Estonia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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In March 2005, Juhan Parts resigned as prime minister after parliament passed a vote of no confidence against Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher over his proposed anticorruption measures. The Reform Party's Andrus Ansip was confirmed as the new prime minister. Relations with Moscow deteriorated after Russia withdrew from the border treaty signed in May.
Dominated by Sweden in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and annexed by Russia in 1704, Estonia became independent in 1918. Soviet troops occupied the country during World War II, following a secret protocol in the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact that forcibly incorporated Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the USSR. 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. It adopted a new constitution in July 1992 and held its first legislative elections in September of the same year. Russian troops withdrew from Estonia in August 1994.

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

In 2005, the squabbling between Res Publica and the Reform Party increased, mainly over Parts's decision to ask President Arnold Ruutel to replace two of Reform's ministers. In November 2004, the defense minister, Margus Hanson, was dismissed after classified documents, which under the law should not be removed from government premises, were stolen from his home. In February 2005, Foreign Minister Kristina Ojuland was forced to resign following the disappearance of 91 confidential documents from the Foreign Ministry. In Ojuland's case, the Reform Party was dissatisfied that Parts had opted to publicly announce the decision to sack the minister instead of privately asking Ojuland to resign from her post.

The crisis came to a head in March 2005, after Parts chose to resign his post as prime minister following a vote of no confidence that the parliament had passed against Vaher, the justice minister. Vaher's political descent began after he announced plans to implement a quota system for how many corruption cases needed to be prosecuted every year in each region by each prosecutor. In the view of many in the public, such a proposal was reminiscent of the old Soviet regime from which they wanted to distance themselves. Parts's resignation resulted in the formation of a new cabinet headed by the Reform Party's Andrus Ansip, who assumed the post of prime minister.

In 2005, Estonia's relations with Russia continued to deteriorate. In March, Ruutel declined an invitation to attend celebrations in Moscow marking the end of World War II because of the Estonian population's still-passionate feelings about Soviet postwar occupation of Estonia. In May, the two countries signed a long-anticipated border treaty, which did not survive its infancy. In June, the Estonian parliament introduced an amendment to the agreement referring to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which provoked Russia to withdraw from the treaty.

Estonia was admitted to NATO in March 2004, and it joined the European Union (EU) the same year. Following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in May 2005, Estonian support for the constitution decreased. However, the Estonian government does not plan to hold a national referendum on the issue and will continue the process of ratification of the EU constitution. In September, the government approved the plan to adopt the euro by January 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Estonians can change their government democratically. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member, unicameral legislature, the 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. The prime minister is chosen by the president and confirmed by the parliament. 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. The Center Party of Estonia was able to capture 25.4 percent of the vote, Res Publica 24.6 percent, Estonian Reform Party 17.7 percent, Estonian People's Union 13 per-cent, Pro Patria Union (Fatherland League) 7.3 percent, and People's Party Moodukad 7 percent. With the October 2005 local elections, Estonia became the first country in the world to enable citizens to vote countrywide over the internet.

Estonia is considered the least corrupt country in the former Soviet Union. Corruption in the national government is low, although some concerns exist at the local level due to the lack of oversight mechanisms. Estonia is among the world's leaders in the use of e-government: an impressively transparent system makes government decisions almost instantaneously available on the internet, where Estonians may comment and exchange views. Estonia was ranked 27 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government respects freedom of speech and the press. Three national television stations, including two in private hands, broadcast both Estonian- and Rus-sian-language programs. However, considering the size of the Russian population in Estonia, the proportion of programs in the Russian language remains small. 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 language other than Estonian 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, by 2007, mandates the use of Estonian as the language of instruction in what are currently Russian-language schools.

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association, and the government respects these rights in practice. The civil society sector is vibrant, although many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) still face some organizational and financial challenges. The government involves NGOs in drafting of legislation and NGOs are invited to testify on pending policies. 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, when 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 that 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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (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 and 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 business positions and in the government. The Gender Equality Act, which entered into force in May 2004, stipulates legal penalties for discrimination based on sex. Although the principle of equal pay in Estonia was established in 2001 through the amended Wages Act, the actual implementation of this regulation has fallen short. The study released by the Open Society Institute in May 2005 found that women in Estonia are paid approximately 25 to 30 percent less than men, which makes Estonia one of the worst performers in this respect within the group of 10 countries with which it joined the EU in 2004.