Estonia | Freedom House

Nations in Transit



Nations in Transit 2006

2006 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Executive Summary: 

Estonia recovered its independence in August 1991, and in the 15 years since, it has impressed both its own citizens and the international community by its commitment to move quickly toward a market economy, to organize and carry out competitive elections that all international observers have found free and fair, and to develop a system that includes those who did not qualify for citizenship in the Republic of Estonia because either they or their parents or grandparents were not citizens of Estonia before the Soviet occupation. Because of this and an effective international public relations effort, Estonia enjoys a remarkable reputation. In virtually all spheres of public life, Estonia has made so much progress since the collapse of Communism that it now begs comparison with states that have long had established free market economies, vibrant civil societies, and well-institutionalized democratic governance. Nevertheless, the country faces serious problems in the economic, social, and political spheres.

Although Estonia's economy continues to grow vigorously, maintaining the epithet "the little country that could," the benefits of this growth have not touched many groups. There are serious problems about providing transfer payments to the increasing number of elderly people, particularly given the flat tax structure. The country has a lively civil society, but one that has not yet solved either the problem of integrating noncitizens or the challenges arising from its small size. Its economic success may be limited by Russian plans to build a pipeline under the Baltic from the Russian Federation to Germany that will bypass Estonia. And it has established democratic institutions, but it has not developed effective political parties, which has generated widespread public mistrust of political institutions and kept political participation rates relatively low.

After an impressive start in the early 1990s, the pace of reform seemed to lose momentum and for the last six years Estonia has been facing largely the same set of problems. For many of its citizens, 2004-the year in which Estonia became a member of both the European Union (EU) and NATO-represented the country's own version of "the end of history," with a number of Estonians concluding that their real problems were behind them and the future would be, as Johns Hopkins University Professor Francis Fukujama predicted, boring. The year 2005 disabused Estonians on that score. Although there were no national elections in 2005, local elections in the fall were marked by declining public participation and concerns about the role of money and illicit power in the political process. A scandal involving the loss of classified documents at the Foreign Ministry-coming on the heels of a similar incident at the Defense Ministry at the end of 2004 and another in which the government appears to have assigned regional quotas for the arrest of people to be charged with corruption-did little to enhance public trust in the authorities.

But 2005 also brought three important advancements regarding Estonia's evolution as a civil society. First, by his decision to consult with the nation about whether he should attend the May 9 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, President Arnold Ruutel increased public confidence in the presidency, especially when the Russian government backed out of an accord defining the borders between the two countries. That new popular support helped to increase the number of Estonians in favor of amending the Constitution to allow for a directly elected president. Second, Estonia intensified its efforts to integrate its noncitizens and passed an important milestone in November 2005: In that month, for the first time ever, there were more people who had been naturalized since the recovery of independence in 1991 than there were noncitizens. That prompted the country's leaders to suggest that the noncitizen issue, which has attracted so much international discussion, would be resolved completely within the next 10 years. Poll results about interethnic attitudes and the setting up of new Russian-language editions of some Estonian publications help to explain their confidence. Third, despite the presence of a great deal of Euro-skepticism among Estonians, leaders in Tallinn, the capital, have not only played an important role in key EU-wide institutions, but have more or less completed Estonia's adaptation of the country's legislation and regulatory schemes to EU standards, setting the stage for Estonia's likely integration into the euro and Schengen zones in the near term. Estonia has done this even as it continues to pioneer in the use of e-governance and other Internet-based technologies.

National Democratic Governance. Estonia remains a parliamentary democracy, but it was unable to get through the year without the fall of one government and continued ministerial shuffling-events that reflected shortcomings in the development of effective and disciplined parties and the highly personal nature of politics in such a small country. Because of this turbulence, the Parliament was unable to reach agreement on many key issues, and that in turn jeopardized public trust in political institutions. At the same time, however, the government was able to keep its finances in order thanks to strong economic growth, and Estonia's pioneering efforts in e-governance advanced. Estonia's national democratic governance remains unchanged at 2.25.

Electoral Process. There were no national elections in 2005, but voting for local governments in October sparked much debate about the country's political system, the level of corruption of its political leaders, and the balance of power between national and local government bodies. Participation remained low, although it did not fall as far as some had expected. Efforts fell short to revise the Constitution to allow for the direct election of the president in place of the current arrangement (in which the president is chosen either by the Parliament or, failing that, a special electoral college including parliamentarians and regional officials). Estonia's electoral process rating remains unchanged at 1.50.

