Estonia

Consolidated Democracy
84
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 83.93 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 6.04 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
85 100 Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2021

  • National Democratic Governance rating declined from 6.00 to 5.75 due to governmental instability during the year as well as efforts by the governing coalition partner EKRE to undermine Estonia’s response to COVID-19, including by instrumentalizing crisis legislation and elevating social issues above public health concerns.

As a result, Estonia’s Democracy Score declined from 6.07 to 6.04.

header2 Executive Summary

By Liisa Talving

In 2020, Estonia’s democratic foundations remained strong. The country’s democratic accountability and electoral processes functioned well. Media are free, civil rights are widely respected, courts are independent, and the rule of law is speedy and effective. The political response to the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted normal policymaking and empowered the central government relative to other actors, but this did not undermine the country’s strong democratic institutions. However, some illiberal policies were pushed through in the shadow of the pandemic that extended beyond the immediate needs of the crisis and could be considered unjustified. Furthermore, the multitude of scandals and ministerial-level reshuffles caused by the radical populist Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), a governing coalition junior partner, increased governmental instability and dysfunction.

The key challenge for Estonia in 2020 was to curb the spread of COVID-19. By the end of the year, this nation of 1.3 million had lost 234 people to the virus, while total confirmed cases stood at 28,406.1 These numbers remained comparatively low in the wider European context. The government reacted rapidly and decisively to the virus outbreak in the beginning of the year, declaring an “emergency situation” in March and introducing measures such as closing schools, banning public gatherings, and restricting movement across borders. Wide testing was introduced, and the country’s small size enabled Estonia to quickly localize and isolate single outbreaks. The pandemic’s economic consequences affected specific sectors, such as tourism, transportation, hospitality, entertainment, and catering. To alleviate these negative impacts, a €2 billion emergency aid program was launched. The country’s adjustment to the emergency situation was eased by Estonia’s advanced digital society, enabling the governance system to continue to operate. The health situation worsened sharply in the fall, however, and the second wave of the pandemic hit the country much harder in terms of case numbers and deaths. Possibly due to the earlier success, the government was late to react the second time around and hesitant to implement another total lockdown. A significant rise in infection rates in December finally led to new restrictions as well as concerns over the healthcare system’s ability to cope.

The emergency situation facilitated a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. Under these unusual circumstances, in which regular parliamentary and societal debate was inhibited, the government pushed through legislative proposals in different policy areas, such as migration, environment, and social affairs, that surpassed the immediate needs of the pandemic and undermined liberal democratic norms. The most controversial initiatives included amendments to the Aliens Act, which significantly curbed the rights of foreign workers and students from non–European Union (EU) countries. This was led by and helped promote the anti-immigration agenda of the far-right populist EKRE. To that end, the governing parties overstepped their authority and used the health crisis to advance their programmatic goals.

Ideological calculations were also central to preparationsfor the local elections in 2021. Originally, a referendum was scheduled (later rescheduled) to take place alongside the local government council elections asking voters whether marriage should be defined in the constitution as a union between one man and one woman. Far from being a local matter, holding this referendum was one of EKRE’s central electoral promises and included in the coalition agreement in 2019. After only a year and a half in power, EKRE, a junior partner in the governing coalition, had succeeded in shifting public discourse in a much more socially conservative direction, which is surprising in a highly secular and innovative society such as Estonia but nevertheless in line with broader trends of cultural populism in the region. EKRE’s political style is explicitly confrontational and frequently illiberal in content, targeting minorities, migrants, and women. Putting civil rights up for popular vote signals the party’s attempt to translate its undemocratic rhetoric into policy. Crucially, EKRE’s provocations have created deep societal polarization, while diminishing the government’s ability to focus on important issues like managing the COVID-19 crisis. Since taking office, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’s cabinet has seen an unprecedented number of ministerial resignations, most of them from EKRE, including party leader Mart Helme. The fact that these resignations were forced to take place indicates, however, that the political opposition has a strong voice in Estonia, the media is free, and civil society can have political impact.

During the pandemic, core civil liberties were respected and protected, and government restrictions did not breach human rights. Yet alarms went off in March when Estonia activated Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which enables the state to restrict certain freedoms in a time of emergency, but this action was never taken. No discrimination within the country occurred on national or ethnic grounds as a result of the emergency measures, but mobility rights of migrants from third (non-EU) countries were significantly curtailed. The Russian-speaking Ida-Viru region of the country suffered the most from COVID-19; yet, for socioeconomic reasons, the Russian-speaking population was less likely to comply with recommended measures (such as working from home). Still, ratings rose for Estonia’s Russian-language media during the year, indicating the demand for timely and accurate updates on the local coronavirus situation.

