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Nations in Transit

Nations in Transit 2017

Estonia

Country Profile

Regime Classification: 
Consolidated Democracy

Nations in Transit Score

(1=Most Democratic, 7=Least Democratic)
Score Evolution: 
No change
NIT Country Rank: 
1/29

Quick Facts

Capital: 
Tallinn
Population: 
1.3 million
GNI/capita, PPP: 
$27,490
Democracy Score: 
1.93

Nations in Transit Ratings and Averaged Scores

 

2017

National Democratic Governance

2.25

Electoral Process

1.5

Civil Society

1.75

Independent Media

1.50

Local DemocraticGovernance

2.50

Judicial Frameworkand Independence

1.50

Corruption

2.50

Democracy Score

1.93

 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

National Democratic Governance

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

Electoral Process

1.50

1.50

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.50

1.5

Civil Society

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

Independent Media

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

Local Democratic Governance

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

Judicial Frameworkand Independence

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

Corruption

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.25

2.25

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

Democracy Score

1.93

1.93

1.96

1.93

1.93

1.96

1.96

1.96

1.93

1.93

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. If consensus cannot be reached, Freedom House is responsible for the final ratings. 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. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s).

Score Changes:

 

No score changes.

 
Executive Summary: 

Estonia underwent a political makeover in 2016, involving both the election of a new president in October and, within the following six weeks, the appointment of a new government headed for the first time in nearly 25 years by the left-leaning Center Party (CP). Although thefirst event was not directly the cause of the second, the political jockeying that took place around the presidential election eventually engendered a shake-up in the previous government coalition. Not only did the Center Party rise to the prime minister’s office from theopposition, but also the long-governing Reform Party was, in turn, ousted from power and sent to the backbenches after more than 16 years in government. Estonia seemingly got its long-awaited ‘left turn’, with the Center Party now governing in a coalition with the SocialDemocrats (SDE). However, their third partner remained the national-conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (PPRPU). This means that a careful balance will need to be struck on issues such as minority integration, taxes, and foreign policy.

The somewhat surprising turn of events started in August and September, when procedures began for electing a new president to succeed Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was approaching the end of his 10 year term-limit in office. Signs that the election would not gosmoothly, however, began to emerge in the summer, when five out of the six parties in parliament pledged to nominate their own candidate, thus threatening a deadlock when parliament moved to vote for a new president.

Predictably, in late August parliament failed to form the necessary majority around any of the candidates, causing the process to move to a special electoral college. Although this contingency had happened before during presidential elections, the system had alwaysworked, since one of the final candidates had been able to obtain an absolute majority among the participating delegates. This time, however, that outcome did not materialize, as several dozen delegates rejected both final contenders. The consequence was that the responsibility to vote was remitted to parliament, where hasty consultations among the political parties resulted in a consensus around Kersti Kaljulaid, a former Estonian representative to the EU Court of Auditors. Kaljulaid thereafter was quickly approved, and took office in early October.

As this debacle unfolded, two parallel processes took place. The first related to the position of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, who was accused during the presidential election of being indecisive in how he positioned his Reform Party amid the contest. On the one hand,the founder of the 20-year-old party, Siim Kallas, had announced in April that he would like to seek the presidency as a final milestone in his long political career. On the other hand, later in the summer a more popular candidate among the Estonian public, Foreign MinisterMarina Kaljurand, appeared. Rõivas had a difficult time navigating between these two formidable personae. Although the party eventually threw its support behind Kallas, this bid failed in the electoral college, leaving bad blood among the individuals involved. Rõivas’sposition as leader had been greatly tarnished.

Meanwhile, Estonia’s other largest party, the Center Party, also went through upheaval as opponents of the group’s long-standing leader, Edgar Savisaar, finally succeeded in ousting him from power. Although Savisaar had survived a leadership challenge in November 2015, in the intervening months the situation for the party had deteriorated severely. Savisaar continued to be suspended from his position as mayor of Tallinn because of a wide-ranging corruption investigation by Estonia’s prosecutor general. Meanwhile, a number of financialirregularities within the party itself began to threaten the CP’s very survival. When a special congress was called in November 2016 to resolve these issues, Savisaar conceded defeat by not even standing for reappointment. Jüri Ratas took over as the Center Party’s leader,promising to put the party’s misdeeds behind it.

