Kohtla-Järve - an Estonian town in Ida-Viru county. 2003.




Ilmar Tomusk
PhD,  Director General,  National Language Inspectorate

Published (in Estonian) in: Õiguskeel (the journal of the Estonian Ministry of Justice) nr 3, 2003

Estonia is a small nation with a territory of 45 000 km² and a population of just under 1.5 million (thus, a population density of only 34 person per square km). The population, however, is surprisingly varied, with over 100 different nationalities represented, and approximately 1/3 of the population comprises non-ethnic Estonians. In Tallinn with its 400 000 residents, there are almost equal numbers of ethnic and non-ethnic Estonians, whereas southern and western Estonia, and the islands, (the towns of Tartu, Võru, Viljandi, Pärnu, Haapsalu, Kuressaare) are predominantly Estonian-speaking, but the north-eastern Estonian towns (Sillamäe, Narva, Kohtla-Järve) have a majority of Russian-speaking residents. This means that the implementation of the principles of language policy also varies. Whereas in southern and western Estonia, the important issues are teaching Estonian in Estonian-medium schools, the correct public use of language and valuing local dialects (e.g. Võru and Setu), in Ida-Viru county the most important concerns are access to public services provided in the Estonian language, the quality of Estonian teaching in non-Estonian medium schools, and other issues related to the Estonian language skills of non-ethnic Estonians. Therefore, in analyzing the implementation of language policy in the country as a whole, it is also important to include the local government level, since according to §156 of the Estonian constitution, it is the local governments who independently decide and organize, based on the law, all issues pertaining to local everyday life.

The main aim of Estonian language policy is to guarantee the right of every person to be able to use Estonian in both the public and private sectors everywhere in Estonia. Experience has shown, however, that reaching this goal is taking longer than was believed when the principles of language and citizenship policy were agreed in 1991 after the restoration of independence. This article describes the problems encountered in implementing the laws regulating language use, with the associated problems of compliance and inspection - using the language situation in Kohtla-Järve as an example. Using data from the Estonian Statistical Office1 and results from the compliance checking carried out by the Language Inspectorate2, I will examine the situation in the sphere of public administration and education, since the regulation of language use in particularly these sectors is of the greatest importance from the viewpoint of ensuring individual language rights. Unfortunately the role of the educational system in the improvement of the Estonian-language skills of the non-ethnic Estonian population has been considerably more modest than the obligations placed upon it, not to mention the achievement of the level of Estonian-language skills as prescribed in the various curricula.

Kohtla-Järve was accorded town rights in 1945. But Järve village was first mentioned in the Danish chronicles in 1241. The entire history of the town is directly associated with the mining of oil shale3, which was first carried out in 1916. During the soviet period, a major oil shale plant including processing plants was established there (for the production of electrical power as well as a valuable raw material for the chemical industry). The majority of the town’s residents are oil shale workers brought in from various places in the Soviet Union, and their descendants. The drastic reduction in oil shale mining4 after the restoration of Estonian independence, the closure of many pits and open-cut mines and chemical enterprises, together with the resulting big increase in unemployment5 has substantially affected the life of the town over the recent decade. Kohtla-Järve does not have a positive image, despite the fact that it is located in a beautiful natural environment, so people from Estonia’s other regions are not interested in moving there.

In Kohtla-Järve, as in many other local government areas in Ida-Viru county, the use of Russian is the most common in everyday contacts, and its use in official contacts is considerably wider than specified in law. Despite extensive language learning and integration programs this complicated language situation has remained substantially unchanged. Whereas private individuals can freely choose the language of their communication, the choice of language in official contacts and access to service is regulated by law.

Ethnic mix and language skills

Kohtla-Järve is located in Ida-Viru county and is comprised of six suburbs: Järve, Ahtme, Oru, Sompa, Kukruse and Viivikonna. According to the 2000 census, Kohtla-Järve has a population of 47 679 people, which makes it the fourth largest town in Estonia. This multi-ethnic town is home to almost 40 different ethnic groups. Of the town’s population, 19 939 are Estonian citizens, 6363 Russian citizens, and there are 20 366 stateless persons. 296 people hold some other country’s citizenship, and the citizenship of 715 persons is unknown. This means that 41.8% of the town comprises Estonian citizens. There are 8479 ethnic Estonians, 32 843 ethnic Russians, with 5811 from other ethnic groups, and the ethnic background of 546 persons is unknown. This means that there are only 17.8% ethnic Estonians in the town.