Also in 2020, Estonia continued to repair damage to its national reputation caused by cases of money-laundering at three Nordic banks in the capital Tallinn that surfaced in 2018–19. While the ongoing investigations have been slow, the system responded vigorously to the offenses, closing local bank branches and issuing large penalties. These positive developments, however, were counterbalanced by political corruption that remains a serious issue. Amid the pandemic crisis, favorable loans were given on an unfair basis to companies that directly or indirectly finance the governing parties. This was accompanied by attempts of the incumbent parties to abolish an independent body that monitors political party financing in Estonia.

The year ended with tensions running high between the Estonian Center Party and its junior partners in the governing coalition, EKRE and Isamaa. The Center Party worked hard to distance itself from EKRE’s illiberal rhetoric, but the ability of PM Ratas to retain his position required some painful compromises, occasionally at the expense of protecting democratic values and human rights. Ratas was frequently accused of not putting his foot down and not being de facto head of government, as EKRE seem to have free rein. In the meantime, the political culture became increasingly confrontational and aggressive, democratic procedures were hampered, and Estonian society grew more polarized as domestic tensions further undermined the country’s international stature.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 5.756 7.007
  • Estonia’s national democratic governance was challenged in 2020 by the exogenous shock of COVID-19. Although some cabinet members downplayed the risk of the virus at first,1 the government reacted rapidly to the pandemic in the spring and declared an “emergency situation” on March 12,2 two weeks after the first positive case in Estonia was reported. A range of measures were introduced, such as closing schools, banning public gatherings, and restricting movement across borders. Saaremaa, the country’s largest island and the initial epicenter of the virus, was isolated.3 Large-scale nationwide testing and contact tracing were initiated. A €2 billion aid program was launched, including labor market support, sickness benefits, and tax incentives.
  • The pandemic’s second wave gained ground in late October,4 and although much more devastating in absolute numbers, the second wave was characterized by a lack of action both at the individual and the national level. The government’s response was less restrictive at first and aimed at avoiding total lockdown, although a much stricter approach was recommended by health experts.5
  • The implementation of crisis measures was aided by the country’s broad experience with digital society. Existing digital tools and widespread internet access enabled students and workers to continue their education without interruption. A well-functioning digital health system helped manage the acute crisis and avoid major administrative problems. Most public services in Estonia were already available online, and the share of e-government users is high.6 During the pandemic, new initiatives were added, such as online sick-leave applications, virtual healthcare, and digital contact tracing, which helped to alleviate stress on frontline healthcare workers and contain the spread of the virus. 7
  • The emergency situation facilitated the concentration of power in the hands of the executive. The national government took the lead in crisis management and was more empowered compared to other actors, such as the parliament or regional and municipal governments. By focusing on implementing restrictions and establishing daily press conferences, the central government employed authority and information as its main instruments of power. On the plus side, the strong central capacity enabled rapid, decisive action that helped contain the spread of the virus. The Estonian public, in turn, showed high levels of approval and compliance with government restrictions in the spring,8 and the majority of both coalition and opposition supporters were satisfied with how the government initially handled the crisis.9
  • However, the government pushed through legislative proposals in various policy areas in the midst of the crisis that extended beyond the immediate needs of the pandemic and undermined liberal democratic norms. The most controversial initiatives included changes in migration policy, a pension reform bill, and a government decision to invest in the oil shale industry. Amendments to the Aliens Act, one of the two major legislative acts that regulate immigration in Estonia, were introduced in the framework of the Emergency Act that amended several laws at once. The changes significantly curtailed migrant rights in Estonia, e.g., by revoking visas and residence/work permits of foreign workers from third (non-EU) countries if they become unemployed10 and restricting student mobility from outside the EU.11 The bill received harsh criticism from President Kersti Kaljulaid,12 employers,13 universities,14 and human rights organizations,15 among others. Second, the pension reform bill envisioned making the so-called second pillar of the pension system optional. The bill was eventually signed in October after the Supreme Court rejected President Kaljulaid’s appeal, which cited six constitutional violations and argued that it disproportionately violated people’s fundamental rights by reducing their pensions in the future.16 Lastly, the government’s €125 million investment in a new oil shale processing plant in Eastern Estonia17 appeared to be in stark contrast with the EU’s climate protection strategy, and has also been challenged over EU State aid rules.18