Both Taavi Rõivas’s weakening standing as prime minister and the rise of Jüri Ratas as an alternative within the Center Party opened the door to a switch in the governing coalition. Added impetus came from the leader of the Social Democrats, Jevgeni Ossinovski, who had long complained about the Reform Party being too domineering after governing for such a long period. He was more than happy to help engineer the coalition switch, which came almost immediately after Ratas had deposed Savisaar.

The new government therefore included, for the first time in Estonia’s re-independence history, two center-left parties, who see eye-to-eye on making Estonia’s tax system more progressive and expanding social spending for the country’s less well-off. In order to obtaina parliamentary majority, however, the parties had to include the PPRPU, who will resist many of these measures, as well as insist on a strong pro-Western foreign and defense policy. Through some rounding of these sharp corners, the parties agreed on a government program that may successfully take them to the next elections in 2019.

Indeed, one of these compromises involved local government reform, a policy area where Taavi Rõivas’s government scored a major political achievement. In June, Rõivas succeeded in pushing through parliament an important framework law that would engender aradical reduction of Estonia’s 213 local governments down to around 100. Although the Center Party had been vocal in its critique of the reform while in opposition, it now agreed to take on responsibility for the reform’s implementation, including working out financial rewardsfor local governments that had agreed to merge into larger units.

 

Outlook for 2017: Two major events loom large for Estonia in 2017. First, municipal elections in October promise to be important in the context of navigating Estonia’s ongoing local government reform. For example, this includes finalizing new financial provisions for the newand larger territorial units. Parties, too, will have to determine how they will field candidates in these new configurations. A particularly important location to watch will be Tallinn, where the Center Party’s absolute control in the city is likely to crack following the party’sschism over Edgar Savisaar’s leadership. Some of Savisaar’s allies have speculated that he might launch his own electoral list, if his feeling of pique over having been deposed becomes too great.

During the second half of the year, Estonia is set to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union. Although over the years these national leadership stints in the EU have lost some of their luster, the half-year is still set to test Estonia’s administrativecapacities and foreign policy acumen, not least because of the responsibility of having to initiate negotiations on the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. Perhaps not by chance, one of the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate Jüri Ratas upon his appointment as primeminister was his British counterpart, Theresa May.

National Democratic Governance: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

  • When Estonia’s Prime Minister, Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party), marked the first year of his center-right coalition in April 2016, his political fortunes seemed positive. Although his government comprised of a partnership across three diverse parties–the liberal ReformParty, the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, and the Social Democratic Party–the cabinet was determined to make the alliance work, since no other coalition at the time appeared politically possible. The most important factor keeping the three sides together was that the main opposition Center Party (with 27 seats in the 101-seat parliament) continued to be headed by its long-time leader, Edgar Savisaar. Almost all other Estonian politicians saw Savisaar as anathema, not least because he had been underinvestigation for corruption since September 2015, and suspended shortly thereafter from his position as mayor of Tallinn.

  • The coalition focused on single, agreeable issues, one of which was a long-delayed reform of Estonia’s local government that was successfully passed in June (see Local Democratic Governance). Other measures, such as a major increase in excise taxes on alcohol,tobacco, and gasoline generated far fewer revenues than predicted, as Estonians began increasingly journeying to Latvia for their cigarettes and spirits.1 In September, the cabinet also scrambled to deal with a gaping €33 million ($37 million) deficit in Estonia’s HealthInsurance Fund.2That issue served to highlight the long-term governance challenges Estonia continued to face with a declining and aging population.

  • Yet, signs of what would eventually lead to Rõivas’s downfall began to appear during the summer, as the presidential election neared (see Electoral Process). In addition to Rõivas himself not handling the election process very well, Edgar Savisaar’s opponents withinthe Center Party finally started to gain the upper hand over their once impervious leader. When Savisaar attempted to nominate himself in June as the party’s candidate for the presidency, he was soundly defeated by one of his opponents, Mailis Reps.

