2007-02-23 Tom McAlinden
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Estonian-Swedes Embrace Cultural Autonomy Rights

Swedish and Estonian flagSwedish and Estonian flag
It may be fairly well-known that the Swedish language thrives in neighbouring country, Finland, where more than 5 per cent of the population speaks it as their mother tongue. But while they are really only a linguistic minority, efforts are being stepped up to recognise people with a Swedish background in another nearby nation....Estonia. It too has a long common history with Sweden, and now a Cultural Council's been set up there to promote the "Estonian-Swedes". Tom McAlinden has more...

Swede Sofia Joons with her music influenced by the Estonian-Swedish minority which have lived in the coastal areas of the small Baltic State for hundreds of years. But like thousands of other Estonian-Swedes, her family fled to Sweden during the second world war, when Estonia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

And life for those that stayed took a turn for the worse, islands many lived on became military bases, their homes were seized, their farms were ruined and contact with their relatives in Sweden were severed. Lars Rönnberg, from the Estonian-Swedes Association in Sweden, says before then, their culture was pretty strong....

"There were Swedish Schools, we had our own newspaper, there were certain parts of Estonia, some of the islands, which were more or less only Swedish speaking, so there was a majority in certain areas in Estonia. And with a population of about ten thousand Swedes it was one of the larger minorities in Estonia."

Old map of Estonia with swedish place namesOld map of Estonia with swedish place names
Between 1918 and 1940 the Swedes in Estonia enjoyed several special rights as a minority such as education in their native tongue, the ability to use it in official procedures, and they were allowed to form institutions to help protect these rights. Unlike the Germans or Jews though, they didn't make full use of the "cultural autonomy" rights granted in 1925, they didn't think they needed to... until now. This week, the Estonian-Swedish Council meets for the first time. I asked member Uile Kärk-Remes why it's needed...

"Many Estonian-Swedes are trying to take back their language, to take back their culture. They want to go on and get the possibilities they had before the war, but because they are not so many in Estonia today, this is the best way to go on, in the quite different situation. Perhaps many are interested or small industries to go back to really work and live and to get the old Estonian-Swedes known as a group who is really living and going on for the future."

But what makes the Estonian Swedes so unique anyway? I asked Lars Rönnberg why they are neither one nationality nor the other.....

There are Swedes in Finland, there are Swedes in Sweden and there are Swedes in Estonia. And the Swedes in Estonia were fairly isolated so the language and the culture has preserved much of what it was from several years ago. So they are the true Swedes? More or less the true Swedes, yes.

The Cultural Council has got the full-backing of the Estonian Government, which has also given Estonian-Swedes in SWEDEN the right to be on it too. But why is it concerned about such a tiny minority? I asked its representative in Sweden, Ambassador, Alar Streimann...

"If we speak the numbers, then before the war it was approximately ten thousand people who identified themselves as being part of the Estonian-Swedes. If I'm not mistaken, almost nine thousand fled to Sweden. So only one thousand stayed behind. Now many have moved back, not too many, but they keep their relations, they keep their summertimes (sic), they have their relatives. I would say that we are positively concerned, we are not negatively concerned as regards the Estonian government, because it enriches every society. I mean today, every small minority, in my opinion, is a wealth for a country."

Woman from east Estonia in Swedish costumeWoman from east Estonia in Swedish costume
How visible is this minority group in Estonia?

"Quite visible. Not maybe everywhere, but especially on the west coast and the small islands which have been traditionally inhabited by the people. But I hope now that they have become more organised that will become more visible, not only in Estonia but also in Sweden. I think it's very important to keep this link between Sweden and Estonia."

Do they need to be protected?

"That's a good question. Protection is maybe not the right word for what these people need. In today's world when people are concerned only about work and income and the mass culture, I think it's very important that people have their own ideas and they promote them. That's an important combination."

Is this part of efforts to reaffirm Estonian identity as it was before the Second World War?

"As far as it goes to really putting things right in the historical perspective, I think it's important to do this. Because these people mostly were forced to flee from their homes. Whether they want to substantially move back today or whether they don't, that's not really so important. But they should have a feeling that it has been their home, it still is if they wish it to be, that Estonia considers them to be part of the Estonian community. And if they want to promote their history, their roots, then they can do it now."

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