Estonia | Freedom House

Nations in Transit



Nations in Transit 2011

2011 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Regime Classification

Consolidated Democracy

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)


Capital: Tallin
Population: 1.3 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US $19,120
Source: The data above were provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2011.

*Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. 

Executive Summary: 

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has vigorously pursued integration with all Western political and economic structures, joining both NATO and the European Union in 2004. In 2010, the country passed another critical milestone, receiving permission to adopt the euro as its official currency on January 1, 2011. Estonia will be the first, post-Soviet republic to join the Eurozone.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, already Estonia’s longest serving leader, prepared to set another record in 2010 as the first Estonian premier to complete a full term in office. His performance amid the recent severe economic and financial crisis significantly increased support for his liberal Reform Party, while support for the

Greens and the People’s Union declined. As a result, parliamentary elections set for March 2011 may well result in a parliament of just four political parties—two from the right (the Reform Party and the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union), and two from the left (the Center Party and the Social Democratic Party).

Because the center-right has dominated Estonian politics since the early 1990s, the country has maintained relatively tight fiscal and pro-market economic policies. This saved Estonia from a complete collapse during the 2008–09 global financial crisis, as for a while it was able to draw on financial reserves built up during the boom years. However, its laissez-faire approach also allowed a significant real estate bubble to develop and burst, leaving many people struggling to make ends meet. The fact that Estonia has never strategically guided its economic growth meant that it was in a weaker position to chart a new direction for the economy once growth started to resume in 2010. Notably, the country’s low levels of corruption have helped facilitate economic growth.

Civil society in Estonia has also grown stronger over the last decade, with a number of important framework documents and funding schemes put in place. Nevertheless, serious divides remain in the country between ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers. The latter (numbering roughly 30 percent of the population) are largely a legacy of the Soviet era, when hundreds of thousands of Russians migrated to Estonia. However, after 1991 most of these individuals were denied automatic citizenship in the restored Estonian state, and they have faced considerable challenges in learning the language as well as integrating more broadly into the new Estonian society. Decreased government attention in this realm over the last few years has complicated the issue.

National Democratic Governance. Through the defection of several members of parliament from the collapsed People’s Union, Prime Minister Ansip’s center-right coalition gained a de facto majority, remaining firmly in control during 2010. Through continued firm fiscal and economic policies, Estonia was also able to join the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development and complete preparations for introducing the euro in January 2011. In other areas, however Ansip undertook few domestic initiatives during the year. Estonia’s national democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 2.25.

Electoral Process. Estonia’s political parties spent 2010 gearing up for the parliamentary elections due in March 2011. While the liberal Reform Party maintained high marks in public opinion polls due to the prime minister’s perceived success in dealing with the economic crisis, the leftist Center Party worked to increase its stronghold in the capital. The Social Democrat Party, People’s Union, and Greens all struggled with leadership crises, raising questions as to how each would fare in the upcoming elections. Parliament passed changes to legislation concerning European and presidential elections, and the Supreme Court ruled that Estonia’s special ban on outdoor campaign advertising before elections was not unconstitutional. Estonia’s electoral process rating remains unchanged at 1.75.

Civil Society. Estonia’s main civil society support organization, the National Foundation of Civil Society, entered its second year of operations, distributing roughly 20 million kroons (US$1.8 million) in project funding for dozens of NGOs and a network of regional civil society development centers. The foundation has become a cornerstone for providing both public and private money for civic activities, helping to strengthen the underlying framework of the third sector. Nevertheless, a 2010 study of Estonian civil society showed that many organizations remain weak and the number of people involved with civic groups has declined slightly. Against the backdrop of these positive and negative changes, Estonia’s civil society rating remains unchanged at 1.75.

Independent Media. In 2010 the Ministry of Justice introduced a draft law obliging journalists to reveal their sources if requested by the authorities, and imposing preliminary fines on media outlets accused of libel or slander. In protest, Estonia’s major newspapers ran blank pages in their publications in mid-March, and eventually opposition to the bill forced the government to rescind some of the more contested provisions. A less controversial version of the amendments was approved at the end of November, though the preemptive fines against media outlets were not removed. Owing to the general success of media protests in blocking the most controversial amendments to media legislation, Estonia’s independent media rating remains unchanged at 1.50.