Civil Society. Despite continuing government efforts to expand the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, Estonia's small population (just over 1.3 million people) continues to make it difficult for NGOs to attract the kind of domestic support necessary to achieve that goal. And the dependence of many groups in this sector on foreign funding has generated suspicions among some about their activities. But over the last year, several NGOs have begun to work more directly with both political parties and the government bureaucracy and have achieved some success in areas like alcoholism, drug abuse, and family violence. Estonia's civil society score remains at 2.00.

Independent Media. Estonia's media scene in 2005 showed mixed success. On the positive side, the media operate free of direct government regulation, and the press is vigorous in reporting on a wide range of problems. Moreover, Estonia is one of the most Internet-connected countries on earth. On the negative side, however, Estonia is a very small media market. As a result, newspapers are financed not by bundled advertising, but either by subscriptions and direct sales to readers, which drives up prices, or by owners, which in such a tiny media market leads inevitably to speculation about the politics behind certain reports. The most important development in 2005 was the appearance of a Russian-language edition of the country's largest daily, a step that may help promote a common public space for the two language communities. But the positive impact of that step was limited by a conflict over the future of Russian channels on Estonia's cable networks, one ultimately resolved in favor of continuing most but not all Russian-language broadcasts. Estonia's independent media rating remains at 1.50.

Local Democratic Governance. Local elections in October 2005 sparked new discussion about the transfer of power, especially taxation power, to local governments but did not lead to a resolution of that long-contentious issue. But more important, the run-up to the voting generated heightened attention to the continuing high level of corruption in many parts of the political system. Reflecting the combination of those two trends, Estonia's rating for local democratic governance remains at 2.50.

Judicial Framework and Independence. Following the country's accession to the EU in 2004, Estonia's judges continued to receive training in judicial activity. But efforts to provide training for prosecutors, a key part of the judicial system, have been stymied by officials who see prosecutors rather than judges as central to the control of the courts. Prison conditions remain troubling, especially since Estonia has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the EU. Estonia's rating for judicial framework and independence remains at 1.50.

Corruption. Estonians continue to view their government as more corrupt than monitoring organizations believe it to be. Most obvious forms of corruption have declined; indeed, by eliminating many regulations, leaders in Tallinn effectively diminished such corruption. But the country's small size means that people generally know one another, which breeds suspicions that some of these contacts will be used illegitimately. In addition, there is another kind of corruption-one that is powered either by domestic politicians seeking power or by foreign governments seeking influence-that many Estonians believe is widespread, even though it is seldom tracked effectively by monitors. Estonia's corruption rating remains at 2.50.

Outlook for 2006. The next year appears likely to be marked by greater political instability within the Parliament as various political figures and parties position themselves for parliamentary and especially presidential elections in 2006. In that environment, there seem certain to be more exposés about corruption real and imagined. At the same time, the integration of noncitizens is likely to continue to accelerate as ethnic Russians conclude that being a citizen of Estonia within the EU is their best choice. But virtually all other problems that Estonia faces today are likely to continue, their resolution blocked either by the country's small size or by the absence of the political will to address them.

National Democratic Governance: 

Estonia is a vibrant parliamentary democracy, but in 2005, as has been the case in many of the past years since the restoration of independence, it was unable to get through the year without the fall of one government and continued ministerial shuffling-developments that reflected shortcomings in the evolution of effective and disciplined parties and the highly personal nature of politics in a country this small. The government of Prime Minister Juhan Parts fell just short of its second anniversary, barely increasing the average tenure of post-Soviet Estonian governments. And ministerial reshufflings and resignations, including that of the foreign minister for mishandling classified information, continued as well, again doing little to alter the post-Soviet average of one new minister every 23.1 days. 

Because of this turbulence, the Parliament failed to reach agreement on many issues, and some ministers lacked the time needed to master their jobs, a pattern that led to a deterioration of public trust in the legislature and the government. According to Eurobarometer surveys in 2005, as was the case in the last five years, Estonians tended to have the lowest assessments of life overall among the titular nationalities of EU countries, which may help explain their attitudes toward the government -and, at the same time, may explain the relatively high percentages of Estonians who say they would like to have the president elected by popular vote rather than (as now) by the Parliament or a larger electoral college.  Despite the level of popular support for changing the Constitution on this point, the Parliament did not do so in the course of 2005.

