Yana Toom MEP (Centre) said on Friday that consideration of cultural autonomy for the Russian-speaking population in Estonia is crucial, going against the grain of many other political parties, who favour Estonian-language education, amongst other integration policies.
Speaking to ERR's Russian language Radio 4, Ms. Toom said that: ''There are several things I fight for on a day-to-day basis, including Russian-language schools and the need to consider cultural autonomy there,'' on being asked about the Centre Party's direction.
She added that Centre have been in national office for several years now, and for considerably longer on the Tallinn and Narva city governments, without adequately representing the voters who put them there. Ms. Toom is leader of Centre's Narva city branch.
Centre should stay true to its roots
''It is not enough just to say we are thinking about things, Centre's mission so far as the Russian-speaking populace goes is to maintain an even keel. If we don't do it, noone else will,'' Ms. Toom said.
''If not, the next thing we know is we are the whipping boys of Estonian politics,'' she warned.
Centre have recently lost support amongst Russian-speaking voters, its traditional heartland, though compensated for that deficit with more support amongst the Estonian-speaking electorate, recent polls say.
Nevertheless, Ms. Toom rejected the idea of a 'rightwards drift' in the Centre Party, when put to her by Radio 4, saying the shift was simply from a more 'active' position to a more 'moderate' one.
Clarified comments later
Ms. Toom later spoke to ERR's Russian-language news portal, clarifying her earlier statements.
A 1993 law on cultural autonomy covers Russian-language cultural autonomy, she said, albeit though in practice it is toothless in helping either Russian speakers or other minorities.
''There is also san elephant in the room in this pre-election period, that of assimilation, though noone says so directly,'' she went on.
''In a democracy, the majority should not get to decide how the minority lives. Therefore it is always valuable to discuss, in preparation for a party manifesto, how to provide a minority with education, information and cultural development in its mother tongue, something which will appear in Centre's manifesto if my thoughts on the subject make it past the party's board,'' she continued.
Reform Party: Cultural autonomy means separation
However, Kristen Michal (Reform) believes that cultural autonomy means nothing less than the separation, and certainly isolation, of Ida-Viru County, a region with, at nearly 75% of its population, in fact a majority of Russian speakers.
''Nowadays there is strong support for Estonian-language education for all, beginning at kindergarten level,'' said Mr. Michal, referencing a pet Reform Party policy.
''Last year this policy was supported by the majority, around 70%, of non-ethnic Estonian parents, yet Yana Toom is heading in the opposite direction,'' he went on.
''This would essentially hive off Ida-Viru County from the rest of the country and increase the proportion of Russian-language education,'' he added.
Centre itself faced a rebellion in summer in the eastern city of Narva, following requests from party leader and prime minister, Jüri Ratas, for Centre councillors to resign after various corruption allegations. The accused and their supporters formed a new group, 'Meie Kodu Narva' ('Our Home, Narva'). Olga Ivanova MP also quit the party and its political group in the Riigikogu.
Editor: Andrew Whyte