Local Democratic Governance. Estonia’s economic crisis put a severe strain on relations between the country’s national and local governments, especially after parliament allowed the state to take a greater share of personal income tax revenue from municipalities in order to balance the national budget. As the most powerful local government in Estonia, the capital Tallinn took the lead in challenging these measures in the courts as well as seeking alternative taxation possibilities. However, these efforts were stymied by the national governing coalition, which hastily amended legislation in parliament to block the capital’s counter moves. The conflict soon took on a party-politics dimension, though questions of local government autonomy were also at stake. Despite the national-local tug-of-war over income tax revenues, Estonia’s local democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 2.50.

Judicial Framework and Independence. After years of debate and discussion, a high-level working group headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court presented a plan for large-scale reform of Estonia’s court system. However, when parliament began legislating the new Courts Act in January, it immediately came under fire from not only the opposition but also twelve of the chief justice’s own colleagues on the Supreme Court. Estonia’s judicial framework and independence rating remains unchanged at 1.50.

Corruption. Estonia reached a milestone in its anticorruption efforts in May when the Supreme Court upheld the bribery conviction against former environment minister and leader of the People’s Union party, Villu Reiljan. Although Reiljan would go on to appeal his conviction before the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court ruling showed that even high-level political figures are not immune to prosecution. Meanwhile, a new large-scale survey of corruption in Estonia showed that public awareness of the issue had grown and the readiness to pay bribes had decreased. Owing to these positive developments, Estonia’s corruption rating improves from 2.50 to 2.25.

Outlook for 2011. On January 1, 2011, Estonia adopted the euro as its national currency, marking the achievement of all major goals the country had set itself since regaining independence in 1991. As a result, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s Reform Party is expected to do well in the upcoming parliamentary elections in March, barring any unexpected problems with the currency switch, such as sudden inflation. Together with the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union parties, the Reform Party is likely to gain a majority, thus ensuring that national governance will remain stable. However, it is unclear whether these parties can generate the new policy ideas needed to support Estonia’s economic recovery. One major beneficiary of a center-right electoral victory would be President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose prospects for reappointment by parliament in August 2011 would greatly improve.

National Democratic Governance: 

Throughout 2010, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of the liberal, pro-market Reform Party maintained his focus on economic measures needed to secure Estonia’s admittance to the Eurozone in January 2011. By year’s end it was clear that Ansip would become the country’s first prime minister to remain in office for a full parliamentary term. Although individual cabinet ministers continued to come under fire from the opposition, no resignations or reshuffles occurred and national democratic governance was robust overall.

Following a bottoming out of the economic crisis in 2009–10, when GDP shrank by 14.1 percent[1] and registered unemployment reached 14.6 percent,[2] Estonia saw its first signs of recovery during the second quarter of 2010, when GDP grew by 3.1 percent and another 4.7 percent during the third quarter. Projected economic growth for the entire year was about 1 percent, with estimates of a continued rise to some 4 percent for the period of 2011–14. Unemployment is expected to drop to 7 percent by 2014, though this does not account for hidden unemployment.[3] In comparison to the boom years of 2000–07 (when growth averaged some 8 percent annually), the new recovery is likely to be slow, and the full impact of such issues as long-term unemployment or social problems like crime and substance abuse will only become clear in the coming years.

The government’s steady focus on economic austerity and recovery was facilitated by the absence of major political tussles or disturbances during the year, as both ethnic Estonians and the country’s large Russian-speaking minority seemed to take the steep economic downturn with a degree of resignation. Estonia did not suffer a catastrophic collapse in state finances nor did any of its banks shut down, as in neighboring Latvia. Without resorting to emergency assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or other funds, Estonia managed to satisfy the European Union (EU)’s criteria for adopting the euro, and was pronounced ready for Eurozone membership by the European Commission on May 12. This good news was followed by an invitation in mid-May for Estonia to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the international club of advanced industrial economies. Some observers argued that accession to the OECD might be even more important than adoption of the euro given the OECD’s global influence on economic and financial policies.