The ethnic mix is also reflected in the language skills and language behaviour of the population: 7010 people have Estonian as their mother tongue, 38 355 people have Russian, and 269 have Finnish. As a second language, 11412 speak Estonian, 7457 speak Russian and 674 speak Finnish. It should be noted that one of the most important indiators for the preservation of an ethnic group is the proportion of people who speak the ethnic group’s language as their mother tongue. In the case of Kohtla-Järve, the statistics are a cause for concern: those who speak Estonian as the mother tongue number about 1500 people less than the number of ethnic Estonians, which means that 17.3% of the total number of ethnic Estonians in Kohtla-Järve have adopted Russian as a mother tongue. In Estonia as a whole, the proportion of ethnic Estonians who have given up their mother tongue is considerably lower - 2.1%. Most of the other ethnic groups have adopted Russian, since those speaking Russian as the mother tongue number 5500 more than the number of ethnic Russians. According to the census, 18422 people (38.6%) are able to communicate in Estonian, but 45812 (96%) of the town’s population can communicate in Russian, which shows that in this region Russian is still the language of contact for the different ethnic groups.

The Kohtla-Järve town development plan6 shows that the town’s population is decreasing and aging (compared to the 1989 census, there are now 14380 fewer people). The reasons are given as a negative birthrate, together with re-migration, but also as relocation within Estonia. Due to the constantly increasing unemployment rate people are moving to Tallinn or elsewhere in Estonia. In 2001 the elderly (over 60s) formed 22% of the town’s population. The town’s development plan forecasts continued aging of the population. This will definitely also have an effect on language use - the numerical balance between ethnic and non-ethnic Estonians will not change substantially, and the number of Estonian-language speakers in the town will not particularly increase.

In such circumstances it is especially important to guarantee for the Estonians living in the area their constitutional right to use Estonian in their contacts with the state and the local government bodies. Prospects for this, however, are not good because - as is demonstrated by the compliance inspections carried out by the Language Inspectorate - those people in the state bodies who are responsible for communication in the state language do not have the language skills as prescribed by law.

In 1997-2003 the Language Inspectorate checked the Estonian language skills of 71 Kohtla-Järve town officials. The first inpection resulted in 59 officials (83%) being shown not to have the required language skills. The follow-up inspection showed that of the 48 officials, 41 (85%) had not improved their language skills. The conclusion must be that the Kohtla-Järve town government is still having problems with Estonian-language official communication.

Despite the fact that over 90% of the town’s population would be able to use Russian, and that only 38.6% could manage in Estonian, Kohtla-Järve is still an Estonian town, and the requirement to use the state language also applies here. For an Estonian-speaking town resident, Kohtla-Järve should be exactly the same type of town as Tartu or Põlva - all public services should be accessible in Estonian, and it should be possible to communicate in Estonian with town officials, police, doctors, teachers and emergency service workers.

Taking into account the ethnic mix and language skills amongst the residents of Kohtla-Järve, it would be too much to demand that in official contacts and the provision of public services (e.g. internal processes and the organization of teaching work in Russian-medium schools, also communication between native Russian-speaker town officials or town residents) Russian be no longer used. This would be in conflict with language rights, and such a step could have a further negative effect on the quality of Estonian language usage in public administration.

Both the Constitution and the Language Act provide for the use of foreign and minority languages, but utilizing these possibilities is hindered by contextual and terminological conflicts in existing laws, as well as some conflict between the law and the actual language situation of a region.

Legal background and the language choices of Kohtla-Järve

Whereas §6 of the Constitution makes clear and unambiguous provision for the status of Estonian as the state language, then §51-52, which cover the language rights of minority groups and permanent residents, could have numerous interpretations. These articles provide for the right to use the language of a minority group, or of the majority of the permanent residents of a particular region, in official communication.

The following discussion is purely theoretical in the light of the current law, because the required conditions for the implementation of the articles dealing with the rights of minority groups are not fulfilled: in Kohtla-Järve the proportion of Russian-speaking people amongst Estonian citizens is about 42% of the town’s residents, and the town government has not submitted an application to the Government of the Republic to use Russian in its internal processes.

According to §51 of the Constitution, in those regions where at least half of the permament residents are from a minority group (i.e. Estonian citizens), everyone has the right to receive a reply from state or local government bodies, and from their officials, in the language of that minority group. The Constitution does not specify the form of communication, but until the amendment to §8 of the Language Act in June 2001, this was interpreted as the right to receive verbal replies to verbal questions. In Section 1 of the amended Language Act’s §8, which regulates communication in a foreign language7, an exception is granted, regarding the requirement for an Estonian-language translation of a foreign language application or other document, in the cases listed in §10 of the Language Act, although this regulated the use of a minority group language in verbal and written communication.

