In a few more days, the Estonian Statistical Office will publish population data for Estonia as of January 1, 2007. This happens once a year, and it provides us with info on the changing demographic information on Estonia in lieu of an official census, wich isn’t scheduled until 2011. If the patterns of the past are correct, we’ll probably catch a glimpse of a few interesting trends.
The first is the most obvious. The population in Estonia will decline again. The preliminary numbers show that as of Jan. 1, there were 1,342,000 people in Estonia, down from 1,367,000 five years ago. There are a variety of reasons for population decline in Estonia. One is that more people die than are born (duh), although in recent months that has been changing. Another is emigration. And finally, there’s abortion, because at conception, there is positive population growth, but a good chunk of those potential babies never make it past the first trimester.
Another trend is a shift in nationality in favor of ethnic Estonians. That change is happening across the board. Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Finns — their proportion of the population continues to decline, while the Estonian proportion continues to rise. In 2001, Estonians made up 68.2 percent of the population. Last year they were 68.6 percent. Meanwhile every other group declined. Maybe they leave. Maybe they identify as Estonians. Or maybe they just have a larger number of elderly in their population group. Who knows?
This is not an unusual occurrence. The decline of Swedes in Finland followed a similar path. For whatever reason, Swedes in Finland went from being 15 percent of the population in 1800, to 6 percent of the population in 2005. Up until the 1890s, Swedish was the language of administration in Finland. In 1892, Finnish became co-official, and this carried over when Finland became independent. But despite Finland’s official bilingualism, and attempts to “save” Finland Swedish, the language there is in decline.
This has happened so much so that when I inquired from Finns about their Swedish capabilities, I was met with a sort of shrug and told “they have their own newspapers and TV shows.” Then when I asked an editor of Helsingi Sanomat if the paper intended to print news to serve any of Finland’s lingusitic minorities — the Russians in Helsinki, for example — I was met with a cold stare and told unequivocally “no”. Bilingualism was touchy-feely, official crap, apparently, but in Finland, the language was Finnish. At least that’s the lesson I learned while I was there.
Still, the reality for Estonia is, no matter what historical spin you put on it, there will be a large Russian-speaking community in Estonia for many years to come. Because of recent events in Tallinn, many are wondering what can be done to better integrate this group. But nobody seems to have the answer. Some say relax school reform, others say ride around in a sleigh in Narva handing out Estonian passports, and some others talk of making Russian a second state language, “like they have in Finland”, as if that would change the overall situation.
Meanwhile, Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht and Eesti Televisioon all have Russian-language versions. Even I can vote in municipal elections if I stay here for five years. You’ve got to take a test to get a passport. It’s a bitch of a process allegedly for some, so I do hope they spend some of that surplus on that so Estonia can assign citizenship to the 118,000 people that still don’t have it. Unemployment is 5.3 percent. Anecdotal evidence shows that Russians feel excluded or like they don’t belong. But then I am reminded of the Finland Swedes “who have their own newspapers and their own television shows” and think, isn’t the life of a minority like that in every country?
On the bus to Tallinn recently I witnessed two things. The first was a pack of young Russian-speaking kids, about 12. They all spoke in Russian and I even began to understand some of the stuff because they didn’t shut up from Tartu to Tallinn (one even hit me in the head with a sneaker at one point. Boys will be boys). But then one’s phone rang and he switched immediately to Estonian. He had a little bit of an accent, but it was very slight. And he was no older than 12.
Then at the bus station I was approached by a young man in his early 20s. He spoke to me only in Russian. I had a hunch that he wanted some money, so I decided not to answer him back in English, and I figured that Estonian was out of the question. So I just ignored him. And my sensitive and intuitive soul began to wonder if I had just made the young man feel less at home in Tallinn by ignoring him. Perhaps he felt leftout. Ignored by society. Maybe my sleight of hand would encourage him to join Nashi as a commisar and actively work to destroy the government of AndruSS AnSSip. What could I do about this, and furthermore, what could society do?
I tried to find a metaphor to help me sooth this linguistic dissonance that rattled around in my mind. And finally I decided that I could do nothing except not give him any money and go and buy my bottle of Värska to drink.