The only substantial domestic reform undertaken in 2010 was a restructuring of law enforcement and security agencies into a single Police and Border Guard Board. The new organization now encompassed the national police, secret service, and border patrol, as well as immigration/naturalization issues. The move allowed these services to consolidate their regional headquarters into four districts. Whether the agencies would also improve their ability to conduct joint operations or exchange information remained to be seen at year’s end.

Ethnic relations and minority integration in Estonia remained stable in 2010, though without showing any sign of active improvement. Usually treated as insignificant in day-to-day Estonian politics, the status of Estonia’s minority populations continued to be criticized by observer organizations such as the Estonian Cooperation Assembly[4] and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.[5] Currently, 31 percent of the population (approx. 400,000 people) is ethnically non-Estonian. However, only half of these individuals are Estonian citizens—the others are either Russian citizens or persons without citizenship.[6] Over the last few years, the process of naturalizing these individuals into Estonian citizenship has come to a virtual standstill: in 2009 only 1,670 people were naturalized following a peak of over 7,000 in 2005.[7] In part, this decline is linked to low levels of Estonian language knowledge among Russians in the country. According to a 2010 survey, only one-third of Russian speakers claimed they could speak Estonian adequately.[8] These integration difficulties have also severely undercut political participation among Russian speakers. There are no viable Russian political parties in Estonia and virtually no ethnic Russians among the national political elite. An overwhelming majority of ethnic Russians give their support to the Center Party, making up around half of its total support base. In 2009, the Ansip government eliminated the position of a special minister dedicated to population affairs and minority integration.

Electoral Process: 

The government took advantage of a non-election year to make modifications to existing electoral law and size up party prospects for upcoming March 2011 elections to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s unicameral parliament. The most important legal modification came as a reaction to the results of the 2009 European Parliament elections, in which independent candidate Indrek Tarand won nearly 26 percent of the vote by campaigning on the issue of closed lists. Under a closed-list system, voters must select a political party and its entire candidate list, whereas in an open list system voters may choose a specific candidate within a national party list. Tarand’s claim that the shift to closed-list voting in 2009 represented yet another limit on political competition resonated with voters and caused an electoral upset. Almost all parliamentary deputies voted in February to reinstate open lists for Estonia’s next European elections in 2014.

Later in the year, the government made a second adjustment to electoral process by amending legislation related to presidential elections. By law, Estonia’s president Estonia 209 is elected by a two-thirds majority in parliament, but the near impossibility of garnering such a majority means that in practice all of the presidential elections since 1992 have been forwarded (following three failed parliamentary votes) to a special electoral college made up of all 101 parliamentarians and approximately 245 representatives from local governments. In the past, local councils had been left to select representatives on their own, often resulting in a ruling-party-takes-all situation in the nine, larger cities entitled to multiple delegates. For example, in 2005 the Center Party (CP) gained an absolute majority in the Talinn city council and staged a clean sweep of the city’s ten electoral college delegates during the 2006 presidential elections. To avoid this problem, in June 2010 the governing coalition between the Reform Party and Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (PPRPU) proposed a new set of procedures whereby opposition councilors would be guaranteed some degree of representation in the electoral college. The final legislative amendments were passed in October.

A third dispute concerning electoral law was laid for to rest by a July Supreme Court ruling protecting Estonia’s unique ban on outdoor electoral campaign advertising. The law, which bans parties from displaying campaign advertisements out of doors for 40 days before an election, was adopted in 2005 in response to public frustration with the practice of plastering high-rise buildings and billboards with campaign appeals in the weeks before a vote. The law was immediately challenged by Estonia’s Chancellor of Justice, but in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that while the ban did in fact limit individual and party rights to campaign, it was not an overbearing restriction.

