Tallinn, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission's ambassador to Estonia says the will to reform is the most important criteria the European Union is looking for as it considers new members and that Estonia meets that standard.
Estonia -- along with the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia -- are negotiating for so-called "fast-track" EU membership. A date for EU enlargement has not been set. The European Commission announced this week it is also speeding up preparations for membership talks with Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia. It says differences in readiness for membership are not that significant.
In an interview with RFE/RL, ambassador Arhi Palosuo said the European Union sees expansion as a unique possibility to establish democracy and stability in Europe. He said that what is important to the EU is not a particular country's income level but a genuine desire to reform and become "normal" in European political and economic terms.
Palosuo said the EU is looking at all applicant countries in the same way and will strive to apply the same membership criteria to Slovenia -- the richest per capita -- as it does to Bulgaria, the poorest. He said Estonia is in the middle of this list, with Latvia and Lithuania closely following, in that order.
He said it is clear Estonia cannot be compared to a nation such as Finland in terms of welfare and prosperity. But he said Tallinn has nevertheless made a remarkable transition to a free-market economy as a result of -- at times -- "extremely" liberal economic policies. He said Estonia is often called the "Singapore of the Baltics."
But while the Estonian economy has been able to reform itself and -- as opposed to other states in the region -- remain largely unaffected by Russia's economic crisis, political problems remain.
Estonia is a democracy, Palosuo said, but treatment of its national and language minorities remains "problematic." He was referring to the recent passage of amendments to Estonia's language law stipulating that all persons employed in public service should communicate in Estonian.
Palosuo said the EC understands the Estonian government's duty to protect Estonian culture and language, but he said it sometimes "overreacts and over-dramatizes" what it calls threats to Estonian identity. Palosuo said "normally, you do not regulate languages by law."
Many Russian-language speakers are concerned that Estonia's nationality and language laws are only thinly veiled efforts at discrimination that will prevent them from obtaining jobs and Estonian citizenship.
Palosuo said the EU has looked closely at these allegations but so far has found no serious breaches of human rights. He did admit the new language laws in Estonia show a trend toward less toleration.
Palosuo -- himself a Finn -- said no two countries in Europe are alike. "In Finland," he said, "we have two official languages -- Finnish and Swedish -- but the Swedes in Finland have lived there for centuries." He said the Turks have lived in Germany for several decades, yet few of them have been able to obtain citizenship.
Palosuo stressed, however, that EU applicant states should not compare themselves to current member nations, implying that Western-style multi-culturalism is still a new concept to Eastern Europe and perhaps not directly applicable to a small country like Estonia.
(Second of three features by our correspondent in Tallinn, reporting ahead of Sunday's Estonian general elections.)