Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians in Estonia Struggle to Learn Difficult Language

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians in Estonia Struggle to Learn Difficult Language

Article excerpt

TAMARA ANTUPENKO, a Russian-speaking bookkeeper who has lived in Estonia for over 15 years, waits in anxious anticipation of her first Estonian language lesson at the Minair Language Center in central Tallinn.

Along with seven other ethnic Russian classmates between the ages of 27 and 54, Ms. Antupenko will spend the next four months struggling to gain proficiency in the country's official language, which only five years earlier was Russian.

Like Antupenko, thousands of Russians living in Estonia today are lining up to register for Estonian language classes. But for most, the incentive to learn the language has not sprung out of interest. "I live in fear of coming to work each day and finding a document on my desk sending me back to Russia," Antupenko says with a pained look illustrating the sincerity of her words.

Antupenko's fears are not unfounded. According to Estonia's 1992 Law on Citizenship, all non-citizens (defined as non-ethnic Estonians who arrived after 1940 and their descendants) are required to pass a standard Estonian proficiency test to obtain residency permits or citizenship. Adding fuel to the fire, a "Law on Aliens" passed last July requires them to apply for residency or citizenship within a year. Those who fail to meet the requirements face deportation.

Estonia's strict citizenship laws and language requirements reflect increasing tension between Russia and its small but strong-willed neighbor. Only two-thirds of the tiny Baltic nation's 1.6 million residents are ethnic Estonians.

Forcibly annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia won its independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The presence of 2,500 Russian troops still on Estonian land has exacerbated ethnic tensions. While Estonia has accused Russia of stalling the troops' withdrawal, Russia has blamed Estonia for not providing pensions to retired Russian officers. Talks aimed at reaching a compromise are deadlocked, while Estonia's Baltic kin have fared better. All Russian troops have been pulled out of Lithuania, and Latvia and Russia have reached an agreement on troop withdrawal.

Meanwhile, Russia has steadily berated Estonia's citizenship and language laws, which President Boris Yeltsin has called a form of "ethnic cleansing. …

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