Public opinion polls conducted in the fall showed the Reform Party leading with over 30 percent support, which together with even a modest showing by the PPRPU (around 15 percent) would be enough to give the two center-right parties a solid governing majority in the March 2011 elections. Meanwhile, the left-leaning CP remained the party of choice for roughly 25 percent of Estonians, including retired, low-income, and Russian minority voters. This, despite the unpopularity of CP’s overbearing leader, Edgar Savisaar. Savisaar suffered a renewed assault on his credibility in late December, when Estonia’s Security Police Board revealed evidence that he had asked the president of Russia’s state owned railway company, Vladimir Yakunin, for a €1.5 million donation to the CP. These revelations unleashed accusations that Savisaar was selling political influence to the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) underwent internal changes following its expulsion from Prime Minister Ansip’s cabinet in 2009. This dustup had thrown the party into the opposition, together with the CP. The SDP accepted an offer from Savisaar (in his role as mayor of Tallinn) to participate in the Tallinn city government, though the CP already had an absolute majority. The uneasy partnership was supposed to test the waters for possible future cooperation between the two parties, should the center-right bloc become further entrenched. However, trust between Savisaar and the SDP leader Jüri Pihl did not grow, and Pihl came under increasing criticism from within the SDP for his erratic leadership. In October, the SDP held a party assembly where delegates replaced Pihl with 37-year210 old Sven Mikser, who had served as Defense Minister in 2002–03 and was a rising star in the CP until a falling out with Savisaar.

Many believed the SDP lost an opportunity when it failed to achieve a smooth merger with the rural-based People’s Union (PU). The PU had languished since its longtime leader Villu Reiljan—at that time Estonia’s minister of environment— was charged with corruption in 2006. The party barely made it into parliament in 2007 and won less than two percent during the 2009 local elections, where it had fared much better in previous years. The breakdown of the party began in spring 2010, when two PU heavyweights—Aivar Sõerd, a former Minister of Finance, and Tarmo Mänd, former chief of staff under President Arnold Rüütel—defected to the Reform Party. Few observers expected the party to recover in time for the 2011 elections.

Another party racked by fratricide was the Greens. Following a strong start in 2007, when it broke into parliament with 7.1 percent of the vote, the party began to fragment under its loose organizational structure. In 2009 a group within the party’s executive called a special congress and succeeded in unseating most of the party leadership. Although Greens leader Marek Strandberg retained his post, he took the decision to court, which ruled in April 2010 that the special congress had not been convened properly. When the court ordered a reinstatement of the old leadership, the mutineers threatened to leave the party. Eventually most agreed to stay, and in late May an entirely new executive was elected. However, many view its chances of returning to parliament as bleak, and comparable to those of the People’s Union.

Civil Society: 

In 2010, Estonia’s civil society continued to build on the legal institutions and support mechanisms created over the last decade. Since establishing a legal framework via the Non-Profit Association Act in 1996 and adopting an overarching Civil Society Development Concept in 2002, efforts have focused on strengthening the economic base of civil society organizations through the National Foundation of Civil Society, created in 2008. The foundation emulates other semi-government funds in Estonia (such as the Non-Estonian Integration Foundation), distributing project funding as well as organizational advice to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The foundation promotes projects that build NGO organizational capacities, generate new ideas for civic action, promote international exchange of civic initiatives, and strengthen advocacy practices. With its yearly budget of roughly 20 million Estonian kroons (US$1.8 million), the foundation was able to support dozens of initiatives during the year, including, for example, 25 NGOs working in the field of social entrepreneurship. It also worked to maintain a network of regional civil society development centers to decentralize outreach and stimulate Estonia 211 local initiative. During the last three months of 2010 the foundation additionally funded eleven county-level conferences on civil society to determine how the sector was developing from a regional, comparative perspective.

The foundation also commissioned a research report from the Civil Society Research and Development Center at Tallinn University,[9] which found that basic attitudes towards civic initiative have improved. Civil society organizations have come to be seen by the state and business organizations as a significant and positive social force. One of the most important structural developments for civil society has been the internal differentiation of the sector between foundations (with a solid financial base and broad range of activities) and non-profit associations (usually with limited resources but a more targeted scope). Moreover, cooperation between different organizations has increased. Among the negative trends emphasized was a decline in human resources, for although the number of civil society organizations in Estonia has grown, the overall number of members has declined. With regard to NGO financial resources, researchers found that the funding situation has not significantly improved since 2005, despite the creation of institutions such as the foundation. Throughout the NGO landscape there was also a clear difference between older organizations, which were firmly established and functioned well, and younger organizations that struggled to survive. While this was not in itself surprising, the report did express concern, as younger NGOs form the clear majority of all civil society organizations in Estonia.

