Estonia sacks headteacher in bid to purge Russian influence

Estonia intensified its controversial campaign to dilute the influence of Russia, its former colonial master, yesterday by firing a prominent Russian-speaking teacher for his failure to master Estonian.

In a move that Russian rights activists fear may be a sign of things to come, Mikhail Mikhalchenko was sacked from his job as head teacher in a prestigious Russian-speaking high school in the town of Narva which borders Russia.

He had been visited by Estonian language inspectors who have the right to test any worker's linguistic skills and to fire them if they are found wanting.

Under Estonian law, every worker must speak Estonian and sit an exam to obtain a certificate confirming their skills. The legislation is designed to encourage the large number of ethnic Russians, who made the country their home during the post-war Soviet occupation period, to return to Russia or integrate completely.

Estonian nationalists say the legislation is reasonable, but Russian rights activists claim the language laws amount to discrimination and a breach of human rights.

Mr Mikhalchenko, who had been in his position at the school for 16 years, spoke little Estonian - like the other half a million ethnic Russians living in the Baltic state.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass said this was the first time that a Russian-speaking teacher had been sacked for having poor skills in the Estonian language, and poured scorn on the move.

Russia's Foreign Ministry is also likely to wade in. Ethnic Russians make up almost a third of tiny Estonia's population of 1.5 million, and the agency said that Narva was an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking town.

"The population of Estonia's third largest town [Narva] is 96 per cent Russian," it said. "It's extremely rare to hear Estonian spoken there."

The agency complained that the language inspectors did not take into account the fact that Mr Mikhalchenko taught in Russian rather than Estonian, nor of his abilities to manage the school.

Russian-language tuition in Estonia is due to be partly phased out in 2007.

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