Freedom in the World
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Longtime opposition leader Edgar Savisaar and his left-wing Center Party extended their influence at both the national and local governmental levels during 2002. Municipal elections in October led to Savisaar's reelection as mayor of the capital city, Tallinn, while the resignation of the prime minister in January paved the way for the Center Party to become a partner in the new national ruling coalition. In the foreign policy front, both the European Union (EU) and NATO extended invitations to Estonia for membership in 2004.
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 just over 61 percent of the population in 1989. Estonia regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Despite capturing the largest percentage of votes in the March 1999 parliamentary election, the left-wing Center Party was effectively forced into the opposition when the Reform Party, Pro Patria, and the Moderates subsequently formed a center-right majority coalition government with 53 seats. Pro Patria's Mart Laar was named prime minister. Various political forces had expressed reluctance to cooperate with the Center Party and its leader, Edgar Savisaar, who served as Estonia's prime minister from 1990 to 1992.
The last few months of 2001 witnessed several surprising or dramatic political developments, including the September victory of former Soviet Estonian leader Arnold Ruutel to the largely ceremonial post of president. In early December, the Tallinn City Council ruling coalition collapsed when the Reform Party withdrew and formed a new coalition with the opposition Center Party; Savisaar was subsequently elected the capital city's mayor. Prime Minister Laar announced in late December that he would resign in January 2002 because of growing infighting among the national ruling coalition members, particularly after the Reform Party's break with the same coalition partners in Tallinn's City Council.
On January 8, 2002, Prime Minister Laar fulfilled his pledge to step down and was replaced on January 22 by Reform Party leader and former central bank president Siim Kallas. The new national government mirrored that of Tallinn's city government, with the Reform Party and Center Party agreeing to form the ruling coalition. In the October 20 local elections, the Center Party emerged the clear winner in Tallinn, as well as in the largest northwestern cities of Narva and Kohtla-Jarve. The Center and Reform parties signed coalition agreements in Tallinn, of which Savisaar was reelected mayor, and in Tartu, where the Reform Party captured the most seats. Voter turnout was more than 52 percent, higher than for the previous 1996 or 1999 elections.
Estonia achieved two of its long-standing foreign policy goals in 2002, receiving formal invitations in November from NATO and in December from the EU to join both organizations in 2004. On December 18, parliament approved a September 14, 2003, national referendum to vote on Estonia's entering the EU. According to recent public opinion polls, popular support for EU membership is around the 50 percent mark.
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. 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 4-year terms, with a prime minister serving as head of government and a president in the largely ceremonial role of 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. In April 2002, the government officially registered the statutes of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is seeking recognition as the legal successor to the pre-World War II Orthodox Church in Estonia. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, was registered in 1993 and became the legal successor to the Orthodox Church, and thus the sole legal heir to the church's postwar property.
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 governmental interference, the quality of some court decisions and the heavy workloads of many judges continue to be areas of concern. In March 2002, Judge Merle Parts, who presides over cases involving organized crime, was shot and seriously wounded. 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. Approximately 170,000 people are noncitizens, with most having obtained permanent or temporary Estonian 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.