Ethnic Discord : Fighting Words : Estonians are determined to make their language the only official one, but the nation's Russian minority fears further isolation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a nation where words have always proved stronger than walls in locking out foreign enemies, Estonians have enlisted their impenetrable language in the unfinished battle to overcome 50 years of Russian occupation.

A controversial law taking effect April 1 decrees that Estonian must be the dominant language on all street and shop signs, in business conversations, for all public services and on television and radio.

It sets out fines for public use of foreign words that are badly translated or, worse, not translated at all.

The law's intent, native speakers insist, is to ensure that Estonians benefit from the foreign commerce now flooding their country with products and services, often marked only in the language of the purveyors. Taco seasoning with Turkish directions, televisions and stereos with warranties in German and Japanese, and build-it-yourself furniture with Finnish instructions now must be accompanied by translations that Estonia's monoglots can understand.

"Estonians should have the right to communicate in Estonian wherever they go, even in private businesses," said Helga Laasi, an official with the national Language Department, which is charged with enforcing the new law.

But Estonia's Russian minority, which makes up about one-third of the country's 1.6 million population, fears the law has a more perfidious objective than easing the plight of consumers. Russian speakers suspect the law's drafters want to further isolate the offspring of former occupiers in hopes of eventually driving them out of the country.

The law establishes Estonian as the sole official language, although business and commercial conversations in regions dominated by Russian speakers can be conducted in that language by mutual consent.

It prohibits broadcast of foreign-language commentaries or interviews without an accompanying Estonian translation, except for programs especially targeted at foreign-language communities.

Most of Estonia's Russians are descendants of the officers and administrators dispatched here after the 1940 Soviet annexation of the three Baltic states, and resentment among the long-subjugated Estonians still runs deep more than three years after independence.

"On the surface the law is fine. But it's discriminatory in intent," said an American legal adviser to the government who did not want his name used. "It's designed to put the screws on non-Estonian speakers. It's ideologically driven and has no basis in reality."

His chief criticism was the law's vagueness. It appears to allow bureaucrats too much leeway in defining infractions and offers the accused too little recourse for complaint.

Indeed, zealous application appears to be in the offing.

While the law isn't even in effect yet, its official backers already have hired and deployed 13 full-time "language police" to stalk transgressors.

The roaming enforcers, who can issue on-the-spot fines of as much as $100, are the most unsettling element for those whose Estonian is weak or nonexistent.

An Indian restaurant manager recently was threatened with fines for leaving the eatery under the supervision of an employee who could speak only broken Estonian, and dozens of commuters were late for work one morning last month after another enforcement agent held up the tram they were riding in because an ad display for a Russian newspaper lacked an Estonian translation.

Nikolai Meinert, manager of the capital's Russian-language radio station, Radio Tallinn, said there is broad suspicion among Russian speakers that the language law is designed to harass them.

"Even if it's not true, Russians generally live under the impression here that any laws passed in regard to them are directed against them," Meinert said. "They understand that it all depends on its implementation and on whether the official is in a good or bad mood on the day he walks into your office."

Moderate political leaders insist the law is a simple revision of a 1989 law on language and that it will hasten rather than discourage integration.

Tunne Kelam, a parliamentary leader with the Estonian National Independence Party, said the changes were made to bring Estonia's law into compliance with those in Western Europe and that it should in no way be read as a deterrent to foreign businesses looking to settle here.

But the law's drafters originally justified the legislation as necessary to combat "linguistic aggression," according to conservative parliamentarian Merle Krigul, as quoted by the weekly Baltic Independent.

Russian residents of Estonia, such as Sergei Andreyev, who has lived here all of his 40 years, say they are concerned about the potential for abusing the law.

"I'm afraid of this change because I don't understand why it had to be made," said Andreyev, a trade school teacher whose job disappeared last year when the institute closed.

Unlike most Russians in Estonia, Andreyev has taught himself enough Estonian to pass the citizenship exam.

But having to learn Estonian--a Finno-Ugric tongue that is among the world's most complicated languages--is time-consuming and burdensome for workers who would be better served learning English, German or Finnish, Andreyev argued.

"To get a good job here now, you really need to speak something other than Estonian, so this law makes it doubly difficult for Russians," said Andreyev, adding he might seek work in Germany rather than compete in Estonia for scarce jobs.

Russians such as Tatiana Ivanova, who has lived in Estonia for 30 years but has never studied the language, resent the change they feel is aimed at relegating them to second-class status.

"I don't see why this law was necessary," said the homemaker and mother of two. "We studied Russian in school and spoke it exclusively at home. For some of us, it's too late."

A poll published earlier this month in the Tallinn weekly Eesti Ekspress found that only 11% of Russians questioned could speak fluent Estonian. Two-thirds of the respondents acknowledged the importance of learning the national language, yet 57% said they spoke no Estonian at all.

Estonians insist that Russians wanting to retain their homes in this country should accept their minority status and learn Estonian.

Psychiatrist and political activist Ante Liiv criticized both the law's drafters and its detractors for "overreacting."

While conceding its enactment hints at linguistic retaliation, he said the law has simply provided a rallying point for Russians dismayed over their fall from domination since Estonia gained independence in 1991.

"It's normal for those who were in positions of privilege to feel resentful when those privileges are lost," Liiv said, exuding the generally held attitude that by being forced to learn Estonian the Russians are getting a long overdue comeuppance.

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