Cablegate: Estonia: Russian Schools Increase Courses


DE RUEHTL #0388/01 3101434
R 051434Z NOV 08




E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (U) SUMMARY: The government's plan to achieve more
Estonian-language instruction in Russian-language high
schools has proceeded smoothly in Estonia. In
September, Russian-language high schools began teaching
the second of five (mandated) courses in Estonian.
There are indications that a majority of Russian-
speakers not only see value in the transition program,
but want schools to begin introducing more Estonian
instruction earlier. Despite the success of the school
program, language in Estonia remains a sensitive
political issue. End Summary.

School Transition Program Makes Progress

2. (U) In September 2008, Estonia's Russian-language
high schools began implementing the second phase of the
Government of Estonia's (GOE) 5-year program to
increase Estonian-language instruction. This year,
schools had the choice of adding civics or music to the
curriculum, following the introduction of Estonian
literature classes in September 2007. The end goal of
the transition program is for all 58 Russian-language
public high schools to teach at least 5 courses (60
percent of their total course load) in Estonian by the
year 2011.

3. (U) Many schools are ahead of schedule. In addition
to the required civics/music course, 41 of the Russian
schools also added one or more extra courses taught in
Estonian this year (including physical education, human
nature, history and geography). As part of a GOE
incentive program, the schools receive USD 7,000 for
each additional course they implement (above the
mandated number). According to the Ministry of
Education and Research (MOER), the schools use the
extra funds to pay supplemental allowances to teachers
of Estonian, buy training materials and fund extra-
curricular activities.

4. (SBU) The GOE considers the school transition
program a critical component of its 2008-2013
integration strategy for Russian speakers. A basic
level of Estonian is required for acquiring citizenship
(although only about 3 percent of Estonia's 111,000
stateless are under the age of 15). More importantly,
improving Estonian language skills is viewed as
critical for social, political and economic cohesion in
Estonia. The working language of public universities
is Estonian and the majority of public sector jobs
require fluency in Estonian as a primary qualification.
People who lack proficiency in Estonian inherently face
more limited economic opportunities than the rest of
the population. Also, as a whole, Russian speakers in
Estonia still get most of their news and information
from Russian-language television news broadcasts, the
vast majority of which are produced in Russia. This
has resulted in two distinct information spheres in
Estonia - reflected, for example, in widely divergent
opinions among ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians on
the Russian invasion of Georgia. The GOE hopes that as
more Russian speakers learn Estonian, their interest in
watching Estonian-language media broadcasts will

Language Still a Sensitive Issue

5. (SBU) As reported reftel, in 2007 there were
concerns that Russian-speaking Estonians would oppose
the school transition program. Many in the Russian-
speaking community voiced fears that the real goal of
the transition program was to assimilate Russian
speakers into Estonian society and undermine the
importance of Russian language and culture. However, as
the transition program enters its second year, it
appears that these fears have not translated into
significant organized opposition. In fact, there are
indications that a growing number of Russian speakers
view the school program positively. At an assembly of
student representatives of Russian-language schools in
January this year, many participants said they want to
begin studying new subjects in Estonian even before the
tenth grade. They complained that the basic level of
Estonian instruction at lower grades does not prepare
them to successfully master subjects in Estonian in
high school. The GOE responded quickly to the

criticism passing a regulation requiring kindergartens
to begin Estonian language instruction at an earlier
age (3 years old instead of 5 or 6). The regulation
came into force on September 1, 2008.

6. (SBU) Earlier this year, approximately one thousand
Russian-speaking permanent residents of Estonia
(including 200 parents of children in Russian-language
schools) participated in a survey commissioned by the
MOER and carried out by Estonia's largest marketing
research firm. The results indicated higher-than
anticipated support for increasing Estonian instruction
in Russian schools. The majority of participants
indicated they are familiar with the school language
transition program and most said they view it
positively. More than 80 percent of the respondents
said they believe the additional coursework in Estonian
will improve their language skills and increase their
competitiveness in the labor market.

