Different nationalities have always lived together in Estonia. Tolerance and democracy are illustrated by the Law on the Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities, passed already in 1925, which was not only the first in Europe at the time but also very progressive.
Before World War II, Estonia was a relatively homogeneous society – national minorities constituted about 12% of the population. The largest minority groups in 1934 were Russians, Germans, Swedes, Latvians, Jews, Poles, Finns, and Ingrians.
World War II along with Soviet and Nazi occupations interrupted the natural development of inter-ethnic relations, deforming the inner features of Estonian society. By 1989, minorities constituted more than one third of the population, the number of non-Estonians had grown almost 5-fold, while the percentage of ethnic Estonians in the total population decreased by 27 per cent. At the end of the 1980s, Estonians perceived their demographic change as a national catastrophe. This was a result of the outrageous migration policies essential to the Soviet Nationalisation programme aiming to russify Estonia - forceful administrative and military immigration of non-Estonians from the USSR coupled with the mass deportations of Estonians to the USSR. During the purges up to 60 000 Estonians were killed or deported.
The migrant population has been brought predominantly from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and from other regions of the USSR such as Tatarstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia etc.
Minorities other than Russians make up 6.5% of the total population. Unlike the Russians, they did not have the support of the authorities in preserving and practicing their culture and language until Estonia regained independence in 1991.
|Nationality||Census of 1934 (%)||Census of 1989 (%)||Census of 2000 (%)|
|1. Estonians||992 520||88.1||963 281||61.5||930 219||67.9|
|2. Russians||92 656||8.2||474 834||30.3||351 178||25.6|
|3. Ukrainians||92||0.008||48 271||3.083||29 012||2.1|
|4. Belarussians||*||*||27 711||1.769||17 241||1.3|
|5. Finns and Ingrians||1 088||0.1||16 622||1.061||12 195||0.89|
|6. Tatars||166||0.015||4 058||0.259||2 582||0.19|
|7. Latvians||5 435||0.5||3 135||0.2||2 330||0.17|
|8. Poles||1 608||0.14||3 008||0.192||2 193||0.16|
|9. Jews||4 434||0.4||4 613||0.295||2 145||0.156|
|10. Lithuanians||253||0.022||2 568||0.164||2 116||0.154|
|11. Germans||16 346||1.5||3 466||0.221||1 870||0.136|
|12. Armenians||*||*||1 669||0.106||1 444||0.105|
|13. Azerbaijani||*||*||1 238||0.079||880||0.064|
|21. Swedes||7 641||0.7||297||0.019||300||0.021|
|Other nationalities or nationality unknown||4 174||0.37||10 891||0.696||14 347||1.047|
|Total population||1 126 413||100||1 565 662||100||1 370 052||100|
*Data included in "other nationalities"
Sources: Statistical Office
Although many non-Estonians supported the re-establishment of an independent Estonia, their new psychological situation in the 1990s can best be described as "seeking an identity". Therefore Estonia's integration into Europe and the global world is taking place parallel to integration within Estonia, which aims at creating an open multicultural society.
All minorities living in Estonia are guaranteed opportunities for the preservation of their language and cultural distinctiveness, above all through the organisation of education and social activities in their mother tongue. The constitution and the Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities Act define the legal status and rights of national minorities living in Estonia. Ingrian Finns were the first national minority to establish cultural autonomy in Estonia. The election of the Ingrian Finnish cultural council was held in 2004. In 2007 Estonian Swedes established their cultural autonomy.
Estonia is also a state party to the first international convention protecting the rights of the national minorities, enforced in 1998, the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (see the relevant national report). Pursuant to the undertaken commitments, the state supports the strivings in the field of culture and education of all national and ethnic minorities. More than 20 of ethnic cultural societies and organisations have been registered to date. They all have an opportunity to get budgetary support, for which purpose 314 thousand euro were allocated in 2011.
Estonia is one of the few European Union countries where there is a multi-lingual publicly financed school system as part of the public educational system. Russian-language education is provided in public and also in private schools at all levels: in preschool, primary and in vocational schools, also in private upper-secondary schools. Bilingual programs (Estonian-Russian) are provided in upper- secondary municipal schools. Russian-language education is provided in private higher education institutsions and in some amount in public universities. About 19% of all Estonian schoolchildren are attending Russian-language primary and secondary schools. 10% of higher education students study in Russian. There is also a public Jewish upper secondary school. In addition, it is possible for those children whose mother tongue differs from the language of study to apply to study their mother tongue and culture in state or municipal schools if a sufficient number of students are interested. For that purpose the corresponding regulation has been adopted by the state and language teachers of different nationalities have been trained.
According to the act of Basic school and upper secondary school in 2007 the transition to partial use of Estonian as a language of instruction began in Russian-language upper secondary schools In 2007/2008 academic year one subject (Estonian literature) was taught in Estonian, afterwards one subject was added each forthcoming year until 2011. The transition to Estonian medium studies in these five subjects will be mandatory. At least 37 additional courses chosen by the school will be provided in Estonian, constituting 60% of the minimum required study volume. Each subsequent stage of the transition concerns pupils who start the 10th grade in the given academic year. Pupils starting the 10th grade in 2011 or later will have to study 60% of school subjects in Estonian. The main objective of the programme is to ensure that young people who do not speak Estonian as their mother tongue have the same opportunities for higher education and success in the labour market by giving them more opportunities to practice Estonian.
In Estonia, 34 Russian newspapers and 14 magazines are being published (Source: National Library). Out of the three all-Estonian TV channels, two offer regular programs in Russian. Five radio stations broadcast in Russian. One of them is Radio 4, a radio station in public law offering among others, broadcasts in the Polish, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Georgian, Armenian Azerbaijan, Chuvash and Yiddish languages. The Russian language is widely represented in the Internet environment with many state institutions and agencies in offering Russian services, among them also the state Internet centre. A great number of portals exist in Russian and web media publications are also available in Russian.
Non-Estonians participate in the work of almost all Estonian parties. The present Riigikogu consists of the representatives of several ethnic minorities, who have been elected from the lists of different Estonian parties. The latest developments in the Estonian political landscape have shown that multi-ethnic parties prove to be more successful than parties with narrow ethnic self-determination.
The public acknowledgement of ethnic minorities in Estonia began in 1988, when non-Estonians started to form their own cultural societies and associations. While in 1989 there were 22 ethnic cultural societies registered in Estonia, today there are over 200.
The largest of them are:
The "Integration in Estonian Society 2008-2013" national programme includes a separate sub-programme that is dedicated to the education and culture of ethnic minorities. The Integration and Migration Foundation Our People supports activities described in the national programme through its competitions: the project competition for national culture societies. The Ministry of Education and Research support learning of the mother tongue and culture in the Sunday schools of national minorities. Projects submitted by national culture societies that introduce their culture to Estonians in addition to fostering their own culture receive support every year. Various approaches are selected for introducing their own culture – public events, lectures, exhibitions and seminars take place, broadcasts and information folders are prepared and homepages are created. Estonian society becomes more aware of cultural differences and more tolerant of different cultures through these activities.
The cultural societies support non-Estonians in preserving their national identities as well as in integrating into Estonian society.
Estonian Ministry of Culture
The Integration and Migration Foundation Our People
State Integration Programme for years 2008 to 2013
Population, Estonian Institute
Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples
Estonian National Culture Foundation
Estonian Cooperation Assembly