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New integration head considers separation the biggest problem

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PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Irene Käosaar, who will take over heading the Integration Foundation in September, says that she does not like the Estonian-Russian issue being raised again in 2017 before the election.

«People have been living here for decades. How long will we keep saying that we discriminate against them, that they have no equal opportunities? I believe that this is the past and we should now look at how to support the existing opportunities more efficiently. Language is one factor which helps achieving equal opportunities in the society. Estonia's main problem is separation. Stating from the education system the communities exist in completely separate worlds,» she says.

Is it correct to use the word «integration» in 2017? It began in the early 1990s, people have been living in the Estonian state for 25 years, a new generation has grown up – what integration are we speaking about?

I quite agree and do not like the term. I much prefer the Estonian alternative «lõimumine». This is quite different. We should view integration more broadly, as something inter-generational. Not just based on ethnicity.

When we began in the 1990s, very practical things mattered – language study, citizenship, education. Integration mainly meant the teaching of language in the beginning.

What integration can there be if one does not understand the official language?

Language plays a very large role, but it is not the one and only factor. Studies tell us that we have a group of Russian-speakers, who have perfect command of Estonian, but who are not loyal to the Estonian state.

Are loyalty and integration one and the same?

I believe that loyalty is one component of integration, caring of the welfare of the state, its today, its future, of the state where you live and work, where your family lives. A person who does not accept Estonia's basic values, does not agree that we were occupied, is not completely integrated, even if he speaks Estonian and effectively is a citizen of the society. I am not speaking simply about assimilation. There is no contradiction between valuing the Estonian language and culture and valuing one’s second language and culture.

It is elementary: who values one's own culture and language, can also value others' language and culture.

Precisely. Studies also show that there are people who cannot understand Estonian for various reasons but support the Estonian state and are loyal. By the way, those currently coming to Estonia, including Russian-speakers, are mainly integrating into the Estonian-speaking community. They find it more convenient, they see that this offers greater opportunities.

But they are coming to the Estonian state now?

They are coming to the Estonian state quite consciously and on their free will. Those, who stayed with us as historic heritage, did not come to the Estonian state voluntarily; they came to another state and found themselves in the Estonian state one day.

An important part of integration has been the turning of Russian-language schools into Estonian ones, which has been the main part of your activity. Did it begin at the right moment?

In my opinion it could have happened earlier than only in 2007. The decisions were made in the end of 1990s, but it was always claimed that we are not ready for that. You can never be ready for some things before they happen. When we began in 2007, we had to take off and be ready.

Until that moment and even further on, the Russian-language schools kept hoping that there would not be Estonian-language education?

It is human to be afraid of changes. But once the change happens we have to pull ourselves together and do what is necessary. It might have been better if the state had imposed its will earlier and started at a lower level than the upper secondary school. This is what they are currently often saying.

Looking back to 2007: would elementary school or kindergarten have been politically out of the question?

This matter is a two-edged sword and every decision is made in its own time. If it had been decided now, they probably would have started with kindergartens. But the attitudes in the end of the 1990s were different. The Russian-speaking population had not yet understood then that they would benefit from learning Estonian in an early age and that it would not harm their mother's tongue.

They started at the upper secondary school simply because this is not a mandatory stage of education. The universities transitioned to Estonian-language education the same way. It was decided that academic education will be available in Estonian. Basic education was left in Russian.

What is your greatest concern regarding the Russian youths?

The concern is separation. Where do our Russian youths come from? Often from homes where the attitudes and values belong to earlier times, where there has been no integration.

I love the statement by Dmitri Burnashev (previous head of the Integration Foundation) that it is all about feelings. The Estonian state does not discriminate against anyone, but people cannot get rid of the feeling that they are not wanted to certain jobs because they are Russians or Armenians or whoever. That they have less opportunities in the society, although that is not true. This feeling is often adopted at home. From that home they go to school, where the average age of teachers is above 50 – it is higher in Russian-language schools – and many teachers come from the generation, which is often embittered.

