Estonia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Estonia's civil liberties score improved from 2 to 1 due to the effective implementation of judicial reforms and greater economic freedom.


Estonia achieved two of its main foreign policy goals in 2004 when it became a member of NATO in April and joined the European Union (EU) in May. The next month saw a low voter turnout for the country's first European parliamentary elections, in which the ruling coalition suffered a stern rebuke. Frequently strained relations with neighboring Russia deteriorated throughout the year. On the domestic front, judicial reforms enacted in 2002 continued to be implemented successfully, fortifying judicial independence and competence.

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.

The last few months of 2001 witnessed several dramatic political developments, including the September victory of former Soviet Estonian leader Arnold Ruutel to the largely ceremonial post of president. Prime Minister Mart 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, Laar fulfilled his pledge to step down; he was replaced on January 22 by Reform Party leader and former central bank president Siim Kallas.

In the March 2003, parliamentary elections, the Center Party and Res Publica, a newly formed right-of-center party, each garnered 28 seats in the 101-seat parliament. Despite his party's having received fewer votes than the Center Party, Res Publica chairman Juhan Parts outmaneuvered Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar to form a ruling coalition with the neoliberal Reform Party and the left-of-center People's Union.

Estonian participation in the June 13, 2004, elections to the European Parliament was the third lowest in the EU at 26.8 percent. Those that did vote voiced their disapproval of the ruling coalition by giving three out of six seats (36.8 percent) to the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP). The Reform Party was the only coalition member to win a seat (12.2 percent), with the Center Party (17.5 percent) and Pro Patria Union (10.5 percent) earning a seat each. The contest was unique in that while Estonians voted for individual candidates, seats were distributed by party on the basis of their candidates' proportion of the overall vote. Toomas Hendrik Ilves of the SDP led all candidates and will serve as the deputy chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. Former prime minister Siim Kallas of the Reform Party joined the 25-member European Commission on November 1, where he is one of five vice presidents and the only one from a country recently admitted to the EU. On September 3, the government decided to rule out a popular referendum on the new EU constitution, opting instead to ratify it in parliament.

In September, the minister of economy and communication, Meelis Atonen, resigned after failing to secure cabinet support for a new service agreement for a ferry company operating between the mainland and Estonia's two largest islands. Reform Party leader Andrus Ansip replaced him.

Estonian relations with Russia deteriorated significantly in 2004, perhaps worsened by Estonia's recent membership in the EU and NATO. Moscow has continued to accuse Tallinn of explicitly discriminating against Estonia's ethnic Russian minority, increasingly through international bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. Russia has warned against the presence of NATO bases or troops in Estonia and has repeatedly violated Estonian airspace. For its part, in March, Estonia expelled two Russia diplomats accused of spying. Following the completion of a 12-year study by a government commission in May, Estonia called for financial compensation from Russia for the damage caused by almost 50 years of Soviet occupation, and some leaders have urged the European Parliament to investigate and condemn Soviet communism. At a June conference about the Baltic Sea, the Russian prime minister refused to hold separate talks with his Estonian counterpart, signifying a recent nadir in Estonian-Russian relations.

Estonia, one of the world's most economically free countries, was ranked 4th out of the 155 countries surveyed in the Heritage Foundation's 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, the result of the country's successful efforts at maintaining a low inflation rate.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Estonians can change their government democratically. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member unicameral legislature (Riigikogu) elected for four-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. However, the current governing parties have agreed to endorse direct presidential elections, with a referendum on the necessary constitutional changes to be held along with local elections in October 2005. The March 2003 parliamentary elections were free and fair and were conducted in accordance with the comprehensive dictates of the recently implemented Riigikogu Election Act.

While progress has been made to combat corruption, it is still a concern. Prime Minister Juhan Parts has made his anticorruption election platform a priority of his administration. Estonia was ranked 31 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Estonia is among the world's leaders in e-government and features an impressively transparent system in which government decisions are almost instantly made available on the Internet, where Estonians may comment and exchange views.

The government respects freedom of speech and the press. There are three national television stations, including two in private hands, which broadcast both Estonian- and Russian-language programs. Dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations offer diverse viewpoints, and Estonia is one of the most Internet-friendly countries in the world. According to the U.S. State Department, the Law on Language prohibits the use of any foreign language on public signs, advertisements, and notices, including election posters.

Religious freedom is respected in law and practice in this predominantly Lutheran country. While Estonia has very few restrictions on academic freedom, both officials in Moscow and ethnic Russians living in Estonia have opposed legislation that mandates the use of Estonian as the language of instruction in what are currently Russian-language schools by 2007.

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 become members. Workers have the right to organize freely, to strike, and to bargain collectively. In December 2003, Estonia saw its first major strike since independence, where some 20,000 workers participated in a one-day strike coordinated by the Organization of Employee Unions and aimed at greater benefits for teachers and cultural workers.

The judiciary is independent and generally free from governmental interference. A courts act adopted in June 2002 intended to restrict executive influence over the judiciary continued to be successfully implemented, and a new criminal procedure code adopted in February 2003 took effect in the summer of 2004. As a result, the arbitrary, legally weak court decisions that were a feature of post-Soviet Estonia have become increasingly rare, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Heritage Foundation, and the U.S. and Canadian governments. 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 120,000 have been naturalized since 1992. Approximately 170,000 people are noncitizens, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Estonia's Citizenship Law has been criticized for effectively disenfranchising many Russian speakers through an excessively difficult naturalization process. Many ethnic Russians arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are now regarded as immigrants who must apply for citizenship, a process which requires Estonian language capability, five years' residency, and knowledge of the constitution and Citizenship Law. Although noncitizens may not participate in national elections, they can vote (but not serve as candidates) in local elections. The OSCE and other international organizations have found Estonia's citizenship laws to be satisfactory. In December 2003, the government passed legislation that allowed for reimbursement of 50 percent of the costs related to language and citizenship examinations for successful examinees; the EU reimburses the other 50 percent.

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 deemed to be in the public interest, such as health or safety. Despite allegations of discrimination against ethnic Russians in the workplace, education, housing, and social services, a July OSCE resolution on national minorities was not critical of Estonia. That same month, the Dutch ambassador to Russia, Tiddo Hofstee, affirmed Estonia's compliance with the Copenhagen criteria on the protection of ethnic minorities.

Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be underrepresented in senior-level business positions and in the government. Parliament has yet to pass a gender-equality act proposed in 2002. A study conducted in October by the Praxis Center for Policy Studies, an independent Estonian think tank, revealed that while the gender salary gap was decreasing, Estonian women earn an average of 73 percent of men's salaries. Trafficking in people is a problem, with many Estonian and Russian women trafficked from Estonia to Nordic countries and Western Europe.