Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017



Freedom Status: 

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Net Freedom Status: 

Robust democratic institutions have taken root in Estonia since it regained independence in 1991. Elections are regarded as free and fair, and political and civil rights are generally respected. However, about 6 percent of the country’s population—mostly ethnic Russians—remain stateless and thus may not participate in national elections. Ethnic tensions remain an issue, as does economic inequality.

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • In October, Kersti Kaljulaid became Estonia’s first female president. A nonpartisan figure, the parliament elected her to the largely ceremonial post following five failed attempts to elect other candidates.
  • Edgar Savisaar was removed as leader of the Center Party in a development seen as a means of distancing the party from the Russian government. The new Center Party leader, Jüri Ratas, became prime minister of a new coalition government after Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas of the Reform Party lost a confidence vote in November.
  • The parliament struggled to adopt legislative changes required to fully implement a law allowing same-sex partnerships that confer most of the same rights as marriage.
Executive Summary: 

Due to infighting and the ideological diversity among its member parties, the broad coalition government headed by Reform Party leader Taavi Rõivas struggled to make timely decisions and approve public-sector reforms in 2016. The indirect presidential election held in 2016 also reflected Estonia’s political fragmentation, as the parliament and later, the electoral college, were unable to approve a candidate in five attempts during August and September. A nonpartisan consensus candidate, Kersti Kaljulaid, was finally elected in October, with the support of 81 of 101 members of parliament.

In November, Rõivas lost a parliamentary confidence vote. The Reform Party’s former coalition partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDE) and the center-right Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), agreed to form a new coalition with the Center Party, which draws much of its support from Estonia’s Russian-speaking population. The coalition deal was sealed only after the Center Party replaced longtime party leader Edgar Savisaar—who in 2015 had been suspended from the duties of Tallinn city mayor due to corruption charges—with Jüri Ratas, who became the new prime minister. Ratas subsequently attempted to distance the party from a cooperation agreement with the Russian ruling party, United Russia, that was negotiated by Savisaar in 2004. However, Ratas declined to suspend it completely.

Meanwhile, the Russian occupation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine continued to contribute to widespread tensions in Estonia about the potential for Russian expansionism. In 2016, in reaction to heightened security concerns, Estonia started to build a 3-meter (10-foot) fence along parts of its border with Russia, and to install an accompanying surveillance system.

While residents of Estonia enjoy a high level of economic freedom, inequality is a concern, and about a quarter of the population remains at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

In 2014, Estonia’s parliament narrowly approved legislation permitting same-sex partnerships, which confer most of the same rights as marriage. However, due to resistance from its socially conservative members, the parliament has struggled to adopt legislative changes required to fully implement the partnership law.

Explanatory Note: 

This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Estonia, see Freedom in the World 2016.

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