Estonia’s democratic institutions are generally strong, and both political rights and civil liberties are widely respected. However, more than 5 percent of the population remains stateless and cannot participate in national elections. Corruption is a persistent challenge, as is discrimination against ethnic Russians, Roma, LGBT+ people, and others. Far-right and Euroskeptic forces have become increasingly vocal in Estonian politics in recent years.
- In March, the government declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency lasted until May and was then replaced with a less rigorous set of movement restrictions and social-distancing measures. The country successfully suppressed the virus for most of the year, but the number of infections began to rise in the fall, and some nationwide restrictions were reintroduced in November. By the end of the year, Estonia had reported nearly 28,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 229 deaths.
- In October, the ruling coalition announced plans to organize a nonbinding referendum proposed by the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) that would ask voters to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, effectively restricting the rights of same-sex couples. The parliament passed the referendum bill in its first reading in December, with opposition parties pledging to block the measure from advancing further. A second reading was scheduled for January 2021.
- The durability of the ruling coalition was tested during the year by multiple ministerial resignations as well as continued controversial statements by EKRE representatives. One of the party’s leaders, Mart Helme, resigned as interior minister in November after a radio broadcast in which he verbally attacked US president-elect Joseph Biden and the validity of his victory.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The prime minister, who serves as head of government, is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas of the Center Party was reappointed in 2019 following that year’s parliamentary elections and the formation of a coalition comprising the centrist-populist Center Party, the far-right EKRE, and the conservative Isamaa party.
The president is elected by the parliament to a five-year term, filling a largely ceremonial role as head of state. Current president Kersti Kaljulaid was elected as a nonpartisan consensus candidate in a sixth round of voting in 2016. Although the overall election process was free and fair, it was criticized as lengthy and not entirely transparent.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The constitution establishes a 101-seat, unicameral parliament, called the Riigikogu, whose members are elected for four-year terms using proportional representation in multimember constituencies.
The March 2019 parliamentary elections met democratic standards. Like in previous elections in 2015, the voter turnout was about 64 percent. Five parties cleared the 5 percent vote threshold for representation, with the main opposition center-right Reform Party capturing a plurality with 34 seats. Electoral support for EKRE more than doubled, which translated into 19 seats. The incumbent Center Party won 26 seats, down one. The number of seats won by Isamaa and the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SDE) dropped to 12 and 10, respectively.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The legal framework for conducting elections is clear and fairly administered. Online voting is common and has gained in popularity. The 2019 parliamentary elections featured record turnout online, with some 44 percent of participating voters using this method and demonstrating strong public confidence in the system.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Estonia’s political parties organize and operate freely, and the political landscape remains open and competitive.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The country has undergone multiple democratic transfers of power between rival parties following elections over the past three decades, and opposition parties have a strong presence in the parliament.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
People’s political choices are generally not subject to undue interference. However, there were increasing concerns about the influence of online disinformation ahead of and after the 2019 elections.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
More than 5 percent of the country’s population—mostly ethnic Russians—remain stateless and cannot participate in national elections. Resident noncitizens are permitted to vote in local and European Parliament elections but may not run as candidates or join political parties. The authorities have adopted policies to assist those seeking naturalization.
President Kaljulaid is the first woman in the country’s history to hold her office. While a record total of 29 women were elected to the 101-seat Riigikogu in 2019, representation for women in government remains a challenge.
EKRE’s entry into a coalition government in 2019 raised political equality concerns among domestic and international observers due to the party’s history of racist, sexist, anti-LGBT+, and White nationalist sentiments. EKRE cabinet ministers have advocated anti-LGBT+ policy goals and expressed a variety of extremist views, including conspiracy theories, discriminatory falsehoods about immigration and refugees, and antisemitic sentiments.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Both the government and the parliament are freely elected and function without interference from external or nonstate actors.
However, the coalition government formed in 2019 suffered from instability amid multiple personnel changes, including separate resignations by three ministers in November 2020 alone. Mart Helme, who resigned as interior minister that month after verbally attacking US president-elect Joseph Biden and the legitimacy of his election victory in a radio broadcast, was the sixth EKRE minister to step down since the ruling coalition was established the previous year.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
The legal framework and independent law enforcement institutions provide important checks on corruption, and cases against high-profile defendants have been brought to court in recent years, though the results have been mixed. A trial that began in 2017 focused on Edgar Savisaar—former leader of the Center Party and Tallinn city mayor—and a number of codefendants who were accused of bribery, money laundering, and embezzlement. Savisaar was excused from the trial due to poor health in 2018, and defendants including the Center Party itself were punished with fines. Several government officials and businessmen in the case were acquitted in January 2020, but an appeal by the prosecution was pending at year’s end. Separate trials concerning recent corruption scandals in Tallinn and Tartu municipalities and the Tallinn seaport ended in 2019 and 2020, again with some key defendants acquitted or released due to poor health. Early in 2020, new charges involving alleged corruption in the health sector were announced.