The first of May has developed into a major tradition of civic activity in Estonia. Following a campaign in 2008 in which over 50,000 people volunteered to clean up different parts of the countryside and a second event in 2009 where 11,000 people gathered in discussion groups across the country to find solutions for various social issues, the organizers of the movement “Let’s do it!” called on people in 2010 to participate in different community development projects, including cleaning up public spaces, restoring commemorative sites, and promoting environmental protection. The campaign was a success, with over 30,000 taking part.

Independent Media: 

For years, media independence has been one of the strongest elements of Estonian democracy. Despite its small size, Estonia has a varied and vibrant media landscape, with a mix of traditional print and electronic media as well as newer online information portals, social networking sites, and popular blogs. International monitoring organizations have consistently ranked Estonia near the top of their indices, and issues such as censorship or intimidation of the media have never been a concern.

In terms of focus, the Estonian media landscape can be divided into national and local as well as Estonian- and Russian-language forums. On the national level, the landscape was dominated in 2010 by three major television channels—the public channel ETV and two private channels TV3 and Kanal2—and a handful of minor channels. There are four national Estonian-language daily newspapers (Postimees, Eesti Päevaleht, Õhtuleht, and Äripäev) and two major Estonian-language weeklies (Eesti Ekspress and Maaleht). Of these, the two most successful dailies (Postimees and Õhtuleht) averaged a circulation of around 56,000 copies, while the weeklies sold 35,000–42,000 copies. At the regional level there were over a dozen county newspapers, usually appearing 3–4 times per week. All national as well as many of the regional Estonian-language papers maintained internet news portals, which for the most part were free.

Among Russian-language media, the landscape was much barer, especially considering the potential market of some 400,000 Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians in the country. The only major Russian-language daily, Postimees na Russkom Yazyke, is distributed by its Estonian-language equivalent. Though generally seen as a respectable publication, the newspaper is still relatively young (founded in 2007) and had a low circulation of 11,000 in 2010. Older Russian-language papers such as Estoniya and Molodyozh Estonii went bankrupt in 2009. The country’s one Russian-language weekly, Den za Dnjom, also suffered from the tight media market, with a circulation of around 12,000. Regional Russian-language papers were all concentrated in northeast Estonia, where two (Viru Prospekt and Severnnoe Poberezhye) had circulations averaging around 7,000 each. This relative paucity of minority-language print media stems from the fact that Russian Federation–based media are also widely available in Estonia.

Moreover, because of the economic crisis many have come to rely on free newspapers published with considerable advertising but usually containing enough information (such as TV listings) to satisfy most readers. As a rule, such newspapers are locally based (e.g., Tallinna Linnaleht and Tartu Ekspress) and are distributed via bins placed in shopping centers and public spaces. Their circulation rivals that of retail weeklies at around 25,000 copies.

Equally notable, although more controversial, has been the growth in municipally-funded media, particularly in Tallinn. Since gaining control of the city government in 2001 (except for a brief hiatus in 2004–05), the Center Party has consistently expanded the scope of citywide and district-level newspapers published by the municipal administration. While city authorities have defended the newspapers as a key means for distributing local information to residents, the opposition has criticized them as propaganda tools that extol the accomplishments of officials instead of objectively examining city issues. Questions concerning cost also arose when Mayor Edgar Savisaar announced in 2008 that the city would establish a municipal television station, set to begin broadcasting in 2011.

A wide range of radio formats are broadcast in Estonia, from pop music to religious programming, with public and private broadcasting and Estonian- and Russian-language outlets. Media ownership has become more concentrated over the years, with foreign investors holding majority stakes in many print and electronic media. While this has not led to any major issues over content, it has caused most publications to cuts costs and focus more on easy to gather news stories rather than investigative journalism.

In 1991, the Estonian Newspaper Association created the first Estonian Press Council (Avaliku sõna nõukogu), to which a number of other NGOs (including church organizations and journalist associations) later acceded. The Association later went on to found a new Pressinõukogu, which confusingly carries the same English-language name of Estonian Press Council. Both groups serve as nonjudicial appeals bodies where individuals or organizations can submit complaints about bias or libel in the media. Neither council has any direct powers of sanction, but both attempt to analyze complaints based on a code of ethics that each has drawn up with outside experts. The councils find in favor of the plaintiff in about two-thirds of the complaints.

