Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Estonia’s economy continued to worsen in 2009, with unemployment reaching a post-independence high of 14.5 percent. Disputes over how to cut government spending and lower the country’s budget deficit while maintaining social guarantees led to the disintegration of the three-party ruling coalition.
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 reduced ethnic Estonians to just over 61 percent of the population by 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.
After the 2003 legislative elections, the newly formed right-leaning Res Publica party outmaneuvered the left-wing Center Party to form a centrist coalition government with the Reform Party and the People’sUnion. In March 2005, a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the justice minister prompted Res Publica leader Juhan Parts to step down as prime minister, leaving the position to the Reform Party’s Andrus Ansip. Former foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves defeated incumbent Arnold Ruutel in the country’s 2006 presidential vote.
In the March 2007 parliamentary elections, the Reform Party captured 31 seats, followed closely by the Center Party with 29 seats. The Reform Party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed a left-right coalition, and Ansip stayed on as prime minister.
The new government faced a major crisis in April 2007, when plans to relocate a Soviet World War II memorial and exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried at the site touched off protests, mostly by young ethnic Russians. The demonstrations erupted into two days of violence, as police responded with tear gas and water cannons to widespread looting and vandalism. The monument, the Bronze Soldier, was moved from its original place in the center of Tallinn to a nearby military cemetery. Meanwhile, protesters from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi surrounded the Estonian embassy in Moscow for days, harassing the country’s diplomats, and large-scale cyber attacks took down Estonian commercial and governmental websites. 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. In January 2009, four alleged organizers of the riots, members of pro-Kremlin groups, were acquitted for their role in the crisis due to lack of evidence. In June, the government revealed the Victory Monument of the War of Independence on Freedom Square in Tallinn, only a short walk from the Bronze Soldier’s former location.
The economy took a turn for the worse in 2009—with unemployment reaching 14.5 percent in December—and disputes over budget cuts broke up the ruling coalition. At the center of the conflict was how to manage the budget deficit in light of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) entering into law on July 1, which was meant to simultaneously increase social guarantees and labor market flexibility. The Reform Party and the IRL advocated further cuts to unemployment benefits, while the SDP proposed raising the unemployment insurance tax rate in lieu of benefit reductions. The SDP left the coalition on May 25, leaving the Reform Party and the IRL to rule as a 50-seat minority government through the end of the year. October’s local election results, with the Center Party gaining twice as many votes as the Reform Party, raised further concerns about the future of the ruling coalition.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Estonia is an electoral democracy. Elections have been free and fair, and the 2007 polls were the world’s first parliamentary elections to employ internet voting; about 30,000 people voted online. 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.
In advance of local elections in October 2009, the Tallinn City Council agreed on a plan to include the entire city of Tallinn into one electoral district. The plan would have provided the Center Party, which currently holds a majority on the Council, with an even greater advantage, but was thwarted by Parliament in February. Estonia saw its largest voter turnout rate in October’s local elections with about sixty percent of the population showing up to the polls. Only citizens may participate in national elections, though resident noncitizens may vote (but not run as candidates) in local elections. About 10 percent of Parliament members are ethnic minorities.
Political parties 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. In the June 2009 European Parliamentary elections, journalist Indrek Tarand brought in the highest results in Estonia’s electoral history for an independent candidate.
Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem in Estonia, which was ranked 27 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index. In May 2009, three individuals, including a former government minister, were found guilty of attempted bribery regarding the sale of an environment ministry building; the former minister received a suspended jail sentence, and the other two defendants were given fines. A new anticorruption law is expected to come into force in 2010. 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. In addition to the public broadcaster, Estonian Television, there are a variety of commercial channels and independent newspapers and radio stations. In 2009, financial reasons were given for closing down a Russian language television channel and a daily newspaper. There are no government restrictions on access to the internet, and Estonia is among the leading countries in the world with regard to internet penetration.
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice. Estonia built its only synagogue in 2007 to serve the country’s 2,500 person Jewish community. Estonia does not restrict academic freedom. In 2009, the government continued to implement a program calling for 60 percent Estonian-language instruction in the country’s public Russian-language high schools by 2011.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights in practice. Public gatherings may be prohibited to ensure public safety. 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. Approximately 10 percent of the country’s workers are union members. In June 2009, the Baltic Trade Union Youth Forum organized a protest of 500 people outside the Parliament building against the ECA.
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. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and limited access to medical care, although the opening of a new prison in July 2008 reduced crowding. In March 2009, the Estonian court sentenced Herman Simm, a former civil servant who was allegedly passing state secrets to the Russian government, to twelve years and six months in prison on counts of treason and sharing classified information.
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. At the end of 2009, about 100,000 people, or just over 7 percent of the country’s population, were of undetermined citizenship, according to the Estonian government. The authorities have adopted policies to assist those seeking Estonian citizenship, including funding Estonian language courses. The use of Estonian is mandatory in certain work environments, including among public-sector employees, medical professionals, and service personnel. In 2009, an Estonian Integration Fund project offered classes for public safety, educational, management, and healthcare employees with knowledge of basic Estonian to help improve their language skills. The same year, however, the government stopped translating law documents from Estonian to Russian, citing budget losses. 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 and provided in practice.
Though women enjoy the same legal rights as men, women earn on average about 30 percent less than men. 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.