  • The Emergency Act increased powers granted to state agencies, most notably the Health Board, potentially enabling the government to avoid political responsibility in future crises.19 At the same time, the cabinet was viewed as interfering in the operation of key public organizations, resulting in several high-level officials resigning over differences of opinion with the government.20 These developments raised concerns over the continuing trend of politicizing public offices in Estonia.21
  • Aside from mitigating the health crisis, the government continued in 2020 to iron out problems caused by EKRE, the enfant terrible of the coalition. EKRE’s provocations crossed national borders in November when party leader Mart Helme called the U.S. presidential elections “falsified” and President-elect Joe Biden “corrupt.”22 The statement, which also gained attention abroad,23 was condemned at the highest level in Estonia by President Kaljulaid,24 Prime Minister Ratas,25 and top foreign policy experts,26 calling it endangering to Estonia’s reputation, security, and international relations. This tactical use of foreign policy in the interest of domestic political benefits undermined longtime diplomatic work with the country’s key allies. The scandal culminated with Helme resigning from his post as Minister of Interior, albeit with little remorse.27 Over just one and a half years in office, the cabinet witnessed as many as seven ministers step down amid various scandals, six of them from EKRE.
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 6.507 7.007
  • Elections in Estonia are free and fair: electoral laws function well, electoral authorities are impartial, and campaigning is generally conducted with equal opportunity. Internet voting is widespread and highly popular. In the 2019 elections to the Riigikogu—Estonia’s 101-seat, unicameral parliament—a record number (43.8 percent) of all votes were cast online,1 signaling high levels of public trust in the country’s e-voting system.
  • No elections were held in Estonia in 2020, but preparations began for the upcoming contests in 2021, the presidential election in August and, in particular, the municipal elections in October. A ban on outdoor political advertising on election day was reversed in 2019 to harmonize campaigning rules for Estonia’s electoral system, wherein an increasing number of people cast their votes during the early voting period when campaigning is still allowed.2
  • The president is indirectly elected by the parliament—or, if the two-thirds majority is not achieved in three rounds of voting, by an electoral body consisting of all members of parliament (MPs) and elected representatives of local government councils.3 The administrative-territorial reform completed in 2017, which decreased the number of municipalities from 213 to 79, reduces the proportion of local governments in the electoral body and the leverage of local representatives. The President of Estonia holds a largely ceremonial role, but President Kaljulaid has been active in the legislative process, exercising in several cases her legislative veto power,4 and she is vocal in daily politics, expressing frequent criticism of the government. This indicates that executive power in Estonia is diffused across institutional spheres. Still, because the head of state is not directly elected by popular vote, the presidential election receives a limited amount of public and media attention compared to other national elections.
  • Local government council elections take place every four years, and councils are elected directly by their local constituents. Local elections differ from parliamentary elections in that, alongside Estonian citizens, residents in the country from other EU member states and non-EU countries, as well as stateless persons residing in Estonia, have the right to vote. The voting age of 16 years is lower for local elections than the required age of 18 for national elections.5 These rules shape the campaign strategies of political parties, which attempt primarily to attract votes from the country’s large Russian-speaking minority, whose noncitizen members may partake in municipal elections.
  • In 2020, the main focus of political debate in advance of the 2021 local elections was the concept of marriage, a topic that has little to do with local issues. A proposed referendum—pushed by the populist, far-right EKRE and agreed upon by the coalition in March 2019—was originally scheduled to take place simultaneously with the 2021 local elections to ask the question of whether marriage should be defined in the constitution as “a lasting union between one man and one woman.”6 Referendums are extremely rare in Estonia, and holding the two votes at the same time would have been challenging since, as explained above, not everyone entitled to vote in local elections would have had the right to vote in the proposed referendum.7 In October, a government crisis broke out over homophobic comments by EKRE leader Mart Helme in an interview to Deutsche Welle. Prime Minister Ratas was desperate to hold his cabinet together, so to resolve the conflict, the referendum was rescheduled to take place in spring 2021.8 This serves EKRE’s interests by allowing the party to fulfill its central electoral promise even earlier than planned. The legislative battle over the referendum began in December when the first reading of the draft favoring the government’s position very narrowly passed in the parliament,9 but the opposition obstructed the bill by proposing thousands of amendments.10 Thus the year ended with uncertainty over the referendum while deeply polarizing Estonian society on the issue and disrupting democratic procedures in the parliament.
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 6.256 7.007