This means that in local governments, where at least half the permanent residents are from a minority group, a person can demand communication in the language of that minority. Foreign language documents, in any case, should be accepted by the official body without requiring an Estonian translation. Minority (i.e Russian language) documents are apparently indeed accepted, but what should be done regarding documents in, for example, English, Finnish, German or Italian? It is also not clear from the law, in which language the response to a foreign language document should be. This is also not clarified in the Response to Applications Act8, which requires that a memorandum or application must be submitted to the official body in clearly legible writing and that state bodies, local governments and their officials are obliged to register memoranda and applications addressed to them, and to answer these within a month at the latest.

However, since the condition for belonging to a minority group is citizenship, and a large proportion of Kohtla-Järve’s Russian speaking residents are statelss, then reference here to §10 of the Language Act is not applicable, and official bodies have the right to demand the translation of both foreign language and minority language documents into Estonian. Even if the Government of the Republic did give local governments the right to conduct internal processes in the minority language (Russian), the official body should retain the right to require the translation of foreign language (English, Finnish, German, French, Spanish, etc) documents into Estonian. This, however, was left unregulated by the amenders of Article 8 of the Language Act.

Article 52, Section 1 of the Constitution states that the language of communication in state and local government bodies is Estonian. Section 2 has provision for an exception for those regions where the language of the majority of the residents is not Estonian: there the local governments may use the language of the majority of that region’s permanent residents as the language of official communication, as provided by the law. Comparing these provisions with §11 of the Language Act brings out a number of differences. Whereas §52 of the Constitution permits the use of "the language of the majority of the permanent residents in the region" as the language of official communication, the Language Act permits the use in internal communication "in addition to Estonian, the minority group language which forms the majority of permanent residents of the local government unit", as proposed by the local council and decided by the Government of the Republic.

These are two different things. In the case of a permanent resident, citizenship is not an issue, but the definition of a minority in the Cultural Autonomy of Minorities Act9 states that it is only Estonian citizens who can be described as minorities. The disparity in definitions makes the issue of language choice complicated in local governments where the majority belongs to a minority group, and results in various interpretations. The opinion that the permission of the use of the language of the majority of a region’s residents as the language of official communication, in addition to Estonian, is hindered by the citizenship requirement in the definition of a minority group, is not in accordance with the Constitution. The Constitution also does not set the condition that the language of the majority of permanent residents may be used in addition to Estonian. Can the restrictions set by §11 of the Language Act be treated as the determination of the extent and procedures referred to in the Constitution or is this article in conflict with §52 of the Constitution? It is also important to emphasize that the obligation for Estonian-language official communication in Section 1 of §52 is also applicable to the local governments noted in the second section of the same article.

However, if one assumes that there is no conflict, then treating the condition set in §11 of the Language Act as an extension of the Constitution - i.e. that the language of the majority of the permanent residents of a region be used in internal processes, in addition to Estonian, following the procedure of a relevant application by the local government to the Government of the Republic - the town’s official bodies could use Russian in their internal communications. Since the Language Act stipulates that this can be done in addition to the use of Estonian, Kohtla-Järve must first ensure Estonian language communication, and thereafter there could be discussion regarding permitting the use of a minority language in internal processes. But the problem remains: how would the use of Russian, in addition to Estonian, actually work in practice - should the resolutions and instructions on receipted documents and letters, the names of files, the registration of letters, also communication between officials in meetinsg, etc, be in two languages?

Therefore, according to the current law, the town is under no obligation to ensure communication in the minority language. Town officials should have at least middle-level or advanced Estonian language skills, according to §5, Section 2 of the Language Act. In reality, internal communication and also often inter-institutionary communication take place in Russian. The previously noted terminological confusion, however, does not allow a clear assessment of the situation.

