Linguistic Ghettos

Following the early days of the Georgian crisis, an Estonian news special sought to find out what Estonia’s Russian population thought about the Russian presence in South Ossetia and Georgia. They discovered that many of the Russians in Eastern Estonia have been getting their news directly from Russian state-influenced news sources rather than from international or Estonian TV stations. Thus their opinions tended to reflect disbelief that the world would be reacting so strongly to good-willed Russian attempts at peace-keeping in anarchistic/tyrannical parts of the world.

One of the reasons that given that these Russians have been getting their news from Russian sources is that Estonia has not yet provided news in the Russian language (for the record, I have seen one channel which offers an Estonian based Russian language program). This points to one of the weaknesses in Estonia’s conservative language laws. By allowing for only one official language (as opposed to recommendations widely accepted within the EU for primary and secondary state languages) and setting the bar for proficiency so high, Estonia has driven some of its less linguistically able minority groups back to their familiar sources. Rather than encouraging integration into Estonian culture, these laws are reinforcing a linguistic ghetto.

I am highly sympathetic to the Estonian need to preserve language and culture while surrounded and infiltrated by larger and sometimes predatory languages (speaking of both English and Russian here). However, I think that defensive efforts to preserve cultural and linguistic purity will only backfire given that the nation is already composed of a large minority and draws heavily on foreign investment.

Linguistic integration is in fact happening spontaneously among younger populations who realize that multiple languages only benefit their chances for prosperity and social mobility. This is true in both Estonian and Russian populations. Conservative language laws in these fields are really a moot point. Where they do have an effect is among populations whose language learning abilities have stagnated, those in the later half of their life. This population will remain with us for many years yet and naturally will ally with whoever most warmly receives them. Given the current situation in Eastern Europe, can Estonian lawmakers really afford not to reach out?

The Eastern Chill

Good friends recently told us that their young son turned off the TV because the news was frightening him. He’s not the only one who has been scared. Georgia and South Ossetia may be a long way from Estonia, but even so we follow the Georgian conflict with a chill up our spines. Why?

  1. Slippery Language: Russia has stated that its reason for invading Georgia is to protect Russian Nationals who are being threatened there. While the status of Russian Nationals in Georgia may in fact be critical, the language is very slippery and could be used in other, less deserving situations as well … say Eastern Estonia, where the population is largely ethnically Russian. Can Russia invade a sovereign nation simply in order to protect its citizens? Who defines what constitutes a “threat” and is there a forum for determining whether force is in fact a justifiable response? At what point does “ethnic tension” (common to any multi-ethnic nation) translate to “ethnic threat”.
  2. Crying Wolf: Both Russia and Georgia are accused by the other of “ethnic cleansing”. Like the term “Axis of Evil” or “War on Terror”, the free use of this accusation has the dual effect of influencing popular opinion via hyperbolic headlines and simultaneously diluting the power of important and specific language to accurately identify the “real thing” and to prompt an appropriate response in the future.
  3. Loss of Moral Highground: This is not the first time that a large powerful nation has taken unilateral, pre-emtive military action while disregarding the world’s calls for calm and diplomacy. When the US ambassador to the UN recently condemned Russia’s military activity in Georgia – in particular attacks against civilians – the Russian ambassador fired back that such statements were entirely unacceptable coming from the US given its own military activities. Not long ago, America was in a position to make such statements but because of our hasty and miscalculated actions in the Middle East, we have relinquished the moral high-ground and given the world a new excuse for war with the doctrine of “unilateral pre-emtive strike”.
  4. Appeasing the Beast: Both Europe and the US have a vested interest in keeping Russia happy and have slow-footed and acquiesced on similar issues in the past. Based soley on the fact that Russia switched sides in World War II, they were allowed in the time of Stalin to get away with mass deportations and atrocious war crimes against their “near neighbors” with nothing more than a hand slap from the West. When economic interests and self-preservation trump “the right thing to do” osteoporosis begins to erode the spine of world’s “strong nations”. With Russia’s oil and gas resources helping to fuel the energy hungry first-world, nuclear armament still an open question, and a NATO trump card always up their sleeve, Russia is confident that it can keep the US and Europe walking on egg-shells while it makes its own rules in the rest of the world.

Taken together, such facts appear to some of Eastern Europe’s small and recently independent nations as “a cloud the size of a man’s fist”. No wonder people are shuddering.

For more clear thinking and analysis on the current situation, let me reference another expat (of another stripe) living in Tartu: To Die for Danzig?