Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Diminishing support for Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s pro-business Reform Party was reflected in local elections held in October, which the left-leaning Center Party won, taking roughly 32 percent of the vote nationwide and maintaining control of the city council in Tallinn. Reform won only 14 percent, and its coalition partner, Pro Patria and Res Publica won about 17 percent. The Social Democrats finished fourth, with 12 percent of the vote.
There were a number of allegations during the run-up to the elections that the Center Party had used public funds to pay for parts of its election campaign. Just prior to the elections, a former member of the Center Party alleged that the party’s current deputy chair had been involved in a money-laundering scheme. Meanwhile, the vast majority of lawmakers in the Riigikogu, or parliament, registered to stand in the municipal elections. Known in Estonia as “decoy ducks,” these high-profile politicians sign up for local polls in order to boost voter turnout for their respective parties, and have no intention of actually accepting municipal posts. The practice has drawn criticism by some for confusing voters and potentially distorting the political process in Estonia’s municipalities.
The Reform Party struggled with corruption allegations in 2013. Senior party members have been implicated in a business corruption scandal involving a now-defunct company owned by the environment minister’s father. In December, Culture Minister Rein Lang resigned amid allegations that he had improperly installed one of his allies as the editor in chief of an independent newspaper.
Political Rights: 39 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The 1992 constitution established a 101-seat, unicameral 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 the parliament. The president is elected by parliamentary ballot to a five-year term, filling the largely ceremonial role of head of state. Observers have deemed recent elections free and fair.
In parliamentary elections held in March 2011, the Reform Party won 33 seats, with its coalition partner, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), capturing 23 seats. The opposition Center Party took 26 seats, and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) won 19 seats. In August 2011, the parliament reelected President Toomas Hendrik Ilves to a second five-year term. The parliament in April rejected legislation, backed by the Center Party, which would have amended the constitution to allow for direct presidential elections.
The Reform Party performed poorly in the 2013 municipal elections, while the Center Party posted strong results. Igor Gräzin, a Reform Party MP, suggested in a November interview that voters had become disenchanted with the governing party due to slow economic growth in Estonia and because the party had failed to effectively articulate a clear vision for the country.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Estonia’s political parties organize and operate freely, though only citizens may be members. The conservative, pro-business Reform Party has dominated the government since 2007. However, support for the Reform Party declined markedly in 2013 in the wake of corruption scandals, including a high-profile 2012 financing scandal, and due to Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s continued support for European Union (EU) bailout packages for heavily indebted EU member nations; Estonia has contributed some €2 billion to back such efforts. The left-leaning Center Party draws much of its support from Estonia’s Russian-speaking population. The Center Party and the SDE, respectively, were the first- and second-most popular parties in the country in 2013, according to opinion polls.
Only citizens may participate in national elections; as a result, ethnic Russian residents of Estonia whose citizenship remains undetermined cannot vote in national polls. Resident noncitizens are permitted to vote in local elections, but may not run as candidates.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
There are occasional problems with government corruption in Estonia. Over the past two years, there have been heavily publicized allegations of money laundering within both the Reform Party and the Center Party, but no criminal convictions have followed. In March, the daily Postimees reported that Center Party head and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar had requested the resignations of four Tallinn officials because they had not returned 5 percent of their gross wages to the Center Party, which all Tallinn city officials who belonged to the party were apparently obliged to do under a 2005 agreement. The revelations prompted allegations of influence-peddling, but prosecutors declined to pursue a criminal case. In October, just ahead of municipal elections, former Center Party member Tarmo Lausing alleged that he during the 2000s had aided in the funneling of some €20,000 (US$27,200) of unclear origin to the Center Party at the request of Kadri Simson, a member of parliament and the Center Party’s current deputy chair. Prosecutors declined to pursue the allegations, saying the statute of limitations had expired. A similar scandal within the Reform Party had erupted in 2012 and led to the resignation of Justice Minister Kristen Michal, but an investigation into that controversy was abandoned due to a lack of evidence. In October, the Riigikogu began debating a slate of campaign-finance reforms that included a provision requiring parties to release financial reports more frequently; the proposed reforms were in part the result of a public-input program Ilves had initiated following 2012 financial scandals.
