On December 28, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Hitlerism for calling for refugees from Ukraine to learn Estonian:
"Adolf (Hitler) would be proud of you (Prime Minister of Estonia). Without you, it would be much more difficult to prove the dehumanization of the collective West. Estonia for Estonians, right? Say it, at last, stop wrinkling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with sweaty palms."
This statement is misleading. Estonia hosted 64,000 Ukrainian refugees and provided them with housing, employment, health insurance, education, and Estonian language courses.
The sharp reaction of the Russian foreign ministry was caused by the statement of the prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas. In an interview with the Estonian public Russian-language TV channel ETV+, she said:
“Estonian language courses are also important. We don’t want that in Estonia will appear a new community that doesn’t speak Estonian. Even if they return (to Ukraine), and 80% of the refugees say they want to return, why not have a group of people in Ukraine who speak Estonian? There's nothing wrong with that."
Estonian language courses are part of the state program to help refugees from Ukraine.
“The Estonian state supports Ukrainian war refugees so that they could adapt here quickly and cope on their own until they can return home,” says the website of the Estonian government.
Within the framework of this program, after applying for temporary protection, a refugee receives an Estonian residence permit valid for one year and the same rights as residents of Estonia. They include the right to study and work, receive health insurance, and housing if necessary. Applying for temporary protection, however, is not mandatory. “All citizens of Ukraine have the right to stay in Estonia even without applying for temporary protection.”
Suppose a Ukrainian refugee decides to apply for temporary protection and receives the benefits of an Estonian citizen. In that case, certain requirements are imposed on such a refugee: registration of a place of residence, free adaptation training, and Estonian language lessons.
"Knowledge of the Estonian language, at least at a basic level, is essential in order to manage independently in our country and to adapt to the society here," said Piret Hartman, undersecretary for cultural diversity of the Ministry of Culture of Estonia.
As of January 1, 2022, the population of Estonia stood at 1,331,796 people, according to the department of statistics. The Estonian National Broadcasting Service (ERR) reported on December 5, 2022, that since the end of February 2022, Estonia had accepted 63,813 refugees from Ukraine, constituting 4.8 percent of Estonia's population.
Host country language courses for resettled refugees are the standard approved in the adaptation programs created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR and governments around the world organize language courses.
According to the UNHCR, learning the language of the host country is a prerequisite for the complete adaptation of a refugee:
“Target language competence is a basic requirement for achieving independence in day-to-day matters such as shopping, banking and obtaining a driver’s license, as well as for negotiating systems such as health care and education. Resettled refugees who are able to communicate in the language of the receiving community will have access to a wider range of employment opportunities and are better equipped to participate in further education and training.
Language is one of the vehicles through which resettled refugees come to feel ‘part’ of the receiving community. It enables them to participate in informal interactions in neighborhoods, whilst shopping and in community facilities; and ultimately to form meaningful social connections with others and keep up to date with current events.”
Vladimir Putin's Russia regularly makes claims related to the language of the countries of the former USSR. Russia partly justified the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 because in Crimea and the east of Ukraine, a significant part of the population wants to speak Russian, and the Ukrainian authorities allegedly interfere with and forbid them from doing this.
On June 24, 2014, three months after the illegal annexation of Crimea and two months after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in Donbas, Putin stated:
"We will always defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine and that part of the Ukrainian people who feel their inseparable not only ethnic, but also cultural and linguistic ties with Russia, feel themselves part of the broad Russian world. Of course, we will not only closely monitor but also react accordingly."
Russian foreign ministry criticism of Estonian language courses for refugees in Estonia is a continuation of Moscow’s policy to eliminate Estonian identity, culture, and language.
Estonia was occupied by the USSR for 48 years: from 1940 to 1941 and 1944 to 1991. At that time, Soviet repression was directed at the intelligentsia and peasantry of Estonia; 80,000 people were deported to Siberia between 1945 and 1953, and Russian-speaking residents of the USSR arrived in their place.
Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Massive immigration from Russia and other parts of the USSR decreased the indigenous proportion of the population. Before the war ethnic Estonians made up almost 90 percent of the population. By 1990 the proportion had sunk to about 60 percent.”
As a result of repression and so-called Russification, the number of Estonian speakers declined, and the Russian language was encouraged in all spheres of public and state affairs. Authorities forced the merging of Russian and Estonian cultures into one culture of the Soviet people, based on communist ideology and the Russian language.