Freedom in the World
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Following the March 2015 parliamentary elections, the ruling pro-business Reform Party formed a coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDE) and the center-right Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL). The legislature became increasingly fragmented throughout the year, calling into question the stability of the government. By late 2015, four cabinet ministers, including the foreign minister, had been replaced.
Two separate corruption scandals in 2015—one involving opposition leader Edgar Savisaar and another the managers of the port of Tallinn with close ties to the Reform Party—shook the country’s political landscape.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine continued to raise tensions in Estonia about the potential for Russian expansionism. Estonia, which has a significant minority population who speak Russian as their primary language, launched a new publicly financed television channel in Russian in 2015 to counteract anti-Western broadcasts from Moscow. In an operation reminiscent of the Cold War, Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver, who had been imprisoned by Russia in August on charges of espionage, was released in September in exchange for Russian spy Aleksei Dressen. Also during the year, the process of finalizing the long-awaited border treaty between Estonia and Russia continued.
Political Rights: 38 / 40 (−1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The 1992 constitution established a 101-seat, unicameral Parliament (Riigikogu), whose members are elected for four-year terms. A prime minister, chosen by the president and confirmed by the parliament, serves as head of government. The president is elected by parliamentary ballot to a five-year term, filling the largely ceremonial role of head of state. Toomas Ilves, who currently is not a member of any political party, has been president since 2006. Independent observers have deemed recent elections free and fair.
In parliamentary elections held in March 2015, the ruling Reform Party led by Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas captured 30 seats, down slightly from 33 in 2011, while its previous coalition partner, the SDE, took 15 seats, down from 19. The IRL experienced the greatest loss, winning only 14 seats, or 9 fewer than four years earlier. Meanwhile, the opposition Centre Party took 27 seats, or just 1 more than in 2011. The public’s dissatisfaction with traditional political parties benefitted two new parties: the conservative, anti-establishment Free Party took 8 seats, and the far-right Conservative People’s Party won 7 seats. Voter turnout was 64 percent, with online voting used by about 30 percent of voters.
Following lengthy negotiations, the Reform Party formed a majority coalition with the IRL and SDE; Rõivas was reelected prime minister. However, the three partners had serious policy disagreements, and the government remained shaky throughout the year. During the summer, the SDE attempted to change the coalition agreement and even considered withdrawing from the coalition. Following its decision to remain in the government, all three SDE cabinet ministers were replaced.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Estonia’s political parties organize and operate freely. Their members can be citizens of Estonia or of another EU member state. Despite facing corruption scandals and some unpopular policies, the Reform Party has dominated the government since 2007. Its main rival on the left is the Centre Party, which has connections with Russia’s main political party, United Russia, and draws much of its support from Estonia’s Russian-speaking population. Newer political forces, the Free Party and Conservative People’s Party, are represented for the first time in the parliament following the 2015 elections.
Only citizens may participate in national elections. As a result, ethnic Russian residents of Estonia whose citizenship remains undetermined—constituting approximately 7 percent of the population—cannot vote in national polls. Resident noncitizens are permitted to vote in local elections, but may not run as candidates.
C. Functioning of Government: 11 / 12 (−1)
There have been occasional problems with government corruption. Recent years have seen heavily publicized allegations of money laundering within both the Reform Party and the Center Party.
Several scandals emerged in 2015, including allegations implicating politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties in bribery, money laundering, and political patronage. In September, Edgar Savisaar, the mayor of Tallinn and leader of the Center Party, was detained by police on suspicion of taking bribes in 2014 and 2015. In another case, managers at the Port of Tallinn with close ties to prominent politicians were arrested in August on bribery charges.
Recent surveys show that Estonian residents perceive widespread corruption within the country. However, it continues to score highly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 23 of 168 countries and territories surveyed in the 2015 report.
Public access to government information and asset declarations of officials is provided for both in law and in practice, and the government involves nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and ordinary citizens in the drafting of legislation. In March 2015, the Finance Ministry approved a new ethics code for government officials.
In July 2015, Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus of the Reform Party resigned following a court ruling holding her partly liable for debts accumulated by her father’s bankrupt trucking company, Autorollo. Although she denied any wrongdoing and said she would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, Pentus-Rosimannus explained that she would step down out of respect for Estonia and its government institutions. Top members of the Reform Party had been implicated two years earlier in the so-called Autorollo scandal, in which significant funds were transferred from the firm’s coffers just ahead of its bankruptcy declaration.
Civil Liberties: 56 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
The government generally respects freedom of the press. 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 September 2015, the authorities launched ETV+, the only government-funded television channel entirely in Russian, to counter anti-Western television broadcasts from Moscow. A 2010 law authorized fines for outlets that disseminate news deemed libelous, as well as for journalists who refuse to reveal sources under certain circumstances. It remains illegal to insult court officials or police officers in connection with their official responsibilities. The government does not restrict access to the internet, which is widely available throughout the country, or monitor private online communication.
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice.
Academic freedom and private discussion are respected. A 2011 law mandates that public Russian-language high schools must teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language. In 2013, 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.
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 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. There have been reports of law enforcement officials using excessive force when arresting suspects. A police officer who was found guilty in January 2015 of having used excessive force in 2011 was sentenced to one year in prison and three years’ probation. While the country’s prison system generally meets international standards, some inmates reportedly have inadequate access to health care.
Asylum seekers and refugees are legally protected and provided with basic services, including cultural orientation programs. In the first eight months of 2015, the government gave temporary protection to 33 people, mostly from Ukraine, who might not ultimately qualify as refugees.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 91,000 residents of Estonia, or just over 6 percent of the country’s population, are stateless. Most are ethnic Russians who came to Estonia during the Soviet era and whom the Estonian government regards as immigrants who must apply for citizenship through a process including passing an Estonian language examination. The authorities have adopted policies to assist those seeking naturalization, such as funding language courses.
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. Although 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. Local governments in cooperation with NGOs provide victims of gender-based violence with assistance, including counseling and legal aid. Women in Estonia earn on average 30 percent less than men, the largest gap in the European Union. Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. Estonia criminalized human trafficking in 2012.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is legally prohibited, though harassment of members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) communities is reportedly common. In October 2014, Estonia’s parliament narrowly approved legislation permitting same-sex partnerships. The law allows two people in a civil union nearly identical rights to those of married couples, but does not allow same-sex partners in a civil union to adopt; it does allow a person to adopt his or her partner’s biological child.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year