In May 2020, the ruling coalition introduced a bill that would abolish the Supervisory Committee on Party Financing (ERJK) and delegate its tasks to the National Audit Office. Opposition parties protested the move, noting several recent verdicts of the ERJK regarding the finances of the Center Party; the bill had not been passed at year’s end. It was reported in January 2020 that Estonian political parties on the whole had spent more than they took in during 2019, which could leave them vulnerable to improper influence by private interests. There are no comprehensive rules for the protection of whistleblowers, and lobbying is not sufficiently regulated. Separately in January, the appointment of coalition party members to a committee responsible for selecting the directors of state-owned enterprises raised concerns about conflicts of interest.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Estonia is known for its high degree of government transparency and well-developed e-governance services.
Public access to government information and the asset declarations of officials is provided for both in law and in practice. According to the latest European Union (EU) reports, Estonia stands out as one of best performers in the EU in ensuring a transparent and effective public procurement system.
|Are there free and independent media?
The government generally respects freedom of the press. Public and private television and radio stations broadcast freely, and there are a number of independent newspapers. However, EKRE leaders have verbally attacked journalists, raising concerns about self-censorship, and observers have noted a trend toward ownership concentration in recent years, especially at the regional level. Citing interference by the owner of Postimees, the country’s oldest newspaper, most of the journalists on the paper’s investigative and opinion desks resigned in late 2019. Economic dislocation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic led to sharp declines in advertising revenue during 2020, which could exacerbate the media’s vulnerability to editorial pressure. Separately, judges have increasingly used the criminal procedure code to restrict media coverage in various cases of public interest, particularly those concerning corruption.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice. During the state of emergency declared between March and May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, public gatherings including religious services were restricted. In May, before the restrictions were eased, religious authorities called for the sounding of church bells as a form of pressure on the government to allow the resumption of group worship.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, by law, public Russian-language high schools must teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
There are no significant constraints on the freedoms of personal expression and private discussion.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government upholds this right in practice. Gatherings were temporarily restricted during 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but demonstrations on various topics proceeded peacefully when the health rules were not in place.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
The government upholds freedom of association and does not restrict or control the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The law recognizes workers’ rights to organize, strike, and bargain collectively, although public servants at the municipal and state levels may not strike. While these rights are largely upheld in practice, union membership has gradually declined, and employers in some sectors have resisted bargaining efforts.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judiciary is independent and generally free from government or other interference.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Legal processes in civil and criminal matters are generally free and fair. Laws prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention and ensuring the right to a fair trial are largely observed.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
While Estonians generally enjoy physical security, the country’s steadily declining intentional homicide rate remains one of the highest in the EU. There have been reports of law enforcement officials using excessive force when arresting suspects. Some inmates reportedly have inadequate access to health care. Estonia has a relatively high incarceration rate, with about 184 people per 100,000 residents in prisons as of 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
The constitution and laws provide broad safeguards against discrimination based on race, gender, language, sexual orientation, and other such categories. However, Russian-speaking residents continue to face societal discrimination, and some statutes lack robust protections against such bias. The Equal Treatment Act, for example, does not consider Estonian linguistic requirements for public officials to be discriminatory. Gender discrimination is also a problem, particularly in employment. Women in Estonia earn on average 21.7 percent less than men, according to 2019 Eurostat data; while the gap has declined, it remains the highest among EU countries. Roma face employment discrimination and disparities in educational outcomes.
The rhetoric and ideological beliefs of many active EKRE members have raised the prominence of hostile and extremist views toward the Jewish community, LGBT+ people, and Muslims, as well as other marginalized groups.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Citizens and residents enjoy free movement inside Estonia, and there are no significant restrictions on international travel. Movement restrictions imposed during 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were generally regarded as proportionate to the health threat.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The legal and regulatory framework is generally supportive of property rights and entrepreneurship, and residents can freely engage in private business activity in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
While individual freedom on personal status issues such as marriage and divorce is generally upheld, same-sex marriage is not recognized. At the end of 2020, the parliament had yet to adopt necessary amendments for the implementation of a 2014 law permitting same-sex civil unions. Moreover, the ruling coalition announced in October 2020 that it would proceed with an EKRE-backed plan to hold a nonbinding referendum in 2021 on whether to define marriage in the constitution as a union between a man and a woman. The necessary legislation passed its first reading in the parliament in December, and a second reading was scheduled for January 2021.
Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, remains a serious problem. Reports of domestic violence to police increased dramatically during the pandemic in 2020, and at the same time victims were less able to report the crimes promptly. Cases resulting in serious injuries and deaths also increased.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
There are legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions, and they are generally enforced in practice. The government makes serious and sustained efforts to prosecute those responsible for human trafficking and provide services to victims, though it has encountered difficulties in adequately punishing convicted traffickers and identifying victims, according to the US State Department.
Estonia’s unemployment rate jumped to almost 8 percent by late 2020 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a quarter of the population remains at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The government adopted an extraordinary pension hike in April 2020 to help address the problem.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score93 100 free