Opinion: Kohtla-Järve school case should be cause for national concern

Education minister Mailis Reps (Centre), appearing here on an ETV pre-election debate show, has said that instruction at an upper secondary school in eastern Estonia won't be solely in Estonian for the time being. But who is calling the shots?
Education minister Mailis Reps (Centre), appearing here on an ETV pre-election debate show, has said that instruction at an upper secondary school in eastern Estonia won't be solely in Estonian for the time being. But who is calling the shots? Source: ERR

Education minister Mailis Reps (Centre) has to understand the game she is playing regarding the Kohtla-Järve Upper Secondary school and the language of instruction there, according to a Postimees opinion piece, an episode which highlights tensions within the Centre Party, its behaviour towards the local Estonian community in Kohtla-Järve, and the party leadership's concern in avoiding anything which could harm its election chances.

The school, properly speaking the Järve Upper Secondary School (Estonian: Järve Gümnaasium) in the eastern town of Kohtla-Järve, is in an area with a large Russian-speaking population, and had been bilingual (ie. Estonian and Russian) in its education provision up until now. It has since become the centre of controversy on the issue of language politics.

A disagreement with the local Estonian community towards the end of January led to the resignation of the school's director, Irina Putkonen. Following discussions with the education ministry, Ms Reps announced that the school would not be ready for all-Estonian education by the next academic year on 1 September, and will continue to be bilingual, with around a 60-40 split between Estonian and Russian languages.

Upper secondary schools comprise the last three grades in Estonian secondary education, grades 10-12. Those entering the school at grade 10 will study only in Estonian, with grades 11 and 12 continuing in both languages, as the situation stands at present.

Language politicised

Since many students coming to the school will have to take on additional Estonian ''cramming'' lessons to bring them up to speed, on top of their already full curriculum, many will opt to go to the Russian-language upper secondary school in nearby Jõhvi instead.

Language in education is a key topic in party politics ahead of the general election on 3 March, with the Reform and Isamaa parties favouring Estonian-only, and Centre, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) erring more towards bilingual education for the time being.

Ms Reps has already said resolute steps have to be taken, starting at kindergarten level, to bring all students up to standard from a young age.

The Postimees opinion piece, which appeared on Sunday, entitled ''why aren't we making a noise?'' questions why there is hesitation on the issue and why Ms Reps has not met with the local Estonian-speaking population to poll their opinion on the matter.

The piece in turn cites an article by Erik Kalda, editor-in-chief of local daily Põhjarannik, who points to the bigger picture and why Centre is taking the stance that it is.

There are some 27,000 people in Ida Viru County whose first language in Estonian; the fact that they should feel excluded from decision making processes on language in education, with protracted meetings and communication via official letters, should sound alarm bells, Mr Kalda argued.

Centre party machinations and interests are causing Russian youth to suffer too, he says, as they miss out on another academic year of all-Estonia education.

Who is really at the Centre helm?

The lack of a clear stance also hints at the relative toothlessness of Centre leaders within the power structure of the party, the piece argues, wondering who actually pulls the strings in what makes up both the majority coalition governmental party, and the Tallinn City Government, as well as formerly the bulk of the city government in Kohtla-Järve (though not Jõhvi, whose council is predominantly made up of independents).

Indeed, most Russian-majority towns, including Loksa, east of Tallinn, and Sillamäe, in Ida Viru County, have Centre-dominated municipal councils, though it should be noted that some Estonian-majority municipalities, such as Valga and Haapsalu, are similarly

A wholsale defection of Centre councillors in the border city of Narva in late summer 2018 points further at the real situation in the provincial Centre party. The deputies refused to be reined in by Prime Minister and party leader Jüri Ratas, following various corruption issues, opting instead to set up their own grouping, ''Our Home, Narva''.

ERR journalist and head of news Anvar Samost, himself a native of Ida Viru County, also noted the fractious nature of Centre's internal structure and its relationship with the hierarchy. The party is evidently keen to avoid dissent in districts where the party has ruled supreme for decades harming its election chances. Centre has been leading in most recent opinion polls, ahead of the second most popular party, the opposition Reform Party.

Still both a national question, and a question of nationality

''If you look at how this school [ie. the Järve Upper Secondary School-ed.] has been harried on all fronts by Kohtla-Järve's corrupt [and as noted, Centre-dominated-ed.] city government, even with the stepping down of the former director, nothing has changed. Now, with the state-level decision, an Estonian-language upper secondary in the city is off the table for now,'' Samost said on ERR political talk show Samost and Sildam.

Daily Põhjarannik is no longer alone in acting as a ''miner's canary'' with regard to the issue, but it is nonetheless important to bring it to public attention nationwide, to understand who pulls the prime minister and education minsters' strings, how, and why, the Postimees piece continues.

The role of Russian propaganda TV channels, which the lion's share of Russian speaking viewers in Ida Viru County consume, is also a question worth asking, the article concludes.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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