This is the environment where a young person grows up. It is our task to get them out of that environment. Not to alienate them from their family, their language and cultural space, but to have them see something else.

How should this happen?

The education system should be gradually moved towards having Russian-speaking and Estonian children study together. This does not mean that we have to abolish Russian as mother’s tongue classes or that some subjects would not be taught in Russian. This does not mean forbidding their Russian-language background or speaking Russian between themselves – absolutely not. It is important to have a common environment, common events, leaning together to some extent.

(Irene Käosaar talks about mixed schools, state upper secondary schools and basic schools of local governments, where Estonian and Russian pupils would study together. She knows that the standards of Russian-language basic schools vary greatly: approximately one third are weak in Estonian and other subjects, while one third provides elementary command of Estonian by the end of basic school, resulting in bare minimum for upper secondary school, and only one third of basic schools ensure good command of Estonian to Russian-speaking children).

Can you envisage contacts with education and schools in your new job?

This means dealing with youths and I do not mean only schoolchildren, but also people of my own age, whose children have already graduated from upper secondary school. I believe that the older generation should not be bothered with integration. Let them live in their own world. If there had been a solution, a magic wand, it would have been used long ago. We should concentrate on those who will build our future society, look towards the children and youths, who will shape our state during the next 20-30 years. Cooperation with schools will not disappear.

The Ministry of Education, for example, has been trying to bring together the pupils' organizations of schools, but without much success. It is all about prejudice and some fear. The Russian youths maybe do not dare come, maybe they are critical of their command of language, that they cannot understand everything. A place for integration would be camps for talented children, which are organized in natural and exact sciences.

Aren't they already held together for Estonian and Russian children?

They are, but the share of pupils from Russian-language schools is too small.

Maybe the information about the science camps does not reach the Russian schools and the parents?

One Russian family, which settled in Estonia three years ago, asked me about such opportunities so as to have contacts with Estonian children and to learn Estonian. I offered several opportunities, but then wondered whether that is enough.

Or another story I heard about the experience of a Russian-speaking journalist at a kindergarten. She sent her child to a Russian-language kindergarten with a language immersion group, but the management automatically placed her child in the Russian-language group. The mother wondered that they never asked her about having the child join the Estonian-language group. The manager asked whether they have any Estonian background or whether they speak Estonian at home. She admitted that she does not speak Estonian well. That kindergarten did not even encourage them that one should not fear the language immersion group if you do not speak Estonian at home.

The new job means that you will have to move to Narva. Your predecessor, a young man grown up in Lasnamäe, and his family, were not ready for that. What about you?

I am willing to move to Narva and I knew that my post will be there from summer 2018 when I appealed for the job. I cannot say what I would have done it I had little children as my predecessor has.

I have been quite frequently in Narva since 2000. I have spent my free time there. I have friends, colleagues, acquaintances there. I believe that a number of people in Narva already know me, mainly in the education circles, but others as well. The multilingual and multicultural Narva is intriguing for me.

Must the Integration Foundation be located in Narva?

Not necessarily, but it can be. I understand that many workers of the foundation have decided that they would not move. It is certainly sad that some would not come, but people decide such matters on their own. The more such institutions with smart jobs we move to East Viru county, the more can we influence the culture and processes there in the positive sense, the more we can hire local people.

In my opinion it is important to move closer to the people in Narva and East Viru county.

Could you say one thing you definitely want to accomplish?

I certainly do not favor organizing single events as campaigns. Holding a single conference or concert doe not change much, just like taking people from Narva to Tartu or Tallinn on some occasion. If there should be single events, whey should be organized by Narva's own residents.

The foundation need not do everything by itself, but find those who are already doing something. There are a lot of such people in the society, among Russian-speakers as well. There may be fewer of the latter and they need not be as skilled, but this is what the foundation is for to help them and not just by handing out money.

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