As opposed to town officials, the members of the Kohtla-Järve Town Council do not have to be able to speak Estonian since this requirement was removed at the end of 2001. However, they do have to be able to use Estonian since §23, Section 7 of the Local Government Organization Act states that the regulations and decisions of the Council and the minutes of the sessions are formulated in Estonian. In those local governments where the language of the majority of the permanent residents is not Estonian, the minutes of the Council sessions may also be prepared in the language of the minority forming a majority of the permanent residents, in addition to Estonian. On the basis of §41, the language of communication in local governments is Estonian. The sessions of the Council and the Government are held in Estonian. According to §11 of the Language Act, as proposed by the Council, the language of the minority, which forms the majority of the permanent residents, may be used as the language of internal communication in the local government. In this case, the Council or Government may decide to partially or fully translate the results of the sessions into the language of the minority. Since the language of the majority of the town’s permanent residents is not Estonian, the minutes of the Council may also be prepared in the language of the minority, which forms the majority of the permanent residents, in addition to Estonian.

The sessions of the town Government must also take place in Estonian. The minority language may be used as the language of internal communication as stipulated in §11 of the Language Act, but this would mean that the language is a minority group language, not the language of the majority of permanent residents. This issue, however, is resolved differently by §52 of the Constitution and §11 of the Language Act, and, in addition, the imprecision of the concept "language of internal communciation"10 creates further difficulties.

This means that the town councilors, who have been released from the obligation to speak Estonian, must still be able to work using Estonian. The question, as to what will make the Russian-speaking politicians in the councils work in Estonian - when they are not obliged to know Estonian - is still unanswered.

As we can see, local governments are faced with a difficult problem in implementing the provisions of language usage: the Constitution does clearly provide for the right of everyone to Estonian-language communication and the obligation for Estonian-language official communication, but unfortunately the right of usage, as well as the extent and method (in addition to Estonian), for the language of a minority group, the language of a majority of permanent residents or a foreign language is not as clear, as a result of the disparities between the Language Act, Local Government Organization Act and the Constitution.

School - forming the language environment of the future

The state language skills are also not that much better for those people to whom the Estonian state has entrusted the provision of education to the younger generation in Kohtla-Järve’s schools and kindergartens. In Kohtla-Järve there are 3 basic schools and 7 upper secondary schools, where according to the town’s development plan, during this school year (2002/2003) there are 6575 pupils (1070 Estonian-medium ja 5505 Russian-medium), as well as an evening high school and 14 kindergartens. In 2000 the Estonian language skills of the kindergarten teachers were checked and it was found that of the 201 workers, only 24 had the middle-level Estonian-language skills required by their job, and in two kindergartens there was not one employee who had Estonian language skills to the required level.

As of 1998, checks have been carried out on the Estonian language skill level of Estonian language teachers, according to the Language Act requirements, which on first glance may seem a quite strange undertaking, since it is presumed that one studies in Estonian in order to be an Estonian language teacher. It turned out, however, that in 1998, of 43 Estonian language teachers only 10 had specific (upper secondary school teacher of Estonian as a second language) higher education, and in eleven schools there was a total of 12 Estonian language teachers who did not have the required Estonian language skills. This number, however, has been now reduced to only one Estonian language teacher without the required Estonian language skills.

In 1999 the Estonian-language skills of the subject masters in Kohtla-Järve schools were checked, but none of them matched the qualification requirements. Of the 10 school directors, only four met the Estonian language skill requirements. According to present information, of the 25 school directors and kindergarten directors only 13 had the required Estonian-language skills. The most recent inspection, March 2002 - April 2003, covered the Estonian language skills of Kohtla-Järve’s general education school subject teachers. The results showed that the state language skill of 76% of the teachers did not match the requirements - of the 338 teachers, 258 have to improve their language skills.

Another difficult issue in education is the choice of language of instruction. According to Article 9 of the Basic and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the local government has quite a lot of authority in choosing the language of instruction for the school. In basic school, certain levels of basic school or certain classes of basic school, the language of instruction may be any chosen language. Taking into account the ethnic mix in Kohtla-Järve’s population, the town has the right to establish Russian-medium kindergartens and basic schools. However, since according to §37 of the Constitution, everyone has the right to receive Estonian-language instruction, this must be guaranteed for both ethnic Estonans and those non-ethnic Estonians who wish their children to attend an Estonian-medium school or kindergarten. The language of instruction in upper secondary schools, according to the law, is Estonian, and the transition of Russian-medium upper secondary schools to Estonian-medium has been scheduled to begin in the 2007/2008 school year.