But if there was continuing turmoil at the level of personalities within the governing coalitions, a development that many might have expected to lead to either radical departures or gridlock, the Estonian government continued in the same basic directions in social, economic, and political life that have won it praise from a variety of international monitoring organizations. It was able to keep its finances in good order thanks to strong economic growth. It was able to cope with the challenges of applying nationally and locally the new requirements of EU membership. And it was able to continue its pioneering work with e-governance.

The courts have remained strongly independent, although efforts to improve the training of prosecutors have run into some resistance from the government, according to the Estonian Law Center, largely because some officials still view political access to that part of the legal system critical to their ability to run the country.

Three other developments in this sphere during the course of 2005 were especially noteworthy. First, in November 2005 Estonia passed an important milestone in its continued efforts to integrate its noncitizens. In widely reported comments, the government announced that the number of people naturalized as Estonians since 1992 now exceeds at 137,000 the number of remaining noncitizens. Moreover, officials projected that Estonia is on target to integrate fully all of the latter within the next decade, as it has promised the EU and other international institutions it will do. (At the same time, however, it is worth noting that the number of Russian speakers in Estonia who have taken Russian Federation citizenship also increased in the past year by 1,500, according to the Estonian Foreign Ministry's Web site. Some Russian Federation officials have given slightly higher numbers.) Although it seems unlikely that all of those without citizenship on Estonian territory will gain citizenship before the decade is out, as some Estonian political leaders have suggested, it is clearly the case that Estonia in 2005 made signal progress in this regard.

Second, and parallel to this development, given the failure of parties appealing strictly to ethnic Russian groups to achieve representation in the national Parliament, ever more Russian politicians have shifted their allegiance to Estonian parties. A major reason for this, as developments in Latvia at the end of 2004 showed, is that about two years ago, Moscow shifted its policies in this regard, calculating not only in Estonia, but also in Latvia that working via parties dominated by the titular nationality may be more effective than maintaining "Russian" parties that will have little chance to come to power. While some international observers have complained that this shift shows Estonia's unwillingness to integrate the Russians, in fact it highlights the progress Estonia has made in fully integrating into the broader political system the members of one ethnic community.

Third, the past remained very much with Estonians in the political sphere. In what was a stocktaking year in the wake of gaining membership in the EU and NATO-some commentators had referred to 2004 as having ushered in a kind of "end of history" mentality in that Baltic republic-Estonians paid more attention than they have in recent years to the continued presence in Estonian political life of former Communist Party members and also of those with ties to Soviet-era security agencies. In 1992, 29 of the 101 members of the Parliament were former Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) members; now that number has risen to 39. Moreover, half of the ministers and the president of the country are also former Communists.

At the same time, articles accusing one or another member of the government or political establishment of having been in the KGB continued to surface. And some newspapers played up reports by the security police that some Estonians-and even some active Estonian political figures-continue to maintain ties to Russian secret services even now. After the country's security police published a new list of Estonians with a KGB or GRU past, both the Res Publica and Center parties promised to expel anyone in their ranks with that background. Other Estonian parties have done so over the past 15 years.

But such charges as well as suggestions that some of these people retain their connections to the government of a foreign country have also served to undermine public confidence in the government among some strata of the population. One example of this phenomenon is provided by a poll taken in April 2005 that found that 77 percent of Estonians believe democracy is the best form of government, but only 29 percent of the country's population believe that their government reflects the will of the people.

Electoral Process: 

There were no national elections in 2005, but voting for local governments on October 16 led to an intense debate about the country's political system at all levels, about the level of corruption in the political process and among its political leaders, and about the proper balance of power between national and local governments. Participation remained low, with some observers suggesting that at below 40 percent in most venues it was "too small" to legitimate democracy. 