Separately, top members of the Reform Party including Environment Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus have been implicated in the so-called Autorollo case, a corruption case involving a defunct trucking company that had been owned by Pentus-Rosimannus’s father. However, senior government officials only rarely face corruption trials. There were a number of successful corruption prosecutions against local officials in 2013. Estonia was ranked 28 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 56 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
The government generally respects freedom of the press. However, in December, culture minister Rein Lang of the Reform Party resigned amid allegations that he had pressured the independent newspaper Sirp to install one of his allies as its new editor. Lang denied that he was stepping down in connection with those claims. Public and private television and radio stations operate in Estonia, and there are a number of independent newspapers, including at least one in Russian. In November 2010, lawmakers passed a measure authorizing fines for outlets that disseminated news deemed libelous, as well as for journalists who refused to reveal sources under certain circumstances. It is illegal in Estonia to insult court officials or police officers in connection with their official responsibilities, but in July legislation decriminalizing such speech was introduced. The Tartu County Court, in separate rulings in February and March, issued suspended jail sentences and lengthy probation terms against individuals who had posted to the internet insults against a prominent judge. In October a judge banned investigative journalist Katariina Krjutškova of the business daily Äripäev from sitting in on court proceedings for the Autorollo case over claims that Krjutškova had disrespected the court in a recent article. In May, the Tallinn city government said it would pursue a civil defamation suit against Äripäev, days after the newspaper had published details of a bribery case that had concluded with the 2012 convictions of two Tallinn city officials. The Äripäev reports suggested that senior members of the city hierarchy were behind the bribery scheme, and Tallinn officials argued that the newspaper had damaged the city, its government, and its residents. However, the Harju County Court threw out the case in October and ordered the Tallinn government to pay Äripäev’s legal fees.
In October, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Estonian news website Delfi SA was responsible under Estonian defamation laws for the content of anonymous comments left on its stories, in part because Delfi had a commercial interest in maintaining a robust comment section. A spokeswoman for the ECHR indicated that the decision applied only to details of Estonian law and did not create a precedent applicable in other countries. International anticensorship activists nevertheless expressed concern over the ruling.
In May, the European Commission referred Estonia to the European Court of Justice, saying that the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which regulates Estonia’s telecommunication sector, could not also own the largest television and radio broadcast network operator in the country, Levira. The ministry had indicated earlier in the year that it would sell Levira but has yet to do so.
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice.
A public school teacher in Narva who planned to run in local elections as an SDE candidate resigned in September, claiming that his job had been threatened for political reasons by the school’s principal, a member of the Center Party. A 2011 law mandated that public, Russian-language high schools must teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language. In July, the government rejected a petition from Tallinn’s city council to allow four public secondary schools in the city to waive that requirement.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
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 and ordinary citizens 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 workers being threatened with dismissal or pay cuts if they formed unions.
F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16
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 Justice Ministry reported in May that legal procedures for criminal and misdemeanor cases accelerated significantly in 2012 following various reforms; the average length of pretrial detention also reportedly decreased in 2012. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and prisoners have poor access to health care.
In March, the ECHR ruled that Estonia must pay a combined total of about €50,000 to four men who claimed that Estonian authorities had abused them when they were detained following a 2007 riot that accompanied the relocation of a Soviet-era World War II memorial in Tallinn. The ECHR found that Estonian authorities had violated one plaintiff’s right to protection against ill-treatment, and had failed to adequately investigate his and three other plaintiffs’ allegations of ill-treatment at the hands of authorities.
Though women enjoy the same legal rights as men, Estonia has the largest gender pay gap in the EU, with women earning about 28 percent less than men per hour.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 14 / 16
Estonia’s constitution allows citizens and noncitizens holding government-issued identity documents to travel inside Estonia and abroad. Though corruption in the business sector is problematic, Estonian residents enjoy a high level of economic freedom.
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. Estonia criminalized human trafficking in 2012, becoming the last EU country to do so.
In August 2012, the Justice Ministry released a draft of a new law that would allow same-sex couples to register their cohabitation, allowing same-sex couples some protections that married opposite-sex couples receive. Despite support from the Reform Party and the SDE it has not advanced, and faces opposition from the IRL and some religious groups.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year