Estonia’s democratic institutions are generally strong, and both political rights and civil liberties are widely respected. However, about 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 Eurosceptic forces have become increasingly vocal in Estonian politics in recent years.
- In June, the two-party Estonian ruling coalition collapsed, and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of the center-right Reform Party dismissed all of the Center Party’s ministers from the cabinet. A new ruling coalition was formed in July comprising the Reform Party, the conservative Isamaa party, and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDE).
- Over 115,000 Ukrainian people fleeing the Russia military’s full-scale invasion of their country entered Estonia during the year. By year’s end, Estonia had accepted more than 62,000 Ukrainian refugees, while others passed through to other European Union (EU) countries in the Schengen Area. In addition, some 300,000 Russian citizens crossed the border, in most cases for the purpose of Schengen transit. Estonian authorities in August legalized migrant pushbacks to be used in “emergencies caused by mass immigration” and in September closed the borders to most Russian citizens.
|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. There have been three governments since the 2019 parliamentary elections. The first government, from 2019, was headed by Jüri Ratas of the Center Party in coalition with the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) and the conservative Isamaa party. It was replaced in January 2021 by a government led by the Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas in coalition with the Center Party. In June 2022, relations between the ruling parties deteriorated, and the coalition crumbled. A new goverment was formed in July, again headed by Kallas of the Reform Party, this time in coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats.
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.
|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. As it had been in previous elections in 2015, 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 Social Democrats dropped to 12 and 10, respectively.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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 about election campaigns, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Around 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. Following the Russian government’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, draft legislation was submitted to the parliament to repeal the local-election voting rights of anyone who lacks EU citizenship. The measure, which appeared to be aimed at preventing Russians and Belarussians from electoral participation, was supported by many MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties.
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 principle was upheld in the second Kallas cabinet, named in July 2022, which includes seven women and eight men.
|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.
|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.
There are still no comprehensive rules for the protection of whistleblowers, with proposed legislation stalled as of the end of 2022. The adoption of a bill that would tighten control of party financing is also being delayed. Regulations on lobbying are being strengthened, but implementation of the changes is still in progress.
|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 generally performs well in ensuring a transparent and effective public procurement system, although according to the European Commission’s 2021 figures, the latest available, 34 percent of Estonian public contracts that year had only a single bidder or no call for bids at all.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally respects freedom of the press. However, judges sometimes use 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 February 2022, Estonia amended its media law, increasing the media regulator’s independence and requiring greater transparency around media ownership structures.
Observers have noted a trend toward ownership concentration, especially at the regional level. Some local media have struggled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing digitalization in the media market.
The Russian military’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered Estonian regulatory institutions to block access to Russian media outlets beginning in February 2022.
|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.
|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, and a new education law adopted in December 2022 requires that the country’s schools transition gradually to Estonian as the only language of instruction. The timeline set out by the law begins with the 2024–25 school year and ends with the 2032–33 school year. However, there are concerns that shortages of teachers and material resources might interfere with the transition timeline. Following the switch, children from Russian-speaking families will be given the opportunity to learn Russian language and culture in separate classes.
|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.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government upholds this right in practice.
|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).
|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.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is independent and generally free from government or other interference.
|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. Court fees were raised significantly in January 2022, but there are many exemptions built into the fee structures.
|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. Prison conditions do not fully meet international standards, and some inmates reportedly have inadequate access to health care. Estonia has a relatively high incarceration rate, with 165 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents in 2021, according to Eurostat data.
|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 Jewish, Muslim, and LGBT+ people, 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 2022.
In August 2022, Estonia legalized the pushback of migrants during “emergencies caused by mass immigration.” Although the measures were not applied systematically during the year, not all Ukrainian refugees attempting to cross the eastern border of the country were permitted to enter. In September, along with other Baltic states and Poland, Estonia effectively closed its borders to Russian citizens.
|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. All remaining movement and travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic were lifted in spring 2022.
|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.
|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 2022, 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 constitutional protections against state interference in family life apply to same-sex couples that live together just as they do for opposite-sex partners. Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, remains a serious problem.
|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 the end of that year. It then started to rise again, ending 2022 at 5.4 percent. Nearly a fifth of the population remains at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score93 100 free