At the national level, as noted earlier, the Parliament did not approve a measure allowing for direct election of the president. That sets the stage for yet another cliffhanger of an election in 2006, in which the Parliament may not be able to select a president and the country will again have its leader chosen by an electoral college consisting of less well-known regional officials. Nor did the deputies address Estonia's dauntingly complicated electoral system involving multimember electoral districts, multiple rounds of voting and redistribution of results, and a 5 percent threshold for the representation of parties in the Parliament-arrangements that limit transparency, accountability, and ultimately the legitimacy of the democratic process.

The October 2005 elections generated significant criticism from some quarters. Two days after they were concluded, parliamentarian Igor Gryazin called for the elections to be annulled. He pointed to the fact that the country's Supreme Court had ruled only two days before the vote that members of the Parliament could not serve in local government posts, effectively changing the electoral lists in Tallinn and other major cities where some national politicians sought to run. He also complained, as had many others, that the Center Party had gotten around the ban on public advertising in the last days of the campaign in Tallinn by having one of its business allies post a sign with the party's colors and "K" displayed prominently.

Observers from the Russian Federation were equally critical. They argued that Internet reporting of the results limited the ability of candidates and others to challenge those results in court, that election materials in the Russian language were insufficiently available, that the security police had sought to pressure ethnic Russians not to vote, and that there had been abuses because of the use of electronic voting.

Few other observers were as critical. Indeed, most celebrated the fact that Estonia permits noncitizens to vote in local elections, something they did in about equal share to Estonian levels of participation. But at the same time, many of the Estonian media writing on this issue pointed to some more fundamental problems. First, most "local governments" are not elected at all: There are no elections for the 15 county governments, which serve as Tallinn's representatives around the country.

Second, even where there are local elections in the nearly 2,000 towns and townships, the mayors and councils, which are now elected to five-year terms (up from four years previously), have little independent power. Although by law they can adopt policies in many areas, they lack the kind of independent taxation power that would allow them genuine freedom of action: At present, they raise less than 5 percent of the money they spend from local levies; the remainder comes from the central government. Consequently, while Tallinn routinely points to how important it is that noncitizens take part in the formation of such governments, many ethnic Russian noncitizens continue to complain that this is a sham, especially outside of areas like the northeast, where ethnic Russian noncitizens predominate.

Third, given demographic declines and the move of ever more Estonians to the cities, especially to Tallinn, rural Estonia and even some of the other cities, none of which are as much as one-quarter the size of the capital, are hollowing out. On the one hand, that means many of the electoral districts are now small and getting smaller in terms of the number of voters. On the other hand, the authorities at this level are forced to deal with two difficult problems: managing the reduction in the number of schools and developing the infrastructure to support the increasing share of the population of pension age, and to do so without much in the way of new resources.

In many respects, these problems should be understood as those of a maturing democracy rather than its birth pangs. Many of them are familiar to residents of long-established democracies. And the fact that Estonia is now facing them and not other kinds of problems is a reflection of its relative success rather than its failure. But focusing only on the country's positive achievements and ignoring these current challenges does no one any favors, certainly not Estonia.

Civil Society: 

Despite continuing government efforts to expand the NGO sector, Estonia's small size-just over 1.3 million people-continues to make it difficult for NGOs to attract the kind of domestic support necessary to achieve that goal. And the dependence of many groups in this sector on foreign funding has generated suspicions among some about their activities. But over the last year, several NGOs have begun to work more directly with both political parties and the government bureaucracy and have achieved some success in areas like health (particularly the combating of sexually transmitted diseases), alcoholism, drug abuse, and family violence.

As in the past two years, the Estonian government has met or exceeded the goals it set for itself in 2002 with the adoption of its Civil Society Development Concept and as reaffirmed by the February 2003 memorandum between the government and 39 such groups. At present, there are three distinct kinds of NGOs: nonprofits, foundations, and nonprofit partnerships. Only the first two must register, and there are approximately 600 of them, although many are very small and relatively inactive or even dormant.
Despite their limitations, NGOs are increasingly recognized by Estonian officials and Estonian citizens as important and necessary players in their country. Some Estonians are suspicious of some of them because of their foreign funding-indeed, Estonians often refer to the NGOs the West subsidizes as DONGOs ("donor-organized NGOs")-but most recognize that given Estonia's small size and only recently reestablished capitalist system, the domestic funding of such groups is problematic, at least in the short term. Consequently, they accept the current situation as something they can live with. And comments posted online in newspapers frequently refer to NGOs as organizations to which this or that problem should be referred.

