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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Students Find Classes No Longer in Russian

NARVA, Estonia -- High school students in this Russian-speaking city returned to class with a new twist to the curriculum: Estonian literature is now being taught in Estonian.

The switch from Russian may seem like a small and logical move -- after all, this is Estonia -- but the students were skeptical.

"I'm not sure it's right," said Vladimir Smirnov, 17, at the Pahklimae school in Narva, a city on the Russian border. "In my opinion, the government should make our country multinational."

For the first time, high schools catering to the Baltic nation's Russian-speakers -- about one-third of the 1.3 million residents -- are required this year to teach at least one subject in Estonian.

It is the first step of the government's plan to boost Estonian-language instruction among the country's Russian-speaking minority, most of whom moved here during five decades of Soviet occupation.

Education officials claim the program will help integrate the Russian minority. But it has unnerved ethnic Russians, who are increasingly wary of what they consider a campaign to rob them of their cultural identity.

The reform enters into force at a time of heightened ethnic tension in Estonia. In April, Estonia was rocked by the worst violence since the Soviet breakup, when ethnic Russians rioted in the capital, Tallinn, over the dismantling of a Red Army monument.

Government officials stress that the reform will better prepare Estonia's Russians for upper education and eventually to take up jobs in both the commercial and public sector, where command of Estonian is obligatory.

"We think it is important that classes are taught in Estonian to ensure [Russian-speaking] students acquire good communications skills, a large vocabulary and an ability to conduct casual conversations," said Irene Kaosaar, an Education Ministry official.

Mastery of Estonian is also a key requirement for citizenship, which has left at least 100,000 people -- mostly Russian-speakers -- with a stateless status. Human rights groups have criticized Estonia's language laws, saying they have further alienated Russian-speakers, instead of integrating them.

Kaosaar said gradually increasing the language requirements would help Estonia avoid the protests that erupted in neighboring Latvia when it carried out a similar reform at a quicker pace in 2004.

The Estonian language reform will add new Estonian subjects in Russian high schools every year until 2011, when 60 percent of all classes in grades 10 to 12 must be taught in Estonian, a Finno-Ugric tongue utterly unlike Russian.

The Pahklimae school in Narva was decked in flowers and balloons for the traditional start of school on Monday. Students were neatly dressed, with boys in suits and girls in skirts and blouses.

In a brief speech to the students, the Russian consul-general in Narva, Nikolai Bondarenko, made clear that Moscow is not pleased about the language reform.

"Though it's important that students learn Estonian, it's very important that they do not forget to learn Russian, their original mother tongue," he said.