Russians in Estonia Struggle To Learn Difficult Language

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.''

In areas like Narva on Russia's border - where Russian-speakers make up 95 percent of the population - non-Estonians resent being forced to learn the difficult Estonian language, which bears no resemblance to Russian. Outside observers have also criticized the laws. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the European Union have complained they are too harsh, and the United Nations Center for Human Rights called the language requirement ``too high.''

In defense against Russia's accusations, Estonia relabeled its laws ``preservation of cultural identity'' laws and has said it may extend the deadline until July 1995 for non-citizens to apply for residency.

Estonian officials have sought to play down the difficulty of the language requirement. ``Since 1991, more than 40,000 people have passed the exam and have become official citizens,'' says Artur Laast, first deputy to Estonia's ambassador to Moscow, in a recent interview.

At the Minair Language Center, the prevailing attitude is neither hostile nor uninviting. Most students say they are prepared for the long haul ahead because they enjoy the country in which they live.

Students like Sergei Nelzin say passing the proficiency test is not their only goal. ``If you want to live a normal life, you must learn the language,'' he says.

Wandering through the cobblestone streets and into the well-kept shops, little evidence remains of the Soviet era and its language. Signs in store windows, menus in restaurants, and plaques on buildings (except for the Russian Officers' Club) are all written in Estonian - and sometimes English. Although Russian is heard on the street, residents addressed in Russian usually respond in Estonian, German, or broken English. ``If you look at it this way, for many years we Estonians were forced to study Russian,'' asserts teacher Tina Lanamitz, standing in front of the tiny class at the Minair Language Center. ``Now the tables have turned.''

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