But it is extremely important to remember that the number of NGOs is not, as is sometimes assumed in the West, the best barometer of the existence of civil society. On the one hand, there is the question of a common public space, recognized as such and attended to by all members of society. That space includes churches and other communal bodies that are sometimes not included in a measurement of the strength of civil society. In Estonia, these bodies are increasingly important, with churches and fraternal organizations playing an ever larger role. Indeed, the enthronement of a new Catholic bishop in Tallinn in the fall was one of the major social and political events of the year.
On the other hand, there is the question of the cohesion of residents. On that score, too, Estonia has made significant progress over the last 15 years and continued to do so in 2005. Estonian society is increasingly consolidated across ethnic lines, with more than 8,000 predominantly ethnic Russians becoming Estonian citizens during the year. Moreover, cooperation between Tallinn and Moscow in the cultural sphere expanded, with an accord in March that helped reduce ethnic tensions still further. But new problems arose in October 2005 when Georgiy Boos, governor of Russia's Kaliningrad oblast, called on ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia to come to his region to live and work. That threatened to reethnicize politics, but most ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia as well had no interest in Boos's proposal, having concluded that they are much better off in the Baltic countries than they would be in his oblast.

Perhaps the most important development in this sphere was the appearance in November of a Russian-language edition of the country's most widely distributed newspaper, Postimees, something the editors of Russian-language papers welcomed  and that will help promote a common information space. That positive contribution to bridging the linguistic divide was undercut somewhat at the end of the year, when there were fears that the country's cable television networks would drop almost all Russian-language programming emanating from the Russian Federation. This did not happen, but the discussion about it highlighted the continuing sensitivities on both sides.

One other development that affects this sphere concerns a language shift among young people. Both young ethnic Estonians and young ethnic Russians are learning English at an extremely rapid rate. Among young people in particular, English is rapidly becoming the language of interethnic communication in Estonia. This trend has sparked occasional but not entirely unserious suggestions that the country ought to make English an official language and comments that young ethnic Russians, who are learning Estonian, are now better positioned for employment than are young ethnic Estonians, who are not learning Russian. This trend also helps to explain various polls showing that many ethnic Russians in Estonia are now more upbeat about the consequences of Estonia's membership in the EU than are some Estonians.

The country's Russian-language schools continued to prepare for shifting over to ever greater amounts of Estonian-language instruction by 2007. That sparked many critical articles and comments in the Russian media, but both school directors and teachers overwhelmingly have supported the move, and it appears set to go through without the kinds of protests that have marked similar shifts in Latvia.

Independent Media: 

Estonia's media scene is mixed. On the positive side, the media operate free of direct government regulation, and the press is vigorous in reporting on a wide range of problems. Indeed, in its annual report, the international media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders rated Estonia as the 11th freest media environment in the world. Other observers agree, impressed by the enormous size of its media space given the size of the country.  Moreover, Estonia is one of the most Internet-connected countries on earth, with schools, government offices, and businesses almost totally online and most people having access to the Internet at home as well.

On the negative side, however, Estonia is a microscopically small media market. As a result, despite the impressive number of publications, newspapers and journals are seldom financed by bundled advertising-the basis of the diverse funding that supports media freedom in many countries-but are supported either by readers, who must pay high prices for them and thus often do not, or by owners, whose involvement frequently invites speculation about the politics behind certain reports. The most important development in 2005 was the appearance of a Russian-language edition of country's largest daily, as noted earlier.

If the press is almost always vigorous, it is also often sensationalist. Indeed, former Estonian president Lennart Meri frequently observed that the road from a Soviet-style controlled press to a genuinely free press passes through a yellow press. Although much of Estonian journalism is outstanding and corresponds to international standards, some of it is still at the level of tabloid sensationalism, where gaining an audience seems more important than sticking to the facts. Indeed, both Estonian readers and some Estonian journalists speak of the increasing tabloidization of the Estonian press.

In addition to questions of the economic viability of various outlets given market size and the quality of reporting, there were new concerns about the role of the country's security police in monitoring the Internet; the expansion of libel and defamation laws, which some fear might limit criticism; and a plan to promote Estonia via government-financed films. Exactly how much officers of the security police have gotten involved in the media scene remains unclear. There have been accusations that they have taken steps to chill criticism,  but much of this criticism seems politically motivated itself and may be overstated.

