Estonia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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Estonia in 2010 became the first former Soviet republic to be formally accepted into the euro currency zone, and was also admitted to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Political parties began preparing for the March 2011 parliamentary elections amid internal struggles and defections. Support for the center-right Reform Party, which led the ruling coalition, rose during the last months of the year.

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. The country joined both NATO and the European Union (EU) in 2004.
A series of shifting multiparty coalitions have held power since independence. Former foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves defeated incumbent Arnold Ruutel in the 2006 presidential vote. In the March 2007 parliamentary elections, the center-right Reform Party captured 31 seats, followed closely by the left-leaning Center Party with 29 seats. The Reform Party, the right-leaning Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) then formed a coalition, and Andrus Ansip stayed on as prime minister, a position he had held since 2005.
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 two days of violent protests, mostly by young ethnic Russians. Meanwhile, large-scale cyberattacks, which were reportedly traced to internet addresses within Russia, took down Estonian commercial and governmental websites. Intermittent tensions with Russia continued in the subsequent years, and Estonia expressed alarm when, in July 2010, Russia deployed missiles to a position within striking distance of the Baltic states.
The economy in 2010 began to show some signs of recovery from the international downturn that began in late 2008. Growth in the last quarter was over 6 percent, and the unemployment rate decreased from 19.8 percent in the first quarter to 13.6 percent at the end of 2010. Meanwhile, the government continued to pursue long-term fiscal austerity measures. Amid protests outside Parliament, lawmakers in April passed amendments to the State Pension Insurance Act that would raise the retirement age to 65 by 2026. Such efforts were rewarded in July, when Estonia received a formal invitation from the EU to join the euro currency zone on January 1, 2011. In December, Estonia joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Estonia’s political parties spent the last six months of 2010 preparing for the March 2011 parliamentary elections. Toward the end of the year, the prime minister’s Reform Party had a strong lead over its rivals in opinion polls, with roughly 36 percent support.
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. 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 is chosen by the president and confirmed by Parliament. The president is elected by parliamentary ballot to a five-year term, filling the largely ceremonial role of head of state. Only citizens may participate in national elections, though resident noncitizens may vote (but not run as candidates) in local elections. Nine seats in the 101-seat Riigikogu are held by minorities.
Political parties organize freely, though only citizens may be members. Major parties include the Reform Party, the IRL, the SDP, the Center Party, the Greens, and the People’s Union. The SDP, the Greens, and the People’s Union all suffered from internal divisions and dwindling public support in 2010, with the People’s Union losing five of its six representatives in Parliament to defections (three to SDP and one each to the Reform Party and the Center Party).
Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem in Estonia, which was ranked 26 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. In May 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the 2009 suspended jail sentence of former environment minister Villu Reiljan, who had been convicted of attempted bribery involving the sale of a state-owned building, and stripped him of his seat in Parliament. Also in 2010, three county court judges were convicted on corruption charges, receiving sentences of between six months and nearly three years in prison, and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, head of the Center Party, was accused of taking €1.5 million ($2 million) from the president of Russian Railways for use in the 2011 elections. Savisaar maintained that the money was for the construction of a Russian Orthodox church in Tallinn. In November, Parliament approved the creation of a party financing oversight committee. Legal guarantees for public access to government information are respected in practice, and government decisions are published almost instantly on the internet.
The government respects freedom of the press. In addition to the public broadcaster, Estonian Television, there are a variety of commercial channels as well as independent newspapers and radio stations. Concerns were raised in 2010 that the city-funded Tallinn TV was being used as a mouthpiece for the Center Party, which in turn has claimed that the national media are biased against it. In November, lawmakers passed the Sources Protection Act, which allows for fines against outlets that provide an “inappropriate,” “inaccurate,” or libelous assessment of events. It also prescribes fines—and potentially even jail time—for journalists who refuse to reveal sources under certain circumstances. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and Estonia has an internet penetration rate of 75.1 percent, among the highest in the world.
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice, as is academic freedom. In 2010, the government continued to implement a program calling for 60 percent Estonian-language instruction in the country’s Russian-language public high schools by 2011. Many schools were already implementing the law in 2010, though the National Language Inspectorate found that 70 percent of teachers at Russian-language schools still did not have an adequate command of Estonian, a shortcoming that can draw fines.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights in practice. Civil society is vibrant, and the government involves nongovernmental organizations in the drafting of legislation. Workers may organize freely, strike, and bargain collectively, though the Estonian Confederation of Trade Unions, whose members make up slightly more than 10 percent of the workforce, 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. The average length of pretrial detention is seven months, due to judicial extensions of the six-month legal limit. There have been reports of police officers physically or verbally abusing suspects. Of 37 criminal cases brought against officers in 2010 for alleged use of excessive force, 27 had been dropped by year’s end, and the remainder were pending or had been sent to the prosecutor for further action. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and poor access to health care. In October, a former prison warden was sentenced to three years in prison for negligence that led to the deaths of two inmates in 2006.
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. Roughly 30 percent of Estonians speak Russian as their first language. At the end of 2010, over 100,000 people, or roughly 7.5 percent of the 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. International rules on the granting of asylum or refugee status are legally recognized and upheld in practice, though the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees commented in July on the “remarkably low number” of asylum seekers in Estonia, which may suggest that some are not granted access to formal processing or are turned away at the border.
Though women enjoy the same legal rights as men, the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report downgraded Estonia’s ranking by 10 places, finding that Estonian women make only 65 percent of a man’s wage for the same job—the largest gap in the EU. Moreover, employment segregation by gender remained high. In 2010, the government ran a media campaign in both Estonian and Russian to promote equal opportunities for women and combat gender stereotypes. Violence against women, including domestic violence, remains a problem, and Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. In April, the government adopted a four-year plan to decrease both domestic violence and human trafficking and provide better services for victims.