Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Estonia: Court Confirms Russian Not a School Language

(Aug. 29, 2016) On August 26, 2016, an Estonian second instance Circuit Court, whose jurisdiction includes the capital city of Tallinn, confirmed the legality of a decision issued by a lower court earlier this year to reject consideration of a complaint submitted by the parents of two Tallinn city high school students objecting to the use in their schools, whose student bodies are predominantly ethnic Russians, of the Estonian language as the language of instruction. The original court decision cited the 2014 ruling of the State Court of Estonia (the highest court in the country) under which the local administration and school boards cannot appeal government resolutions concerning the choice of language of instruction. (Court Confirmed Ban on Teaching in Native Language in Two Russian High Schools, POSTEMEES.EE, (Aug. 26, 2016) (in Russian).) Fifteen similar cases were reviewed by different Estonian courts in the last three years with the same result. (Estonian Court Confirmed the Ban on Teaching in the Russian Language in Russian Schools, NEWSRU.COM (Aug. 26, 2016) (in Russian).)

In 2015, school boards of several high schools where the majority of students are ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers submitted a petition to the Estonian Government requesting permission to conduct instruction in the Russian language in all subjects. The petition was supported by the Tallinn City Council but rejected by the central government. (Id.)

The petition was based on a provision of the Estonian Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act of 2010, which gives school boards and local administrations some flexibility in selecting other than the Estonian language as the language of instruction in a municipal school. While the Law requires schools to conduct at least 60% of education in Estonian and provides for varied opportunities for non-native Estonian speakers to learn the Estonian language, it allows for some exemptions under which an entire school or particular classes can be taught in another language. Such permission can be granted by the national government to school boards and local administrations on a case-by-case basis. (Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, art. 21, RIIGI TEATAJA I [OFFICIAL GAZETTE] 2010, No. 41, item 240.) This rule is based on a constitutional provision that states, “[t]he language of instruction in national minority educational institutions shall be chosen by the educational institution.” (Constitution of the Republic of Estonia (June 28, 1992, in force on July 3, 1992), art. 37, Office of the President website.) However, the same article of the Constitution states that “[t]he provision of education shall be supervised by the state,” and that norm serves as the basis for the government intervention in the matter. (Id.)

Reportedly, the Estonian government is active in implementing a language policy aimed at avoiding the use of any language other than Estonian. Since 2004, the National Language Inspection (Keeleinspektsioon), a government agency within the Ministry of Education with the responsibility to ensure proper implementation of legislation regulating the use of the Estonian language, has fined teachers whose knowledge of the Estonian language is deemed to be wanting. (Estonian Court Confirmed the Ban on Teaching in the Russian Language in Russian Schools, supra). It was also reported that the hourly wages of municipal employees vary depending on their Estonian language skills. (Salary of Hospital Personnel Who Do Not Speak Estonian Is Lower than that of Their Peers, NEWSRU.COM (Feb. 11, 2015) (in Russian).)