In Estonia, there are about 404 000 people who are not ethnic Estonians by origin, representing 31% of the country’s population (see Table 1).
Table 1: Ethnic composition of the population in Estonia, 1934-2012
|Total||1 126 000||100||1 566 000||100||1 370 000||100||1 294 000||100|
Source: population censuses.
* Incl. Ingrian Finns.
** Incl. 20 416 persons with unreported ethnicity.
A vast majority of this group are Russians. However, not all of them are legally described as members of national minorities; the Law on the Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities defines national minorities as consisting of those people who have Estonian citizenship. Estonia re-established its independence in 1991, and the Citizenship Act of 1992 defined Soviet-time settlers into the country legally as immigrants. As a consequence, a considerable minority of its present population are either citizens of other countries or stateless. Those Soviet immigrants and their descendants who have not naturalised themselves are either citizens of other countries (according to the 2012 census, 6.4% of the country’s population are citizens of Russia, 1.2% of other countries) or stateless (6.5%). However, most non-citizens are holders of long-term residence permits, which grant them the same economic and social rights that are guaranteed for Estonian citizens. They have a vote in municipal, but not in national elections, and are not themselves eligible as members of Parliament or municipal councils; non-citizens cannot hold certain public offices. According to the latest census, the country’s total population on 1 January 2012 was 1 294 455 persons, of whom 1 103 000 were Estonian citizens and 6 800 citizens of other EU countries. 98 800 persons were citizens of third countries, and 86 000 were stateless. According to information from the Police and Border Guard Office, 22 600 persons held on 1 January 2014 a temporary and 174 800 a long-term residence permit. (The number of valid residence permits is, thus, larger than that of the non-EU and stateless residents, indicating that not all residence permit holders longer reside in the country.)
The Law on the Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities, enacted in 1993, designs bodies that can organise the cultural and educational life of national minorities, governed by a Cultural Council that is elected by citizens who register as belonging to the relevant minority group. The government institution responsible for the implementation of the Law is the Ministry of Culture. Due to a previous lack of by-laws necessary for the implementation of the Law – they were introduced only in 2003 – the first effort to implement the law did not take place before 2004, when Finns were the first minority group to establish a minority council. In 2007, the Swedes followed their example. The two cultural autonomies received financial support from the Ministry of Culture. However, their legal status is undefined and they have had to establish separate NGOs in order to run their activities. Several applications on the establishment of cultural autonomy for the most numerous of the country’s ethnic minorities, the Russians, have been filed since 1996, but they have all been turned down by the Ministry of Culture, based on various motivations. The Chancellor of Justice has at least once intervened in order to oblige the Ministry to process an application in due time. The Ministry’s negative decisions have led to several court cases.
Currently (2014) the Department of Cultural Diversity at the Ministry of Culture consists of 6 staff members.
Estonia has ratified several international conventions concerned with the cultural rights of minorities such as the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. However, Estonia has not ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Estonian is the sole official language of the country. However, the state provides its inhabitants with some cultural services in Russian, also. In certain municipalities, where a majority of resident citizens are ethnic Russians, the local administration is legally obliged to offer services in both languages. Even in other localities, basic public services and information are usually available in Russian also. As for other minority languages, the state or the municipalities do not provide any language services. However, there are a number of civil society organisations which help to promote the cultures of other national minority groups. These organisations receive financial support from the Ministry of Culture. On the local level, a part of the governments’ support for cultural organisations is granted to those promoting minority cultures.
At the same time, statistics and surveys show that the participation of ethnic minorities and immigrants in cultural activities has remained on a lower level than that of native Estonians. This may be related to their income and socio-economic status, which are, on the average, lower than those of native Estonians. Moreover, these differences seem to have been growing, rather than decreasing during the last ten years. According to survey research, there were, however, three cultural activities more common among people belonging to minority groups: purchasing books, purchasing art, and visiting cinemas. It is important from the point of view of overall political development, that members of minority communities would not be alienated from the country’s cultural life. In the long run, the objective of cultural policies towards immigrants and national minorities should be to support the development of such institutions and forms of culture that help them integrate into society, while at the same time preserving and developing their national identities.