Estonia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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The planned relocation of a controversial World War II monument in April 2007 sparked two days of rioting in the capital that left one person dead and some 150 injured. The crisis, which was quickly followed by a series of cyber attacks against Estonian websites, as well as anti-Estonian demonstrations in Moscow, further strained Estonia’s relations with Russia. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections in March led to a ruling coalition comprising the Reform Party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, and the Social Democratic Party, with Andrus Ansip returning as prime minister.

Estonia gained independence from Russia in 1918, but it was captured—along with Latvia and Lithuania—by Soviet troops 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. It adopted a new constitution in July 1992 and held its first legislative elections in September of that year. Russian troops withdrew from Estonia in 1994.

In 2003 legislative elections, the left-wing Center Party and Res Publica, a newly formed right-of-center party, each captured 28 seats in the 101-seat Parliament. Res Publica leader Juhan Parts became prime minister after outmaneuvering Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar to form a centrist coalition with the Reform Party and the People’s Union.

Mounting tensions between Res Publica and the Reform Party came to a head in March 2005, when Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher, prompting Parts to step down as prime minister. 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 premiership in April.

Although initially expected to win a second term, President Arnold Ruutel was defeated in Estonia’s 2006 presidential election by a former foreign minister, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The poll, which three rounds of balloting in Parliament in August had failed to resolve, was decided the next month through a simple majority vote by an expanded electoral college that included representatives from local governments.

In the March 4, 2007, parliamentary elections, the Reform Party captured 27.8 percent of the vote and 31 seats, followed closely by the Center Party, with 26.1 percent and 29 seats. The Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica placed third with 17.9 percent and 19 seats. The remainder was won by the Social Democratic Party (10 seats), the Greens (6 seats), and the People’s Union (6 seats). Despite its second-place finish, the Center Party was not included in the new government. Instead, the Reform Party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, and the Social Democratic Party formed a coalition, and Ansip returned as prime minister.

The new government faced a major crisis in April, as the authorities began preparations to relocate a controversial Soviet World War II memorial, known as the Bronze Soldier, from the center of Tallinn, and to exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried next to the statue. While many of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population regarded the monument as a tribute to those who fought Nazi Germany, ethnic Estonians generally saw it as a symbol of Soviet occupation. Hundreds of protesters, many of them apparently young ethnic Russians, gathered at the site. The demonstrations erupted into two days of violence on April 26 and 27, as police responded with tear gas and water cannons to widespread looting and vandalism. About 150 people were injured, 1 protester died, and some 1,200 people were detained by police, though most were held only briefly. The monument, which was hastily removed from its site on April 27, was relocated to a nearby military cemetery.

The crisis provoked a response in Moscow, where protesters from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi surrounded and besieged the Estonian Embassy for days, harassed the country’s diplomats, and disrupted a news conference with the Estonian ambassador. In what some observers described as the world’s first “cyber war,” various Estonian government and commercial websites suffered a series of large-scale cyber attacks for several weeks beginning on April 27, forcing them to shut down temporarily. The initial attacks were reportedly traced to internet addresses registered in Russia, including some in the presidential administration, although direct links to the Russian government could not be proven.

These events caused Estonia’s already strained relations with Russia to deteriorate further. The relocation of the Bronze Soldier provoked angry condemnation from Russian officials, including calls to sever diplomatic relations with or impose sanctions on Estonia. Meanwhile, members of the Estonian government and some analysts accused Russia of provoking the protests in Estonia and Moscow and orchestrating the cyber attacks in an attempt to inflame ethnic tensions and destabilize the country.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Estonia is an electoral democracy. The 1992 constitution established a 101-seat, unicameral Parliament, or 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, presidential elections reverted to parliamentary ballot. The prime minister is chosen by the president and confirmed by Parliament. Estonian elections have been free and fair. The 2007 polls were notable as the world’s first parliamentary elections to employ internet voting; about 30,000 people voted online. 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 major parties include the Center Party, the Reform Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the People’s Union.

Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem in Estonia, which was ranked 28 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. In late 2007, the security police announced a corruption probe into a land-exchange deal involving well-known political and business figures. Legal guarantees for public access to government information are respected in practice. Government decisions are almost instantly available on the internet, where Estonians may comment and exchange views.

The government respects freedom of the press. Three national television stations, including two in private hands, broadcast both Estonian- and Russian-language programs, and dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations offer diverse viewpoints. Estonia is one of the most internet-friendly countries in the world. The wave of cyber attacks in late April 2007 temporarily disrupted access to the online versions of some of the country’s newspapers.

Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice in this predominantly Lutheran country. A new synagogue—the only building in Estonia specifically designated for that purpose—opened in May 2007; the country’s Jewish community numbers approximately 2,500. Estonia does not restrict academic freedom. In September 2007, the government began implementing a plan calling for 60 percent Estonian-language instruction in Russian-language high schools by 2011.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights. Public gatherings may be prohibited to ensure public safety; in April 2007, an unauthorized demonstration against the relocation of a controversial World War II monument led to two nights of riots and looting in the capital. Civil society is vibrant, and the government involves nongovernmental organizations in the drafting of legislation. Although workers have the right to organize freely, strike, and bargain collectively, 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 and ensuring the right to a fair trial are largely observed, though lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern. There have been reports of police officers physically or verbally abusing suspects. During the April 2007 riots in Tallinn, some police allegedly used excessive force against demonstrators; of eight criminal cases opened against officers, charges were dropped in six, and two were pending at year’s end. Meanwhile, four ethnic Russians accused of organizing the riots were set to stand trial in January 2008. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and a shortage of funds.

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 requires knowledge of the Estonian language. The use of Estonian is mandatory in certain work environments, including among public sector employees, medical professionals, and service personnel. Recent reports by Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have criticized Estonia’s language and citizenship laws for discriminating against the Russian-speaking population, though both praised the government’s decision to reimburse the costs of Estonian language courses. Between 1992 and 2007, the proportion of de facto stateless residents in the population declined from 32 percent to just over 8 percent, with some 147,000 people acquiring Estonian citizenship during the same period. Only citizens may participate in national elections, though resident noncitizens may vote (but not serve as candidates) in local elections. The granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol is legally protected.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they do not always receive equal pay for equal work. About one-fifth of the members of Parliament are women. Violence against women, including domestic violence, remains a problem. Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. In August 2007, a gay rights parade in Tallinn proceeded peacefully.