Estonia

Free
94
100
PR Political Rights 38 40
CL Civil Liberties 56 60
Last Year's Score & Status
94 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • In response to the Center Party’s alleged involvement in a high-profile corruption scandal, then prime minister Jüri Ratas resigned in January, leading to the collapse of his governing coalition. A new governing coalition, comprising the Center Party and the Reform Party, was formed later that month under the leadership of Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas, who became Estonia’s first woman prime minister.
  • In August, the parliament elected Alar Karis to the presidency. Karis was elected in the second round of voting, and took office after winning the support of all parliamentary parties except the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE).
  • A corruption scandal, known as the Porto Franco case, was publicly revealed in January. The case saw Center Party officials accused of agreeing to provide real estate developer Hillar Teder with access to high-profile development sites in Tallinn in return for a donation of €1 million (roughly $1.01 million) to the party; official investigations into the scandal were ongoing at year’s end.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The prime minister, who serves as head of government, is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. Following the 2019 parliamentary elections, then prime minister Jüri Ratas of the Center Party was reappointed for a second term as the head of a coalition government comprising the centrist-populist Center Party, the far-right EKRE, and the conservative Isamaa party.

The governing coalition collapsed in January 2021, when Ratas resigned after several leading officials in his Center Party were implicated in a high-level corruption investigation; Ratas denied any wrongdoing. A new governing coalition, comprising the Center Party and the Reform Party, was formed later that month under the leadership of Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas, who became Estonia’s first woman prime minister.

The president is elected by the parliament to a five-year term, filling a largely ceremonial role as head of state. In August 2021, Alar Karis was elected as a nonpartisan consensus candidate in a second round of voting, winning the support of all parliamentary parties except the EKRE.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

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.

Local elections were held in October 2021 and saw a voter turnout of 54.7 percent, with 47 percent of all votes cast online.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4.004 4.004

The legal framework for conducting elections is clear and fairly administered. Online voting is common and has gained in popularity. The 2019 parliamentary and 2021 local elections featured record turnout online demonstrating strong public confidence in the system.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 4.004 4.004

Estonia’s political parties organize and operate freely, and the political landscape remains open and competitive.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

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.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 4.004 4.004

People’s political choices are generally not subject to undue interference. However, there have been increasing concerns about the influence of online disinformation in recent years, particularly during election campaigns and about the COVID-19 pandemic.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3.003 4.004

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.

Political representation of women is gradually increasing. Former president Kersti Kaljulaid became the first woman in the country’s history to hold her office when she was elected in 2016. Moreover, a record total of 29 women were elected to the 101-seat Riigikogu in 2019. After taking office in 2021, Prime Minister Kallas—the first woman to hold her post—appointed an almost equally gender-balanced cabinet.

The inclusion of the far-right EKRE in the governing coalition between 2019–21 raised political equality concerns among domestic and international observers due to the party’s history of racist, sexist, anti-LGBT+, and White nationalist sentiments. The party returned to the opposition after former prime minister Ratas resigned in January 2021, but remained popular, taking 13.2 percent of all votes cast in the October local elections. Pushed back into the opposition, EKRE became the most popular party at the end of the year.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4.004 4.004

Both the government and the parliament are freely elected and function without interference from external or nonstate actors.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

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. A November 2020 Supreme Court ruling rejected appeals lodged by several government officials and businessmen who had been convicted for their roles in the case.

Another corruption scandal involving the Center Party emerged in January 2021, when it was revealed that party officials had allegedly agreed to provide real estate developer Hillar Teder with access to high-profile development sites in Tallinn, including the Porto Franco property, in return for a donation of €1 million (roughly $1.01 million) from Teder’s son, Rauno Teder, to the party. The Center Party’s involvement in the so-called Porto Franco scandal led to the resignation of then prime minister Jüri Ratas and the collapse of his Center Party–led governing coalition later that month. Official investigations into the scandal—including into Hillar Teder, who spent nearly two months in prison in connection with the case in early 2021—were ongoing at year’s end.

In another high-profile case, Center Party politician and former Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps was charged with fraud and embezzlement of ministry funds in November 2021. Reps stepped down as education minister in November 2020 and was stripped of parliamentary immunity in October 2021. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

There are no comprehensive rules for the protection of whistleblowers, and lobbying is not sufficiently regulated.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4.004 4.004

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. Estonia stands out as one of the EU’s top performers in ensuring a transparent and effective public procurement system.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4.004 4.004

The government generally respects freedom of the press. However, judges have increasingly used the criminal procedure code to restrict media coverage in various cases of public interest, particularly those concerning corruption. Public and private television and radio stations broadcast freely, and there are a number of independent newspapers.

In recent years, EKRE leaders have verbally attacked journalists, raising concerns about self-censorship, and observers have noted a trend toward ownership concentration, especially at the regional level. Economic dislocation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic led to sharp declines in advertising revenue in 2020, which could exacerbate the media’s vulnerability to editorial pressure.

The prevalence of antigovernment disinformation campaigns disseminated by pro-Kremlin Russian-language media outlets has reportedly increased in recent years, sparking concern among observers. However, Estonia’s public Russian-language television station, ETV+, which offers an alternative to Russian-language stations that are based outside of Estonia, steadily increased its ratings during 2021.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice. In 2020 and 2021, public gatherings, including religious services, were periodically restricted to contain the spread of the COVID-19.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4.004 4.004

Academic freedom is generally respected. However, by law, public Russian-language high schools must teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4.004 4.004

There are no significant constraints on the freedoms of personal expression and private discussion.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government upholds this right in practice. Gatherings were temporarily restricted during 2020 and 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several large demonstrations were held during 2021, including numerous protests against COVID-19-related lockdown measures and vaccination mandates.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4.004 4.004

The government upholds freedom of association and does not restrict or control the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4.004 4.004

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 is low, and employers in some sectors have resisted bargaining efforts.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4.004 4.004

The judiciary is independent and generally free from government or other interference.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4.004 4.004

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. A July 2021 European Commission report noted that the judicial system continued to operate “without notable disruption” during the COVID-19 pandemic, attributed largely to the system’s “advanced level of digitalization.”

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3.003 4.004

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.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3.003 4.004

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. Gender discrimination is also a problem, particularly in employment, and the gender pay gap is among the highest in the EU, though it has decreased in recent years. Roma face employment discrimination and disparities in educational outcomes.

The rhetoric and ideological beliefs of many active EKRE members have increased the prevalence of hostile and extremist views toward the Jewish community, LGBT+ people, and Muslims, as well as other marginalized groups. In 2020, the European Commission began infringement proceedings against Estonia for failing to match EU regulations for prosecuting hate crimes and criminalizing hate speech in domestic laws; legislation resolving the discrepancies had not been passed as of the end of 2021.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4.004 4.004

Citizens and residents enjoy free movement inside Estonia, and there are no significant restrictions on international travel. Movement restrictions imposed during 2020–21 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were generally regarded as proportionate to the health threat. Most COVID-19-related movement restrictions were lifted by June 2021.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4.004 4.004

The legal and regulatory framework is generally supportive of property rights and entrepreneurship, and residents can freely engage in private business activity in practice.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3.003 4.004

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 2021, the parliament had yet to adopt necessary amendments for the implementation of a 2014 law permitting same-sex civil unions. In September 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that—like for opposite-sex partners—constitutional protections against state interference in family life apply to same-sex couples that live together. Gender-based violence (GBV), including domestic violence, remains a serious problem.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3.003 4.004

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, which had reached 8.7 percent by the end of March 2021 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, fell to 5.2 percent by year’s end. Nearly a quarter of the population remains at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

On Estonia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    94 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    94 100 free