  • Although private financing for the civic sector is growing in Estonia, civil society organizations (CSOs) still largely operate on public funding. And because funding levels have remained unchanged for years, financial viability remains a central concern.1 This situation threatened to deteriorate further in July when the Ministry of Finance, under the leadership of the far-right EKRE, suspended financing for projects promoting equal opportunities and gender equality in the country.2 The affected nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) declared this political malice.3 As a response, Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) brought back the arrangement of suspended subsidies under his own ministry, and funding for these NGOs resumed.4
  • Following a proposal by EKRE, the government decided to grant €141,000 from the state budget to the anti-abortion NGO Elu Marss (March for Life), making it the largest beneficiary of the direct regional investments scheme. The organization had been in existence for just four months, and during that time had organized only one anti-abortion march, which took place in August in the capital Tallinn. Abortion has been legal in Estonia since 1991, but EKRE has politicized the issue over the past several years. During that time, political support, in the form of funding, has also increased to religious organizations.5
  • Amid the coronavirus outbreak in spring 2020, the government introduced an array of emergency measures, some of which seemed at odds with civil rights like freedom of movement and assembly. Yet the public showed a high degree of approval and compliance with the measures.6 A series of surveys conducted in May, September, and November indicated that more than 80 percent of the population believed that the restrictions did not breach any human rights.7 A small-scale anti-mask protest took place in November, attracting some 200 participants.8
  • Within the country, no major discrimination occurred on national or ethnic grounds as a result of the emergency measures.9 Meanwhile, residents without Estonian citizenship rated the state of their civil rights as lower than those of Estonian citizens, though attitudes did not worsen in 2020 compared to past years.10 However, government restrictions significantly reduced the mobility of foreign workers and students from third countries. The restrictions were followed up with a bill seeking to amend the Aliens Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Study Allowances and Study Loans Act,11 all of which concern working, studying, and residing in Estonia. The new bill extends well beyond the emergency situation and has been regarded as unjustified,12 while also signaling ideological motivations behind the legislative process.
  • On March 20, Estonia unexpectedly joined five other Eastern European countries in activating Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which enables—in a time of war or other public emergency—the authority to partly restrict freedoms, including religious freedoms and freedom of expression. Along these lines, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) warned that emergency measures that step outside core civil rights may be required in order to resolve the coronavirus crisis.13 While these threats never materialized, the willingness to derogate from established democratic civil and political rights drew harsh criticism from judicial experts and human rights organizations, not least because no discussion preceded the decision and no explanation followed.14
  • A referendum on the legal definition of marriage was scheduled for spring 2021, mobilizing movements on both the conservative and liberal ends of the political spectrum. The NGO Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition (SAPTK) is the key player campaigning to define marriage as between one man and one woman.15 The referendum’s “no” side is led by the Liberal Citizen foundation (SALK), a new civic association set up to counterbalance the conservative view.16 Both movements rely in large part on private donations, but because NGOs have no obligation to reveal the names of their donors, fears surfaced over hidden political financing through civic organizations.17 The liberal-minded SALK has declared that it will keep its funding transparent.18
  • In October, a scandal broke out when Mart Helme, the leader of EKRE and the Interior Minister, made aggressively disparaging remarks about the LGBT+ community in an interview on Deutsche Welle’s Russian service.19 The statement caused a backlash on the political20 and societal21 levels, while driving a wedge between coalition partners with differing stances on LGBT+ issues.22 The European Commission started infringement proceedings against Estonia, together with Romania, as the only EU countries where hate speech is not criminalized.23
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 6.256 7.007
  • In 2020, media ownership remained highly concentrated in Estonia, casting doubts over the sector’s autonomy, editorial independence, and journalistic freedom. Still, freedom of speech is protected, and criticism of the government has a strong presence in the media. The power of this criticism was illustrated when media pressure led to the resignation of Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center Party) in November as news outlets revealed her use of public resources for personal benefit.1
  • During the year, the coalition’s junior partner EKRE carried on with its verbal attacks toward liberal media and, in particular, Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR). In addition to making degrading remarks about its journalists,2 EKRE accused ERR of being propagandistic3 and initiated a bill aimed at ensuring its “political balance.” The proposed bill sparked a strong backlash for its attempt to subject ERR to government control.4
