational school. What is worse, more than a few teachers working in those schools have not obtained a sufficient level of Estonian in all the decades they've been there.

Now that the central government has, after decades of gearing up, gotten serious about the transition to teaching in Estonian and Minister of Education Kristina Kallas has said that there will be no deviations from the deadline, there is lamentation according to which it is too soon, too sudden and there are not enough teachers. The government is criticized for failing to create reserve pedagogical capacity, printing enough good textbooks etc.

At the same time, the cities forget that as school operators, it has been their task to appoint capable and sufficiently motivated principals to ensure a successful transition to teaching in Estonian.

Mare Roosileht, head of the TalTech Virumaa College, and Hendrik Agur, principal of the Kohtla-Järve State High School, both members of the Kohtla-Järve City Council, wrote in last week's Põhjarannik how some of Kohtla-Järve's Russian schools have erected defenses against change and everything Estonian and pro-Estonian. They are looking to protect the status quo, old habits and people who cannot or do not want to go along with the transition. It pays to believe Roosileht and Agur as they come into contact with said defenses in their work on a daily basis.

It is noteworthy that the local Russian school in Jõhvi, which is located between districts of Kohtla-Järve, is much better prepared for the transition – the result of the good work done by those who run the school but also attitudes fostered by the local authorities.

Why is the situation so different in neighboring municipalities? One important reason is that Jõhvi has more Estonian citizen voters than Kohtla-Järve. And Estonian citizens have manned the Jõhvi City Council with delegates for whom the matter of Estonian education is one of principle.

In Kohtla-Järve, Narva and Sillamäe, the majority of local election voters have been Russian citizens and stateless persons since 1996. Since then, the Center Party or election coalitions with strong links to the party have won most local government elections in those cities. Whereas one of their principal election promises has been to retain Russian-language education. This promise they have also kept by staging a hypocritical Italian strike in the transition to Estonian education.

Because it has kept them flush in votes, it has not bothered them that this has done a disservice to a lot of local youths who find it that much harder to cope later in life. It is also one of the reasons why unemployment and the general rate of poverty have been relatively higher in Ida-Viru County for decades.

As long as Estonian citizens remain the minority among voters, they do not get to dictate the main topics of elections. Instead, Russian citizens and stateless persons will. Parties and election coalitions that want to be elected keep this in mind and adjust. They will not organize an enthusiastic switch to teaching in Estonian because their voters do not value it. Just as it is little surprise local councils man school councils with delegates who do not speak Estonian themselves, which is what recently happened again in Kohtla-Järve.

The Center Party and the Social Democrats, who have formed a coalition both in Tallinn and Kohtla-Järve and both assure us how they are fighting for a better Estonia could invite other parties for a discussion on how to make sure only Estonian citizens could vote at the next elections. Perhaps also stateless persons, but definitely not Russian citizens. This would considerably boost the voice of Estonian citizens at local elections.

It would be a patriotic act and likely improve the rating of both parties. I'm sure other parliamentary parties, which have proposed making the change before, would gladly join in. An agreement that transcends major parties would also not cause undue tension in society.

Stateless persons and citizens of Russia living in Estonia have had over a quarter of a century to decide which country they wish to be loyal to as citizens. Estonia has kindly offered third country citizens the chance to vote in local elections for a very long time. Neither Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France nor many other democratic countries have.

Should the voice of Estonian citizens fail to be heard in many Estonian cities also at the next local elections, the Italian strike in the transition to teaching in Estonian will likely also continue. What is more, local rulers will continue to set themselves in contrast to the central government, which has been another obstacle on the path of regional development for long years.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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