Freedom in the World
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After more than half a year of relative calm in Estonia's political life, the last four months brought both immediate and imminent changes to the country's most prominent government posts. In September, former Soviet Estonian leader Arnold Ruutel staged a surprising political comeback with his victory in the country's presidential election, while longtime opposition leader Edgar Savisaar became the new mayor of the capital city of Tallinn on December 13. Just six days later, Prime Minister Mart Laar announced that he would resign his post in January 2002.
After gaining its independence from Russia in 1918, Estonia was occupied and annexed by the U.S.S.R. during World War II. Under Soviet rule, approximately one-tenth of Estonia's population was deported, executed, or forced to flee abroad. Subsequent Russian immigration substantially altered the country's ethnic composition, with ethnic Estonians constituting 88 percent in the 1930s and just over 61 percent in 1989. Estonia regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Estonia's second post-independence parliamentary elections in March 1995 saw a shift to the center-left Coalition Party/Rural Union (KMU) over the right-of-center Pro Patria/Estonian National Independence Party coalition. The results reflected popular dissatisfaction among the elderly and rural electorate, who were hardest hit by the previous government's market reforms. The KMU subsequently formed a majority coalition government with the leftist Center Party, which held until October 1995, when the Center Party left the coalition amidst a wiretapping scandal and was replaced by the right-of-center Reform Party. In February 1997, Prime Minister Tiit Vahi resigned following allegations of corruption and Mart Siiman of the Coalition Party was named the new prime minister.
In March 1999 parliamentary elections, the Center Party won the largest percentage of votes, with 23.4 percent, capturing 28 of 101 seats. However, the Reform Party, Pro Patria, and the Moderates, who together took 53 seats, subsequently formed a center-right majority coalition government, with Pro Patria's Mart Laar named prime minister. The Center Party and its leader, Edgar Savisaar, with whom various political forces expressed reluctance to cooperate, was effectively forced into the opposition. The other three parties that secured enough votes to enter parliament included the centrist Coalition Party, the left-of-center Country People's Party, and the United People's Party, representing some of the country's ethnic Russian population.
After two previous unsuccessful bids in 1992 and 1996, former Soviet Estonian leader Arnold Ruutel surprised many poll watchers by capturing the presidency in the September 2001 presidential election; Lennart Meri, who had held the post for the last nine years, was prohibited by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. When no single candidate received the required two-thirds of the vote in parliament, the poll was moved to an electoral college consisting of all of the members of parliament plus 266 local government representatives. Among the reasons cited for Ruutel's victory were increasing popular disenchantment with the government, owing in part to a number of scandals in recent years involving high-level state officials, growing economic hardship in small towns and rural areas (in which most of the municipal government representatives reside), and the failure of the three-party national ruling coalition to rally behind a single candidate. Despite speculation that the election of Ruutel might lead to some alteration in government policy, any changes are likely to be limited since the post of president is largely ceremonial.
In a dramatic year-end development, the Reform Party decided in early December to withdraw from its three-party ruling coalition with Pro Patria and the Moderates in the Tallinn City Council and form a coalition with the opposition Center Party. According to Reform Party leaders, the decision was made for reasons including a plan by Tallinn Mayor Tonis Palts of Pro Patria to borrow $1.5 billion kroons ($86 million) in 2002, which they claimed would put the country in debt. On December 13, Palts lost a no-confidence vote initiated by the Center Party, whose chairman, Edgar Savisaar, was elected mayor by Tallinn's city council later that day. Less than one week later, Prime Minister Mart Laar of Pro Patria announced that he would resign in early January 2002. Laar explained his decision as the result of growing infighting among the national ruling coalition members, particularly following the Reform Party's break with the same coalition partners in Tallinn's City Council.
Estonia's economy continued to grow throughout 2001, although at a decelerated rate of five percent in the second quarter of the year. Privatization of the last major infrastructure and energy firms, which has been plagued by political and financial concerns, proceeded slowly. In April, the long-awaited and often scandal-ridden sale of 66 percent of Estonian Railways to a consortium of U.S., British, and Estonian investors was finalized. EU membership remained high on the country's political and economic agenda throughout the year, with Estonia having closed 19 of 31 negotiation chapters by late 2001.
Estonians can change their government democratically. However, the country's citizenship law has been criticized for disenfranchising many Russian speakers who arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are regarded as immigrants who must apply for citizenship. Although noncitizens may not participate in national elections, they can vote, but not serve as candidates, in local elections. In November 2001, parliament approved the abolition of Estonian language requirements for candidates to parliament and local councils. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited this development as a key factor in the group's decision to end its nine-year mission in Estonia at the end of 2001. Parliament also adopted legislation in late 2001 making Estonian the official working language of both parliament and local councils, although the government may grant local councils the right to use another language if it is the language of the majority of permanent residents in that locality. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member unicameral legislature elected for four-year terms, with a prime minister serving as head of government and a president as head of state. After the first president was chosen by popular vote in 1992, subsequent presidential elections reverted to parliamentary ballot. According to international observers, the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections were free and fair.
The government respects freedom of speech and the press. There are three national television stations, including two in private hands, that broadcast both Estonian- and Russian-language programs. Dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations offer diverse viewpoints. Religious freedom is respected in law and practice in this predominantly Lutheran country.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government respects this provision in practice. Political parties are allowed to organize freely, although only citizens may be members. Workers have the right to organize freely, to strike, and to bargain collectively, and the main trade unions operate independently of the state.
While the judiciary is independent and generally free from government interference, the quality of some court decisions and the heavy workloads of many judges continue to be areas of concern. There have been reports that some police officers physically or verbally abuse suspects. Despite ongoing improvements in the country's prison system, overcrowding, a lack of financial resources, and inadequately trained staff remain problems.
Of Estonia's population of 1.4 million, more than 1 million are Estonian citizens, of which some 115,000 have been naturalized since 1992. Although the exact number of illegal aliens is unknown, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 individuals are thought to be living in Estonia without proper documentation, including temporary or permanent residence permits. In May 2001, parliament adopted legislation setting out specific requirements of Estonian language proficiency for private sector employees, such as pilots, rescue workers, and teachers; the law built upon a previous amendment to the language law passed in June 2000 requiring that Estonian be used in areas of the private sector in which it would be in the public interest, such as health or safety.
Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be underrepresented in senior-level business positions and the government.