  • Coronavirus-related topics were center stage in the news media throughout the year. During the emergency situation, all paper and electronic media outlets provided continuous coverage, and ERR carried daily live transmissions of press conferences held by the government and health authorities.5 In addition, the government set up a crisis-related website,6 and the Emergency Response Center launched a free 24/7 hotline providing timely and detailed information in Estonian, Russian, and English.
  • One major incident of disinformation occurred, however, when news spread on social media on March 16 that Tallinn would be locked down and the sale of alcohol would be stopped. The government quickly refuted the rumors and labeled them a deliberate distribution of false information.7
  • To cope with the negative economic impacts of the pandemic and sharp decreases in advertising revenue, media organizations introduced temporary pay cuts (including at Õhtuleht, Postimees, and Ekspress Grupp), reduced the size of their publications (Postimees), or decreased the frequency of their publishing schedules (Äripäev).8 The financial daily Äripäev never returned to its pre-crisis business model and instead became a weekly with more emphasis on digital content.
  • Estonia-based Russian-language media remained relatively weak compared to the powerful media channels of Russia, but the need for timely and accurate information about the domestic coronavirus situation boosted the ratings of local media outlets. Estonia’s only Russian-language TV channel, ETV+, doubled its viewership compared to preceding months, reaching 4.6 percent of the daily share among non-Estonians.9 Mihhail Kõlvart (Center Party), the first Russian-speaking Mayor of Tallinn, is a key opinion leader for this segment of the population. Under his leadership, Tallinn City Government initiated the program “Tallinna uudised” [Tallinn News] on Pervõi Baltiiski Kanal (PBK),10 a popular Russian channel in the Baltics (10.9 percent of the daily share among non-Estonians11). This collaboration was criticized, including by President Kaljulaid, for guiding viewers back into the Russian information space and contributing to Russian propaganda.12
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 5.756 7.007
  • Local self-government is guaranteed by the Estonian constitution, according to which “all local matters are determined and administered by local authorities” (Article 154).1 There are 79 local government units in Estonia, including 15 towns and 64 rural municipalities.2 The numbers were reduced with an administrative-territorial reform, completed in 2017, aimed at increasing the capabilities of municipalities and ensuring more consistent regional development.
  • Estonia is a small, centralized country with vertical dispersion of authority, thus management of the COVID-19 crisis was concentrated in the hands of the central government. This allowed a rapid, decisive, and uniform response to the outbreak nationwide, with the exception of the most affected regions.3 Yet local governments witnessed shrinking revenue bases amid the pandemic, and new expenses related to social benefits and personal protective equipment (PPE). To alleviate the damages and stimulate business, €130 million was allocated to local governments from the state’s supplementary crisis budget. Still, several municipalities were forced to make cuts and cancel planned investments due to the fiscal gap.4
  • In the spring, Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island, became the country’s initial coronavirus epicenter. The island constitutes only 2.5 percent of the population, but in March and April, it had the majority of the country’s hospitalized patients.5 An estimated half of the island’s population contracted the virus. The Saaremaa outbreak is associated with a volleyball match, held in early March, that hosted a club from Milan, Italy. Criticism over allowing the match to take place led to the resignation of the island’s mayor.6 To mitigate the spread of the virus, Saaremaa was closed off from the rest of the country, causing mild protests among islanders who were not able to get to the mainland for work.7 These movement restrictions were lifted on May 18.
  • In the fall, infection rates surged primarily in Tallinn and the Russian-speaking part of the country, Ida-Virumaa. In December, Ida-Virumaa was practically locked down amid unprecedented case numbers.8 Schools were closed across the nation, causing dissatisfaction with universal rather than targeted measures given the pandemic had demonstrated great regional variation.9
  • In 2020, political parties began active preparations for the local government council elections to be held on October 17, 2021. In Tallinn, Mayor Kõlvart, favored by the Russian-speaking population, made efforts to gain visibility. Under the pretense of addressing COVID-19, his municipal government launched a Russian-language news program in March on PBK, a popular Russian TV channel in the Baltics. Although originally planned to last for two months only, the program was brought back in August and has since focused on local city news instead of the pandemic.10 In the fall, the city government introduced coronavirus measures that were stricter than elsewhere in the country, which some health experts considered disproportionate.11
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 6.507 7.007
  • Estonia’s judicial framework remained strong in 2020, and the country ranked among the top three EU member states for speed and efficiency of the judicial system. Estonia also received high marks for the availability of IT tools, especially during the pandemic; the court databases and e-File system facilitated judicial processes and enabled the exchange of information between different parties.1
