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Estonia: OSCE Mission Believes It Has Fulfilled Its Purpose

Estonia abolished this week its requirement that candidates for parliament and local councils be able to speak Estonian, a rule that barred the candidacies of a substantial share of its Russian-speaking minority. A day later, an official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the OSCE mission's task in the Baltic state appears to have been completed.

Prague, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Seldom has any nation so welcomed the idea of being abandoned by a friend.

In 1992, Estonia invited the OSCE to establish a mission in its capital, Tallinn. It was established the following year.

Now, the OSCE says it believes the work of its mission in Estonia is done.

Sabine Machl, deputy head of mission, put it this way in a telephone interview:

"Our ambassador, ambassador [Doris] Hertrampf, will be called to Vienna. She will report on the progress here in Estonia, on the situation here in Estonia. And she will also recommend that the mandate of the OSCE mission to Estonia could be regarded as having been fulfilled."

The mission, whose mandate has been extended in six-month intervals in its eight-plus years, has been monitoring five specific criteria for post-communist Estonia to be considered a fully normalized member of the international community.

Earlier this week, the Estonian Parliament abolished a requirement established three years ago that deputies in the national parliament and local councils be speakers of Estonian. This was the last, and possibly the most difficult, of the criteria. The language law had effectively barred most of Estonia's 28 percent Russian-speaking minority from serving as legislators.

The OSCE and the European Union, which Estonia is eager to join, considered the law an unacceptable discrimination against an important minority.

Estonia is the northernmost of the Baltic states and shares its entire 200-kilometer eastern border with its giant neighbor Russia. The relationship has long been a close and uneasy one.

Before the first world war, Estonia was a province of imperial Russia. It was independent in the interwar period. The Soviet Union conquered the small nation in 1940 and incorporated it as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union stumbled, the government of Estonia declared the country an occupied territory. During the failed coup in Russia in August 1991, Estonia boldly declared its independence. The Soviet Union recognized its independence the next month.

After regaining its independence, Estonia reversed Soviet laws promoting the Russian language and adopted new legislation entrenching the Estonian language -- an esoteric tongue widely considered to be among the world's most difficult. Few Russian citizens of Estonia have mastered it.

Tensions between Russia and its small neighbor continue, partly over Estonia's candidacy to join the EU, but primarily over Estonia's campaign to be accepted into NATO.

The latest tension surfaced earlier this month when an Estonian newspaper published what it said was the text of an e-mail message from Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar to members of his Pro Patria party. The newspaper quoted Laar as saying that Estonian integration with the West will require Russia to learn to knock politely instead of -- in the newspaper's quotation -- "carving a window into Europe with an ax."

Neither Laar nor the Estonian government has confirmed, or denied, the report, but the Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently denounced the purported e-mail as a crude attack against Moscow.

Relations between Russia and Estonia could be significant in the question of continued OSCE supervision because Russia is a voting OSCE member. Its opposition -- if it offers any -- could throw the end of the Estonian mission's mandate in doubt.

Michael Krejza, first secretary of the European Commission delegation in Tallinn, said today that the EU considers Estonia's bow to international advice on its language law to be an important development. He said that if the OSCE formally declares its mission in Estonia to be successfully ended, the country's hopes for EU accession will advance. The language law, he said, was the last significant barrier.

"So, in fact, as we see it, the mandate of the OSCE mission has probably been fulfilled. I say 'probably' because, of course, it's a decision for the OSCE bodies in Vienna to determine whether or not this is the case. And this will happen in a few weeks."

For her part, speaking for the OSCE mission, Deputy Director Machl extolled Estonia's progress during the years of the mission.

"We have to consider ways and means of transferring our [human rights monitoring] responsibilities to institutions or organizations representing the local population. And we have seen a lot of progress in this respect, as well."

She named two areas in particular -- the Estonian national ombudsman increasing his reach, and improvements in the courts.

"Because, for example, the ombudsman has opened an office in Ida-Virumaa [region] in the northeast of Estonia in the cities of Nara and Joho in June of this year. [And] we find here in Estonia a very well-functioning legal system. The courts are functioning very well. They are judging independently."

Machl said the OSCE mission received its latest six-month mandate extension last June and it expires next month.