Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Although initially expected to win a second term, Arnold Ruutel was defeated in Estonia’s 2006 presidential election by a former foreign minister, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The vote, which three rounds of balloting in Parliament failed to resolve, was decided by a simple majority vote in an expanded electoral college that included representatives from local governments. In foreign relations, Estonia voted to ratify the European Union (EU) constitutional treaty. Meanwhile, little progress was made on finalizing an Estonian-Russian border treaty.
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.
Despite securing the largest percentage of votes in March 1999 parliamentary elections, the left-wing Center Party of Estonia was forced into the opposition when the Reform Party, Pro Patria, and the Moderates (now known as the Estonian Social Democratic Party) formed a center-right majority coalition government. Pro Patria’s Mart Laar, who was named prime minister, resigned in January 2002 amid growing infighting among the ruling coalition members; he was replaced by Reform Party leader Siim Kallas.
In March 2003 parliamentary elections, the Center Party and Res Publica, a newly formed right-of-center party, each captured 28 seats in the 101-seat Parliament. Despite his party’s having received 4,000 fewer votes than the Center Party, Res Publica head Juhan Parts outmaneuvered Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar to form a centrist ruling coalition with the Reform Party and the People’s Union and became prime minister.
In 2005, tensions mounted between Res Publica and the Reform Party, including over Parts’s decision to ask President Arnold Ruutel to replace two Reform Party ministers. The crisis came to a head in March, when Parts stepped down as prime minister after Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher. Vaher had announced plans to implement a quota system for the number of corruption cases to be prosecuted, a move that many in the country regarded as reminiscent of Soviet-era practices. 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 April.
In the months leading up to the August 2006 election for president, who is selected by members of Parliament, five of the country’s main political parties—Pro Patria, Res Publica, the Reform Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Center Party—began formal consultations to find a joint candidate to succeed Ruutel. After initially putting forward the names of 12 candidates whom they could support, the parties reduced the list to two possibilities: Deputy Parliament Speaker Ene Ergma and former foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ruutel announced that he would stand for the presidency only during a possible subsequent vote by the electoral college (composed of the 101 members of Parliament and 246 local government representatives), which takes place if no candidate receives two-thirds of the vote in Parliament in three rounds of voting. According to most analysts, Ruutel’s chance of reelection would be high in the electoral college, since many local government leaders tended to back Ruutel’s party, the People’s Union. In addition, the Center Party formally declared its support for Ruutel’s candidacy in mid-August, further increasing his chances of securing a second term in office.
In an expected outcome, neither Ilves nor Ergma secured the necessary two-thirds of the vote to become president during the parliamentary rounds of voting held on August 28 and 29; the four parties that had put forward the two candidates had only 65 seats in Parliament. Deputies from the Center Party and the People’s Union boycotted the vote. However, in the subsequent vote by the electoral college on September 23, Ilves captured 174 votes, while Ruutel gathered only 162. (A simple majority was required for victory.) The final result was regarded in part as a protest against the parties supporting Ruutel, which had forced the failure of the parliamentary round of voting and the formation of the electoral college. The outcome was also seen as a rejection of former Soviet-era leader Ruutel in favor of the more youthful Ilves, who was raised in the United States.
Estonia’s relations with Russia continued to show some signs of strain during 2006. In May 2005, the two countries signed a long-anticipated border treaty. However, in June of that year, the Estonian Parliament introduced an amendment to the agreement referring to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which provoked Russia to withdraw its signature from the treaty. As of late 2006, little progress had been made on resolving the status of the border treaty.
Estonia achieved two of its long-standing foreign policy goals when it was admitted to NATO in March 2004 and joined the European Union (EU) the same year. In May 2006, Estonia’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of ratifying the EU Constitutional Treaty. Meanwhile, the government’s plan to adopt the euro by January 2007 was delayed indefinitely because of Estonia’s growing inflation rate.
Estonia is an electoral democracy. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member, unicameral legislature, the Riigikogu, whose members are elected for four-year terms. A prime minister serves as head of government, and a president with a five-year term fills 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 Parliament. The 1995, 1999, and 2003 parliamentary elections were free and fair. Political parties are allowed to organize freely, though only citizens may be members. The country’s two main right-wing parties, Pro Patria and Res Publica, merged in 2006 to become the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. Other political parties in Estonia include the Center Party, Reform Party, Estonian Social Democratic Party, Estonian United People’s Party, and the Estonian People’s Union.
Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem. Estonia is among the world’s leaders in the use of e-government. Government decisions are almost instantly available on the internet, where Estonians may comment and exchange views. Estonia was ranked 24 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government respects freedoms of speech and of the press. Three national television stations, including two in private hands, 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.
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice in this predominantly Lutheran country. Estonia has very few restrictions on academic freedom. In March, the government adopted a plan of action that calls for 60 percent Estonian-language instruction in what are currently Russian-language high schools by 2011.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights. Civil society is vibrant, though many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) still face some financial challenges. The government involves NGOs in the drafting of legislation, and the groups’ representatives are invited to testify on pending policies. Workers have the right to organize freely, to strike, and to bargain collectively. While these rights are for the most part respected in practice, the Estonian Confederation of Trade Unions has reported antiunion discrimination in the private sector.
The judiciary is independent and generally free from government interference. Laws prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention are largely observed, though lengthy pretrial detention periods remain a concern. There have been reports that some police officers physically or verbally abuse suspects. Despite ongoing improvements in the country’s prison system, conditions remain poor and many facilities are overcrowded. In September, Parliament passed legislation allowing the use of electronic surveillance devices on convicts released on parole; if successful, the system could be used as an alternative to pretrial and short-term detentions.
Many ethnic Russians arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are now regarded as immigrants who must apply for citizenship through a process that includes Estonian-language capability. The use of Estonian is required in certain work environments, including among public sector employees, service personnel, and medical professionals. In December 2006, Amnesty International released a report charging that Estonia’s Russian-speaking population faces discrimination in education and employment because of language and citizenship requirements for employment and limited possibilities to study in Russian in institutions of higher education. For the first time since the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the number of naturalized citizens has exceeded that of stateless persons: some 141,000 were naturalized as of 2006, while approximately 136,000 residents are noncitizens. Although noncitizens may not participate in national elections, they can vote (but not serve as candidates) in local elections.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they continue to be underrepresented in senior business positions and do not always receive equal pay for equal work. About one-fifth of the members of Parliament are women. Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. In January 2006, the government adopted a national action plan to address trafficking and established a database to provide information on trafficking-related issues.