  • On the flip side, it was pointed out that the statistics on efficiency do not consider criminal law proceedings, which tend to be slow in Estonia. In addition, workload is unevenly distributed between courts, leading to varying levels of efficiency.2 Trust in the independence of the judicial system is not very high on average (57 percent among the general public and 39 percent among companies).3 Concerns over favoritism within the justice system have also been raised, e.g., in relation to instances of promoting judicial employees based on loyalty rather than merit.4
  • Throughout the pandemic and the emergency situation, courts continued their regular operations. People were asked to submit appeals electronically or in written form, and hearings were either postponed or held digitally.5 The postponement of hearings primarily concerned criminal cases, which require the physical presence of prisoners at court. But the use of digital tools meant that the overall efficiency of the courts did not suffer significantly during the pandemic.6
  • During the emergency situation, visits to prison inmates were banned, and prison guards switched to five-day shifts and remained on-site during their time off.7 Prisoners were largely confined to cells, and out-of-cell activities, including joint activities and walks, were halted. Inmates were given access to additional reading material, crossword puzzles, and TV channels, but they were prevented from taking fresh-air breaks and their options for calling relatives were reduced, measures that were regarded as unjustified by the Chancellor of Justice.8 Restrictions were lifted when the emergency situation ended on May 18. Longer visits to prisons were again banned starting from October, but short-term visits were still allowed. In the spring, no coronavirus cases were detected among inmates, but two of Estonia’s largest prisons experienced large virus outbreaks in the fall.9
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 5.255 7.007
  • In 2020, Estonia was still recovering from the devastating blow of high-profile corruption in the banking sector that surfaced in 2018–19. Money laundering of over €200 billion in illicit funds of mostly Russian origin is alleged to have taken place between 2007 and 2015 in the Tallinn branch of the Danish-owned Danske Bank, and also linked to Swedish banks Swedbank and SEB. Investigations are still ongoing in Estonia and elsewhere. Danske Bank has since been ordered to close its branches in the Baltics, and over 10 predicate offenses are being processed.1 The head office of Swedbank received a fine of approximately €360 million for failing to combat money laundering in its Baltic operations.2 SEB was fined €1 million for deficiencies in its money-laundering prevention activities in Estonia.3
  • In June, Finance Minister Martin Helme (EKRE) hired Louis Freeh, a U.S. lawyer and former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director, to represent Estonia in international money-laundering hearings.4 But a nontransparent deal using taxpayer funds to pay the lawyer’s €3-million fee was met with great controversy. Freeh is claimed to have been involved in a money-laundering case with links to the Kremlin, channeling money through the very same Tallinn branch of Danske Bank that is at the center of the investigation.5 Government members had been warned by several state agencies about the agreement presenting a conflict of interest, including by the Estonian Embassy in Washington that conducted background checks and issued a critical memo on Freeh.6
  • The government launched a number of measures to relieve the economic impact of COVID-19, but suspicions surged that the distribution of financial aid was politically influenced. In September, the government agreed to give a loan on overly favorable terms to the Porto Franco real estate development in the Tallinn port area, led by an entrepreneur whose father donated €60,000 to the incumbent Center Party around the same time.7 The prime minister’s party has denied links between the donation and the support loan,8 which was also criticized for not being of strategic importance9 and for creating an unfair competitive advantage.10 In the agricultural sector, emergency aid was given to companies that have strong political ties. Many of the recipients had little to do with rural affairs or did not actively operate at all, and several had previously been involved in subsidy fraud. Almost all council members of the foundation that issued the loans belong to one of the three governing parties.11 The National Audit Office found that the terms for allocating close to a billion euros of extraordinary loans during the pandemic were vague.12
  • In a highly controversial move, the coalition parties submitted a bill in May to abolish the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) and transfer its responsibilities to the National Audit Office. The ERJK is an independent body that monitors the legality of political party financing in Estonia. The coalition’s initiative failed after the parliamentary opposition blocked the bill, which would have been a worrying move toward reducing control and sanctions for illicit funding and, in particular, would have helped the ruling Center Party escape responsibility for prior offenses.13

Author: Dr. Liisa Talving, PhD, is a Research Fellow in Comparative Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. Her areas of research include electoral studies, voting behavior, and public opinion.

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