Estonian is considered to be the language of instruction for a school when at least 60% of the curriculem is taught in Estonian. The most recent amendment to the law regarding language of instruction was on March 26, 2002, and this stipulates that the language of instruction in an upper secondary school must be Estonian, but that in the upper secondary level in muncipal schools or in certain classes in the upper secondary level in municipal schools, the language of instruction may be any language. Permission to have instruction in another language is given by the Government of the Republic on the basis of an application by the local government council. In this case, the board of the upper secondary school applies first to the local government council. This means that in 2007-2008 transition will begin in Russian-medium upper secondary schools to Estonian-language instruction, but in an upper-secondary school with instruction in Russian, the instruction does not have to be in Estonian if the Government of the Republic approves the application by the local government council. Consequently, the transition by Russian-medium upper secondary schools to Estonian-language instruction is almost voluntary. In the light of these decisions, the issue of teachers’ Estonian language skills acquires a particular importance - as long as teachers and school directors themselves do not speak Estonian there is no point in hoping that the Estonian language skills of Russian-speaking young people would improve. Learning Estonian in Russian-medium education must become an important priority for education in the nation, because it cannot be conceivable that in a 21st century Estonian school there could be someone teaching, or someone graduating, who cannot speak Estonian.

Now if young town residents graduate from upper secondary school without being able to speak Estonian their opportunities to acquire Estonian language higher education will be limited, as will be limited their opportunities to find work as a town official, teacher or in other professions where good Estonian language skills are required, and which are directly related to ensuring Estonian-language communication in the town. This becomes a dead end situation, where the key to escape lies in the hands of both the state and the local education leaders.

It can only be hoped that the extent of Estonian-language use widens in Kohtla-Järve, and also in the other larger Ida-Viru county towns, and that they become truly Estonian towns. This, however, presumes good cooperation between all levels of society. In addition to the important role of the educational system, the actions of politicians is also very important, since they have the task of creating a suitable legal environment for the implementation of the state’s language policy, in cooperation with linguistic experts and community figures. It is true that Estonian politicians are quite active in adopting laws and amending them, and even community and linguistic experts have their understanding about the goals of Estonia’s language policy. But it is particularly the lack of cooperation and common understanding that is the reason that the language-related legal acts contain so much that is vague and conflicting, all of which cannot help in the goal to widen the extent of Estonian language usage. 


1 2000 Census.

2 All Language Inspectorate data used in this article is from the database used to record compliance with the Language Act, which has been in use since 1997.

3 Oil shale is also called "solid oil". It contains approximately 50% organic fossil matter, with an oil content up to 35%, and energy value up to 20 Mj/kg. The local people have always known that this rock can be burned. According to the legend, herders used to surround their fires with a ring of stones. Usually limestone was used, but one time they used a yellowy-brown rock, which was prevalent in that area. The herders couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the rocks catch fire and burn together with the wood. Another legend says that one herder built himself a sauna from oil shale rocks. When he lit the fire in the sauna oven, the walls also caught fire and the sauna burnt down.
Electrical power generated from oil shale provides 96-98% of the total electricity generated in Estonia. The production of 1 kWh electricity requires ca. 1.5 kg of oil shale rock. A town near Kohtla-Järve - Kiviõli (rock oil) - has been named after the oil produced from oil shale.

4 In 1970-80, 25-30 million tons of oil shale were mined annually, but by 2000 only 13 million tons was mined.

5 In 2000, the unemployment rate in Kohtla-Järve was 23.3%, and this figure is rising from year to year because of the mine closures, and in some former mining centres the umemployment rate in 2002 was already 50%. Laid off miners have great difficulties in finding new jobs, since they are mostly middle-aged or older people who do not speak Estonian. One particular retraining program for the unemployed was aimed at training miners to become pastry cooks.

6 http://www.kjlv.ee/?lang=et&page=administration/developmentcontents#1.2%20Rahvastik

7 According to Section 1 of the Language Act’s §2, every language except Estonian is a foreign language. Section 2, however, states that a minority group language is a foreign language, which a minority group comprised of Estonian citizens has historically used in Estonia as its mother tongue.

8 Response to Applications Act, RT I 1994, 51, 857.

9 Cultural Autonomy for Minorities Act, RT I 1993, 71, 1001; Article 1. In the context of the present Act, a minority group comprises Estonian citizens who live on Estonian territory; who possess long-term, secure and lasting ties with Estonia; are different from Estonians regarding their ethnic identity, cultural specificity, religion or language; are motivated by the wish to preserve as a group their cultural customs, religion or language, which is the basis of their common identity.

10 The concepts in the Language Act were a topic of discussion for the author in his article Riigikeel on riigi keel (The State Language is the Language of the State), Õiguskeel nr 1, 2002.





Date: 19.09.2003


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