Minority Rights in Estonia, Or What Multiculturalism Can Tell Us About Post-Soviet Politics

Minority Rights in Estonia, Or What Multiculturalism Can Tell Us About Post-Soviet Politics

Rafael Khachaturian: Minority Rights in Estonia

What was once the lingua franca of Eastern Europe is rapidly losing its former influence. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian language has predictably become a casualty of a nationalistic backlash among the newly-independent republics and other European nations formerly behind the Iron Curtain. The state of things is such that analysts predict the language spoken by 300 million people in 1990 will decline by half in another fifteen years.

This opposition to a language associated with political and cultural imperialism on the Eurasian landmass has become especially prominent in the Baltic states. Russian-speaking public school teachers in Estonia, for example, are required to take an oral language test administered by the government in order to prove that they are capable of conducting classes in the native language. Currently 30 percent of the 1.3 million people living in the country speak Russian, many of whom are Russian natives that remained in the country post-independence. These people now find themselves facing the choice of either rapidly assimilating to Estonian culture or emigrating from the country. These developments have added to Estonia’s contentious relationship with Russia.

Considering this state of affairs, it may be helpful to look back at an argument for multiculturalism made by Charles Taylor in his famous 1992 essay “The Politics of Recognition.” There Taylor began with a problem at the heart of modern democratic theory, that of the tension between the equally important principles of equality and difference. How can we take a step toward universal rights and equality, Taylor asked, while at the same time respecting particular identities and not infringing on cultural differences? As he wrote, “The principle of equal respect requires that we treat people in a difference-blind fashion. The fundamental intuition that humans command this respect focuses on what is the same in all.” Yet at the same time “we have to recognize and even foster particularity,” since to ignore this precept would mean denying a group’s potential for forming and maintaining its own cultural identity. As a result, modern democracies seem to be stuck at an impasse between these two approaches, which can roughly be classified as liberal and communitarian in their basic presumptions. “The reproach the first makes to the second is just that it violates the principle of nondiscrimination. The reproach the second makes to the first is that it negates identity by forcing people into a homogeneous mold that is untrue to them.”

To resolve this, Taylor looked for inspiration to his native Canada, where in the previous decade a controversy emerged over the cultural rights of Quebec’s French Canadians within the greater context of the country’s legal code. Quebec’s government had passed laws aiming at the preservation of the local francophone culture, which included preventing francophone Canadians from sending their children to English-language schools; outlawing commercial signs not written in French; and requiring businesses with over a certain number of employees to be run in French. Subsequently, these measures were validated when an amendment to the Canadian Charter of Rights recognized Quebec as a “distinct society,” with a different set of cultural values that otherwise would be in danger of being subsumed under an abstractly universal legal code. In this manner, the rights of the Québécois community as a whole were elevated over the individual rights valued by strictly procedural liberalism.

What can Taylor’s example about French Canada tell us about reconciliation in the former Soviet bloc? Estonia’s Russians find themselves at a disadvantage when compared with the Québécois simply because they live in a country where they are neither recognized as a “distinct society” (or when they are, only with the negative connotations that phrase involves), nor one with such a comparably tranquil recent history as Canada. Furthermore, no small amount of parties in post-Soviet Eastern Europe have come to power by appealing to their populations’ nationalist sentiment. So long as Estonian society struggles with reconciling itself to its communist past, its government will continue to display a protective and homogenizing tendency toward nationalism. Such is the bleak reality left to us by the Soviet Union’s policies of Russification.

Despite these important differences, there is no reason why the fate of the French Canadians cannot serve as a strong normative example for how sensitive questions involving ethnic minorities are to be handled. While Estonia’s National Language Inspectorate has denied that its testing of teachers is discriminatory–its director stated that ?for a democratic society, it is quite common that public servants should know the state language?–this rationale does not get to the heart of the problem. Although it is normal for states to claim their prerogative to designate an official national language, this should not automatically translate into a mandate for government inspection of public servants, especially if no prior complaints have been lodged against the people in question. Under such a policy, ethnic minorities are placed on the defensive, having to prove their level of integration–in this case measured by their fluency in the native language. In other words, the burden unfairly shifts to them to show the state they are not too foreign to hold a government job, rather than assuming that they are qualified until proven otherwise. Not surprisingly, this has led to justified fears among Estonia’s Russians that such policies will drastically reduce their ability to earn a livelihood.

Respect and recognition of minorities’ rights to preserve their culture against state encroachment is of fundamental importance to democratic politics. Right now the onus is on the Estonian state to step back from this ill-sighted attempt at integrating its Russian community. Instead, Estonia?s Russians should be granted legal recognition so they may be able to freely express their culture in the public sphere, including schools. Whether this will happen remains to be seen.