In this situation, the Internet plays a special role, but one that is also not without problems. Estonia is one of the most Internet-savvy countries on earth. Most people have computers at home, and nearly all have access to them at work. And the government not only invented the public Internet sign now used around the world-an ampersand on a blue background-for public Internet access points, but has worked to open such offices across the country, especially in rural areas. Moreover, Estonia is a leader in e-governance, and over the course of 2005, the authorities made it easier than ever before to make use of a single plastic card to interact with all government functions.

That connectivity is impressive, but there is one downside: There is a major Internet divide between urban educated Estonians and the many ethnic Russians who often form lower-socioeconomic groups. This digital divide means that when Estonian authorities decide to do something like eliminate print versions of particular pieces of information, this ostensibly ethnically equal arrangement in fact hits one group far harder than the other, something Russian media in Estonia are increasingly concerned about.

Local Democratic Governance: 

Local elections in October 2005 sparked new discussion about the transfer of power, especially taxation power, to local governments but did not lead to a resolution of that long-contentious issue. More important, the run-up to the voting generated heightened attention to the problematic interrelationship between local and central governments and to the complex sets of often hidden personal ties within political parties, jeopardizing the transparency that should be the basis of an open democratic society.

Because Estonia is so small, many politicians have been involved simultaneously in local elections and national politics, especially in the capital city of Tallinn. That is not by itself a problem, but it has three consequences for the future of the country that may prove serious. First, because national politicians sometimes run for local offices but then decide to remain in their national offices (rather than assume the ones they have been elected to locally), many voters-and especially those who have voted for a local winner who then does not take office-become alienated from the political process.

Second, this only exacerbates the problems that local governments face in building authority and solving local problems. They are so interconnected with Tallinn and national politics that they cannot act in the ways their constituents might expect, again something that has the effect of undermining public confidence in this level of political activity.

Third, the lack of a clear distinction means that Estonian local government is not in the position that it could and should be to help select and provide training for the next generation of Estonian political leaders. One example of this is the fact that only six regional leaders now serve in the Parliament, a remarkably small percentage of the total but one that Estonia's leaders tout as a significant improvement in comparison with the 1990s. Another example is the fact that Estonia's national political elite has not been revitalized in the ways it might be; most of the candidates mentioned for the presidency and the Parliament in 2006 remained members of the generation of 1991 (rather than including a variety of new candidates), which tarnishes Estonia's reputation as a politically dynamic democracy.

As has been true since the restoration of Estonian independence, local and regional governments remained underfunded and understaffed except in Tallinn and other major cities. As a result, local government is often seen by the Estonian population as a plaything of the central authorities. One example of this is that the same authority that controls the Tallinn airport controls the airport at the university city of Tartu-and does not allow any regularly scheduled flights to land or take off from there. This is a major issue for the city, and many people there blame Tallinn, despite the airport authority's insistence that it is working on the problem.

Another problem, about which EU officials have complained but which is difficult to measure, concerns the introduction of EU standards at the local level. Brussels has complained of delays and distortions, but it is difficult to gauge just how much progress appears to have been made over the last 18 months.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Estonia's court system is independent and plays a key role in ensuring that the Parliament follows the law, with the Supreme Court routinely ruling on the constitutionality of the legislature's actions. Moreover, the courts have continued to play an active role in promoting and protecting the civil rights of all groups. Following the country's accession to the EU in 2004, Estonia's judges continued to receive training in judicial activity. But efforts to provide training for prosecutors, a key part of the judicial system, continued to be restricted by some officials who view prosecutors rather than judges as central to the control of the courts. By the end of 2005, that had begun to change, but the success of judicial training has not yet been equaled by a similar success in the training of prosecutors. Prison conditions remain troubling, especially since Estonia has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the EU.

All international organizations agree that Estonia protects the fundamental rights of its citizens, that the courts are generally effective, and that legal aid works well. At the same time, there are in Estonia, as in all countries, problems involving the abuse of women and children and the treatment of those incarcerated in prisons.