Government regulation of media received special attention in 2010 when the Ministry of Justice pursued legal amendments making it easier to force outlets to disclose the sources of their print or broadcast information. The proposal led to an uproar among the journalistic community, which culminated with Estonia’s major newspapers publishing a blank front page or editorial column on March 18. The protest caused legislators to backtrack on some of the reform’s provisions, but at the end of November parliament passed the amendments, despite continued grumbling among media representatives. In particular, the measure contained a provision allowing authorities to impose preemptory fines on media outlets found guilty of libel or slander. The measure also made it easier for authorities to demand that journalists reveal their sources, including whistleblowers.

Local Democratic Governance: 

The principle problem with Estonia’s system of local government remains its fragmentation into myriad local government units of unequal proportions. Whereas the capital Tallinn numbers roughly 400,000 inhabitants, more than 60 percent of rural municipalities have less than 2,000. Numerous attempts at consolidating municipalities have failed, and while the national government has attempted to provide monetary incentives for local governments to merge, only a handful have chosen to do so.

The economic crisis hit Estonian local governments hard, forcing them to significantly cut spending and find new sources of income. Prioritizing its own budgetary problems, in 2009 the national government reduced the share of personal income taxes for local governments, adding to their debt burden. In 2010 local governments demanded that the previous distribution ratio be restored, but their request was ignored during the preparation of the 2011 government budget.

Tallinn and other municipalities attempted to fight back, first in the courts and later with revenue measures of their own. Already in early 2009 the Tallinn city government submitted a petition to the Estonian Supreme Court regarding provisions of the 2009 state budget, which cut several subsidies previously granted to municipalities for necessary services such as road maintenance and provision of social services. In March 2010, the Court ruled that the state could not impose responsibilities on local governments without a minimum level of funding, and that local governments had the right to contest such obligations if funding was insufficient. The Court also ruled that local governments could not be forced to use local monies to perform state-mandated tasks simply because the state decided to cut its own budget.

The rulings took over a year to be handed down, and Tallinn and other municipalities attempted more immediate solutions to their budgetary woes by enacting new forms of local taxation, such as a special 1 percent sales tax and a boat tax. The measures brought in tens of millions of extra kroons for city governments. However, they also led to complaints by retailers, who claimed they would have to pass these new costs on to customers. Economists predicted that such price hikes would be enacted across the country, spurring inflation.

The initiatives sparked a new tug-of-war between the Center Party– led Tallinn city government and the center-right national government. In June, parliamentarians from the ruling coalition introduced legislation rescinding the right of municipalities to enact local sales taxes and boat levies. The law—which will go into effect in January 2012—reflects the animosity between the administrations of Prime Minister Ansip and Mayor Savisaar, whose increasingly consolidated control over the capital is a source of frustration and anxiety to center-right parties in the ruling coalition. Instead of toppling Savisaar at the ballot box, these parties use the power of the national government to stymie initiatives from Tallinn. On the whole, such tussles remained limited to the capital in 2010 and did not influence local government autonomy overall.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Estonia’s judicial system saw advances and setbacks in 2010 when a major plan for reforming the court system foundered over a series of political and legal disputes. For years, judicial experts have recommended that the country’s courts be made more independent by creating a separate agency to handle day-to-day administrative affairs. Currently, the Ministry of Justice handles both the main budgetary allocation and all administrative services for district and circuit courts in Estonia (the Supreme Court is its own institution). Though there have been no specific complaints about politicization of the courts, many judicial specialists and justice officials have said that the lower courts should not remain under the indirect influence of the executive branch. To this end, one of the major goals of the proposed court reform was to create an autonomous administrative system for the entire judiciary.

Within the framework of this reform, a number of other issues were raised, including the extreme slowness of judicial process in Estonia and the fact that lower-court rulings were increasingly being overturned on appeal due to the faulty legal reasoning of judges. Experts argued that some kind of oversight mechanism should be built into the court system to more adequately assess incompetent judges.