7. (SBU) Organized opposition to the transition program
has not materialized in Narva or Tallinn, the two
cities with the highest proportion of Russian speakers
in Estonia (98 percent and 46 percent respectively).
In Tartu, however, parents have established an NGO
(called Russian School) which is actively lobbying to
keep the curriculum of Tartu's Russian high school
taught entirely in Russian. Taking a proactive
approach, the MOER has reached out to the group,
meeting with the parents and school administrators to
discuss their concerns. Meanwhile, the school in Tartu
has introduced the two required Estonian courses
according to schedule. (Note: Approximately 17
percent of the population in Tartu is Russian-speaking.
There are only two Russian-language high schools in the
city, one of which is a language immersion school. End

8. (SBU) Still, language remains a sensitive political
issue in Estonia. Just over 50 percent of the
respondents in the survey (para 6) also expressed
concern that Estonian-language studies will endanger
the survival of Russian language and culture in
Estonian. Recent comments by Minister of Education
Tonis Lukas that he "did not oppose" a proposal to
begin Estonian-only education for all students at the
Kindergarten level reignited heated debate among
politicians on the issue in the press. Member of
Parliament Peter Kreitzberg responded with an OpEd
explaining why Estonia must keep Russian language
instruction and preserve minority culture. (Note:
Kreitzberg is a former Minister of Education. He is
not in the same party as Lukas, but both are members of
the ruling coalition. End Note). Katri Raik, Deputy
Secretary General for General and Vocational Education
at the MOER told PolEcon Chief that Minister Lukas'
comments, were "taken out of context," but had created
a "difficult situation for the Ministry." Regardless,
Raik noted, the Estonian Constitution guarantees
minorities the right to choose the language of
instruction in schools and the Minister did not intend
to contradict that principle.

Challenges Ahead

9. (SBU) An ongoing challenge for implementation of the
transition program is ensuring there are enough well-
trained teachers in the Russian schools who can teach
the required subjects in Estonian. The need for
teachers is particularly acute in eastern Estonia. (In
the city of Narva on the border with Russia, where 98
percent of the population speaks Russian, it has been
more difficult to recruit teachers qualified to
instruct in Estonian.) Recognizing this, the MOER has
created a number of incentive programs to hire new
teachers and retrain the existing staff. One such
program, initiated in 2007, encourages graduate
students to do a student teaching practicum in schools
in eastern Estonia. Last year, 11 graduate students
participated in the program; four of which remained in
the region as teachers after graduation. The MOER is
also using co-funding from the European Social Fund to
provide in-service and other training for teachers at
the Russian schools. The trainings, conducted in
coordination with Tallinn University, Tartu University
and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater, cover
course-specific materials (e.g. music, geography etc)

as well as bilingual teaching skills.

10. (SBU) The MOER concedes that the addition of a
history course taught in Estonian at the start of the
2010/2011 school year will also be a significant
challenge. Interpretation of history (Russian
occupation versus liberation of Estonia during WWII)
remains one of the most controversial and complicated
issues between Estonia's ethnic Estonian and ethnic
Russian communities. The MOER produces history
materials in both Estonian and Russian for use in all
schools. However, Raik pointed out, it is difficult to
change teachers "personal perspective" on history. The
MOER is working to establish a unified association of
Estonian- and Russian-language history teachers. Raik
said the goal is to give all history teachers a forum
to ask questions and discuss their points of view. The
MOER also plans to open counseling centers in four
cities, Narva, Kohtla-Jarve, Tallinn and Tartu in
November 2008. Counselors will make regular visits to
schools - to monitor course content, ensure courses are
being taught in Estonian as required, and advise

11. (SBU) Comment: Language has been a core component
of the GOE's integration strategy since the first
integration program was launched in 2000. Progress on
implementing the school transition program and the
positive response of students is encouraging. However,
the Bronze Soldier riots in 2007 made clear that
language alone will not bridge the political divide
between Russian and Estonian speakers here. In
particular, continued outreach in Russian is critically
important. Russian speakers still get much of their
news and information from media outlets originating
from within Russia that most consider to be biased
toward Moscow's point of view. The GOE has recognized
the need to increase Russian-language news programming,
and in fact has recently hired a new director to their
Russian-language television broadcasting service.
However, many would agree that the GOE has not
dedicated enough resources nor attention to this task.
Declining economic growth and a tight budget make it
unlikely this will change in the short to medium-term.
End Comment.


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