The latter is an especially large problem. Estonia has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, 339 prisoners per 100,000 residents-more than four times the rate of neighboring Finland, to give but one obvious comparison. There are a total of 3,500 people in prisons and another 1,000 in detention, awaiting trial or other dispositions of their cases. Conditions in prisons are frequently well below EU and international standards, although the EU is providing Estonia with assistance to upgrade them.

One of the reasons Estonia's incarceration rate is so high is that although it has eliminated many of the regulations that lead to corruption, its people and government have decided that some offenses warrant punishments far more draconian than are typical of other EU countries. For example, if an individual is convicted a second time for drunk driving, he or she is judged guilty of a felony and is subject to incarceration. That risk leads many people in Estonia to be extremely careful about drinking and driving, but it highlights another problem that Estonia, like many other countries undergoing transition, has yet to face.

In the 15 years since Estonian independence was achieved, there have been only the rarest of consultations between lawmakers, executive officials, and criminologists about the best criminal procedures; such conversations might help guide the country in ways that would allow it to maintain law and order without the rate of incarceration it now has. Legal specialists interviewed in the media frequently complained about this lack during 2005, but there is little evidence that the government is ready to respond in a positive way.

The conditions in Estonian prisons remained difficult in 2005, according to many human rights activists and observers. Inadequate food, housing, and medical attention were only three of the problems they pointed to in reports to the Estonian Parliament, the media, and international groups, including the EU. As is the case in many other countries, there is little popular support among Estonians for spending more money on prisons, yet this is something the country will almost certainly have to do if it is to overcome its less than sterling reputation in this area.


Estonians continue to view their government as more corrupt than monitoring organizations like Transparency International, the Fraser Institute of Canada, the Heritage Foundation, and the Milken Institute all believe it to be. Most obvious forms of corruption directly involving citizens have declined, largely as a result of Estonia's decision to end the regulation of many activities and thereby reduce the number of points at which a citizen might be extorted by officials. And Estonia's decision, almost alone among transition countries, to make corruption a "distinct crime" has drawn praise. Indeed, most of the evaluations carried out by international groups focus on those positive developments.

But the country's small size and specific history mean that there are problems in this area that these organizations seldom track. On the one hand, the relatively small population of Estonia means that people generally know one another, which ultimately breeds suspicions that some of these contacts will be used illegitimately. And on the other hand, there are other kinds of corruption, including those used by domestic politicians seeking power or foreign governments seeking influence, that many Estonians believe are not only widespread, but may even be larger than they were earlier.

Three developments during 2005 only intensified Estonian concerns that corruption in these other forms was on the rise, even if the kind of corruption measured by international monitors was in fact continuing to decline. First, in March a Viljandi newspaper reported that the country's Justice Ministry had assigned each of the regions a "quota" for corruption arrests; this sparked a media firestorm, which together with the government's somewhat clumsy handling of the report helped bring down the Parts administration -and sent a clear message that corruption revealed will not be tolerated. But the incident had the effect of leading more Estonians to focus on corruption as an issue and to worry that one way or another, officials were getting funds and other goods in illegal ways. How accurate such perceptions are is difficult to gauge, but the existence of such concerns is real and not trivial for the future of the country.

Second, in June several Tallinn newspapers reported that the number of state employees being investigated for corruption was nearly three times as great in 2005 as it had been in 2004. On the one hand, these reports may simply have been fallout from the earlier Viljandi newspaper report noted previously. On the other hand, some of them appear to reflect the adversarial scuffling that marks the beginning of an election season, with various officials and candidates making charges to advance their own interests; and some of it may reflect the fact that the security police in 2005 became more actively involved in investigating corruption at the local level. But whatever its causes, many Estonians also viewed these statistics as an indication that corruption was growing even if it was not the old visible kind.

Third, many Estonians during 2005, media reports suggested, were increasingly concerned about political corruption, the illegitimate use of power either by domestic political figures or by the Russian government. The first of these concerns was heightened by the apparent use by the Center Party of its business ties to skirt the legislation on political advertising (see earlier) and the second by continued charges from the former Estonian ambassador to Moscow that the Russian intelligence agencies have corrupted the Estonian political system-charges the security police supported rather than denied.

Such activities again may not be technically part of corruption as normally understood, but they are often combined in the minds of Estonians and at the very least help to explain why their judgments about corruption in their country are so different from those of international observers.