In December 2009, a special working group chaired by Chief Justice Märt Rask handed parliament the final draft of the new Courts Act. In early January 2010, the draft was unexpectedly denounced by twelve of Rask’s own colleagues on the Supreme Court, who declared that the measure went too far in establishing a hierarchy of judicial oversight. (Justices and judges higher up in the system would be tasked with evaluating the performance of colleagues beneath them.) Rask’s colleagues argued that subordinate judges might refrain from making certain judicial decisions for fear of possible repercussions from their superiors. In response, Chief Justice Rask accused his associates of politicizing the debate with exaggerated claims. He was seconded in his opinion by a former chief justice, Rait Maruste, who said that oversight needed to be strengthened and that it is the legislature that creates the court system, not the courts themselves. Further complicating matters, another former chief justice, Uno Lõhmus, defended the dissenting justices, claiming that judges in all European countries have a right to express their opinion about the court system.

Amid the debate, some positive aspects of the draft (i.e., the creation of an independent administrative agency for the judiciary) fell by the wayside. Meanwhile, an important constitutional dimension in the draft also arose—namely, a provision allowing the president of the republic to suggest the removal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court in cases of serious and persistent shortcomings in the court system. Chief Justice Rask defended the amendment, saying that parliament must have the right to demand accountability from even the highest judge in the land. By contrast, former chief justices Maruste and Lõhmus and a number of other legal experts spoke against the provision, saying it could lead to a politicization of the chief justice position. They noted that according to the constitution, the chief justice is also the head of the Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court. As the presidency is one of three institutions endowed with the right to contest the constitutionality of laws before the Chamber, opponents argued that a sitting president might attempt to unseat the chief justice in the event of his or her constitutional appeal being rejected. Finally, critics of the draft Courts Act were unhappy with the stipulation that the chief justice could only be removed if there were serious and persistent problems in the judiciary—a criterion they deemed too subjective and susceptible to political maneuvering.

After two months of extensive public debate, parliament decided to postpone the legislation through the spring and summer. In November the chairman of the committee legislating the bill, Väino Linde, announced that in all likelihood parliament would not be able to pass the law before the upcoming elections, essentially conceding that the reform effort had failed.


Two developments in 2010 indicated notable progress in Estonia’s fight against government corruption. First, the long-running trial of former environment minister and leader of the People’s Union party, Villu Reiljan, came to an end in May when the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the lower-court conviction of Reiljan on bribery charges. Thus, Reiljan became the highest-ranking politician in Estonia to be found guilty of corruption. Secondly, and perhaps as a result, a new comprehensive survey showed that people’s intolerance for corruption has grown in Estonia and that fewer people reported have come in contact with corruption than in previous years.

The high-profile Reiljan affair began in 2006 when allegations surfaced that he had approved the transfer of numerous lucrative state-owned properties to real estate developers in exchange for favors. Reiljan was forced to resign, and within a few months a formal criminal investigation was opened. Prosecutors handed down additional charges, including a case in which Reiljan had allegedly (and indirectly) exacted a payment of 1.5 million kroons (US$137,000) from a real estate developer in exchange for favoring him in the sale of a prized piece of state property in downtown Tallinn. Parliament removed Reiljan’s legal immunity as a member of parliament and a formal trial commenced in fall 2008.

In May 2009, Reiljan was found guilty of the main bribery change, and this conviction was later upheld by a circuit court. He then appealed to the Supreme Court to throw out certain evidence against him, such as secret recordings of conversations he claimed were made by law enforcement officials without proper authorization. In its final decision in May 2010, the Supreme Court agreed to declare the audio evidence inadmissible. However, it noted that even without it, Reiljan’s guilt had been proven beyond a doubt and therefore let the 27-month suspended prison sentence stand. Reiljan’s lawyer announced in October that he had sent an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but a decision was likely to take years. Likewise, former party colleague and ex-Agriculture Minister Ester Tuiksoo also stood trial on corruption charges, all of which helped to explain the demise of the People’s Union as a force in Estonian politics.

Bribery allegations also rocked the Estonian judiciary in 2010, when three judges were either convicted or arrested for swaying court decisions or releasing sensitive information in return for money. Two were in northeastern Estonia, where legal experts have long pointed to a lack of professionalism among judges.

In one example, agents from the Estonian Security Police Board arrested Mikhail Komchatnikov, a county court judge in the city of Narva, while accepting a bribe from a mediator in exchange for the release on bail of a murder suspect. A month later, Komchatnikov was convicted by another court and given a two-year prison sentence.

