Estonia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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Estonia officially joined the euro currency zone on January 1, 2011, and the government continued to implement fiscal austerity measures as the economy slowly improved. Parliamentary elections in March saw the re-election of Andrus Ansip’s Reform Party, which formed a majority coalition with the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. Incumbent president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was re-elected in August for another five-year term.

Estonia gained independence from Russia in 1918, but 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 60 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. Following 2007 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s center-right Reform Party formed a coalition with the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL) and the Social Democratic Party (SDE). 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 sparked 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 have continued; in 2011, Estonia expressed concern over Russia’s growing military operations in its Western Military District, which borders Estonia, and over increased military spending, including Russia’s recent contract for the purchase of two warships that could be stationed in the Baltic Sea.

In the March 6, 2011 parliamentary elections, the incumbent Reform Party won 33 seats, the Center Party took 26 seats, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL) captured 23 seats, and the SDE won 19 seats. For the first time, both the Green Party and the Estonian People’s Union failed to pass the five percent electoral threshold. The Reform Party and the IRL formed a governing coalition, and Andrus Ansip became the first prime minister since Estonia’s independence to win two successive elections. Presidential elections were held on August 29, and incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves was re-elected by Parliament for a second five-year term. He enjoyed the support of 73 members of Parliament, marking the first time since independence a candidate received the requisite two-thirds majority in the first round of voting. Indrek Tarand, an independent candidate nominated by the Center Party, received 25 votes.  

The Estonian economy continued its slow recovery from the international downturn that began in 2008, with real GDP growth for 2011 at 7.6 percent, and an unemployment rate that decreased from 14.4 percent to 11.4 percent between the first and fourth quarters of 2011. While the country’s entry into the euro currency zone on January 1, 2011 went smoothly, protests were held in Tallinn in September over Estonia’s proposed contribution to the eurozone bailout package. However, the government’s commitment to long-term fiscal austerity measures was rewarded when two international ratings agencies upgraded Estonia’s credit rating.

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 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; resident noncitizens may vote in local elections but not run as candidates. There are currently 20 women and 10 minorities serving in the Riigikogu.

Political parties organize freely, though only citizens may be members. Major parties include the Reform Party, the IRL, the SDE, the Center Party, the Greens, and the People’s Union.

Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem in Estonia, which was ranked 29 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. In July, a Ministry of Environment official was charged with corruption in association with the awarding of procurement contracts. In the same month, a Narva city councilmen and a construction contractor were arrested on charges of price-setting and entering into cartel agreements over procurement contracts. In September, parliament expanded the powers of Estonia’s security police (KAPO) to investigate public organizations and state-owned companies in addition to government and municipal corruption. By year’s end, a revised, draft anti-corruption act was under review in Parliament; the act would increase public sector transparency and make requirements more stringent for politicians to declare their assets. In November, it was discovered that two IRL members, a parliamentary deputy and a Tallinn city councillor, had been selling temporary Estonian residence permits to wealthy foreigners for profit. Both men gave up their positions and membership in the IRL, and a parliamentary investigation will take place in 2012. No actions were taken in 2011 against Tallinn mayor and Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar, who was accused by the KAPO in December 2010 of taking €1.5 million ($2 million) from the president of Russian Railways for use in his 2011 election campaign. Legal guarantees for public access to government information are respected in practice.

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. In November 2010, lawmakers passed the Sources Protection Act, which allows for fines for outlets that provide an “inappropriate,” “inaccurate,” or libelous assessment of events, and fines for journalists who refuse to reveal sources under certain circumstances. However, no prosecutions were made under the act in 2011. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and Estonia’s 2007 legislative polls were the world’s first such elections to employ internet voting.

Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice, as is academic freedom. However, a mandate that public, Russian-language high schools teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language went into effect in September 2011, prompting 40 Russian students to protest in October. The law is meant to ensure that the Russian-speaking population is granted equal access to jobs, many of which require command of the Estonian language.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights in practice. Tallinn hosted the June 2011 Baltic Pride parade to celebrate sexual diversity without incident. Civil society is vibrant, and the government involves nongovernmental organizations in the drafting of legislation. Workers may organize freely, strike, and bargain collectively, although public servants at the municipal and state levels may not strike. The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions has reported private sector violations of union rights, including threatening workers with dismissal or pay cuts if they form unions.

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. However, 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. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and poor access to health care. In May 2011, the Minister of Justice announced the creation of a specialized center to review prisoners’ complaints, which constituted over 40 percent of the cases in Estonia’s administrative court system. Plans were also approved in July for a more updated and efficient prison to be built in Tallinn, and a new minimum-security prison to be constructed in the city of Tartu.

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. In 2011, an estimated 7 percent of the population were of undetermined citizenship. 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.

Though women enjoy the same legal rights as men, the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report found that Estonian women earn roughly 30 percent less than men for the same job—the largest gap in the EU. 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. Estonia remains the only EU member without a criminal anti-trafficking law.