As these scandals rocked the media, a study showed the public’s tolerance for corruption of all kinds decreasing. The September 2010 survey by the Estonian Ministry of Justice and the University of Tartu found that in comparison with 2006, the number of businesspeople who reported having paid a bribe declined from 15 to 10 percent.[10] Likewise, just 4 percent of citizens said they had tipped bureaucrats or given gifts in order to receive services, down from 8 percent in 2006. When asked to review a list of ethically questionable behaviors such as accepting outside favors to speed up a bureaucratic procedure or taking advantage of inside information, respondents across two of the three categories (civil service and the general public) were more likely to condemn all of these activities than in 2006. The survey noted that women, senior citizens, and ethnic Estonians were more critical of corruption than other demographics, while small business owners showed higherthan- average readiness to grease the wheels of bureaucracy where needed. On the whole, all respondents believed that corruption had declined over the last few years, although they continued to consider it an important issue.

No significant steps were taken in 2010 to resolve the lack of clear control mechanisms for political party financing. Domestic and international anticorruption organizations have long recommended that an independent authority be created to maintain oversight of how parties spend the generous state subsidies they receive every year, as well as how they collect and use electoral campaign funds. In response to a 2009 Supreme Court case that dramatized this issue, many politicians suggested that a special parliamentary committee be created for this purpose. The idea was dismissed by anticorruption advocates, who pointed out that it would still amount to parties monitoring themselves and each other, with questionable results. In late November, parliament nonetheless approved the creation of a new party financing oversight committee, which would examine all campaign expense reports from parties, electoral coalitions, and individual candidates. The committee would be made up of party delegates as well as representatives from the chancellor of justice’s office, the National Audit Office, and the National Electoral Committee, and would begin work after the parliamentary elections in March 2011.


[1] Bank of Estonia, “Annual indicators of Estonian economy,” last updated 29 April 2011,

[2] Unemployment Fund Estonia, “Registered Unemployment 1993-2010,” n.d.,

[3] Estonian Ministry of Finance, Riigi Eelarvestrateegia 2011–2014 [National Budget Strategy 2011-2014] (Tallinn: Estonian Ministry of Finance, 20 May 2010), (in Estonian).

[4] Estonian Cooperation Assembly, Eesti inimvara raport (IVAR) [Estonian Human ResourceReport].

[5] UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the convention. Draft Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Estonia,” 27 August 2010,

[6] In November 1991, Estonia adopted a restrictive citizenship law that denied automatic citizenship to those who had moved to the republic during the Soviet era along with their descendants. When the Soviet Union itself collapsed a month later, this group of around 500,000 people became essentially stateless. While one segment moved back to the Russian Federation and other republics of the former USSR, another part simply adopted Russian Federation citizenship and stayed in Estonia, while still another sought naturalization by taking the Estonian language and civic exam mandated by parliament. Yet, despite all of these options around 100,000 people have remained in Estonia without citizenship. These individuals have been issued Estonian ID cards and so-called aliens passports that allow them to travel abroad. They are also eligible for all social welfare benefits. However, they cannot vote in national elections, run for political office, be employed in the civil service, or be a member of a political party. In this respect, a sizeable part of the population remains outside of Estonian democracy. See Estonian Cooperation Assembly, “Eest Lõimumise faktileht 2010” [Integration Factsheet 2010], 2010, (in Estonian).

[7] Estonian Police and Border Guard Board, “2000-1.07.2010 naturalisatsiooni korras kodakondsuse saanud isikud eelmise kodakondsuse lõikes” [Persons receiving citizenship by naturalization, 2000-1.07.2010], 2010, (in Estonian).

[8] Estonian Cooperation Assembly, Eesti inimvara raport (IVAR) [Estonian Human Resource Report] (Tallinn: Estonian Cooperation Assembly, 2010), (in Estonian).

[9] Kodanikeühiskonna uurimis-ja arenduskeskus (Civil Society Research and Development Centre), “UURINGU RAPORT: Kodanikualgatuse institutsionaliseerumine Eestis 2009/2010” [Research Report: Institutionalization of Civic Initiative in Estonia 2009–2010] (Tallinn: Civil Society Research and Development, Tallinn University, 2010), (in Estonian).

[10] Ministry of Justice, “Summary of the Study ‘Corruption In Estonia: Study of Three Target Groups in 2010’,” 1 September 2010,