  • Reps went on to lead a strong presidential campaign that emboldened Savisaar’s rivals even more. Immediately after the election, they moved to dismiss the party’s secretary general (an ally of Savisaar) and to call a special congress to decide the leadership issue. On November 5, just before this special congress was convened Savisaar withdrew from contention, clearing the way for Jüri Ratas, the 38-year-old deputy speaker of parliament, to rise in his place.

  • Although Ratas would face a number of problems to tackle within his party, his takeover of the leadership opened up a floodgate of interest from the other parties, which now saw the Center Party as a legitimate entity again. Within hours of his election, Ratas receivedovertures from both the Social Democrats and the Reform Party, even though the two parties were still part of the government coalition. The leader of the Social Democrats, Jevgeni Ossinovski, eventually proved more persuasive, offering Ratas the prime minister’sposition if he would form a coalition with the SDE and the PPRPU.

  • After a few days, both the SDE and the PPRPU began publicly complaining about how the current government under Rõivas had exhausted itself. Meanwhile, as if orchestrated from behind the scenes, the Center Party put forth a parliamentary motion of no-confidencein the prime minister. Taavi Rõivas expressed open indignation at how quickly his partners seemed to be turning on him, although the Reform Party had previously thrown the SDE and PPRPU out of earlier governments. On November 9, Rõivas decisively lost theconfidence motion, and a month later announced his resignation as Reform Party chairman.

  • Under Jüri Ratas’s leadership, new coalition talks opened between the Center Party, the SDE, and the PPRPU. The three sides moderated a number of their key policy preferences in order to reach an accord as quickly as possible. Some important promises, however,included a substantial raise of teachers’ salaries above the national average, continuing EU-supported infrastructure projects, and reducing government bureaucracy for private companies in order to create more jobs and growth.

  • A central concern for the coalition partners was to make clear that Estonia’s bedrock pro-Western foreign and defense policy would not change. The coalition agreement therefore promised to maintain Estonia’s level of defense spending at 2 percent of its GDP, alongwith providing logistical support for the more than 1,000 allied military personnel scheduled to be stationed in Estonia by spring 2017. The coalition also renewed its commitment to Estonia’s EU presidency during the second half of 2017.

  • Another sensitive foreign policy issue involved relations with Russia. One of the main controversies that had damaged the Center Party’s credibility in Estonian politics was a cooperation agreement it had signed in 2004 with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Whilemany opposing politicians and media commentators had called on the Center Party to renounce the agreement, Jüri Ratas argued that no cooperation had ever actually taken place based on the document, nor would cooperation occur while Russia continued its aggressiveforeign policy. This compromise was enough to prevent the issue from breaking the coalition. A further concession included giving the defense, foreign, and interior minister positions to the SDE and PPRPU.

Electoral Process: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

1.50

1.50

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.50

1.50

  • The second event that changed Estonia’s political landscape in 2016 was the presidential election to find a successor to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who stepped down because of term limits after 10 years in office. Although the president’s role in Estonia is mostlyceremonial–involving the promulgation of laws, receiving foreign ambassadors, and holding certain public events–the office had gained stature during Ilves’s presidency. As a former foreign minister and member of the European Parliament, Ilves was very active inraising Estonia’s profile in international affairs, particularly during the Ukraine crisis, and in promoting Estonia’s e-government and IT sector. His acumen in navigating Estonian domestic politics did not match his role in international affairs, although he did help initiatea major political reform movement called the People’s Assembly in 2012.

  • In previous years, the presidential election had been a relatively low-key affair, given that the president is elected indirectly, first via parliament, and if that fails, then via a special electoral college encompassing both the parliament and some 225 representatives fromlocal governments. In the past, candidates were nominated close to the election day itself, as parties tried to bargain for each other’s support up to the last minute.

  • This mold was broken in April, when Siim Kallas–a former prime minister and Estonian member of the European Commission for 10 years–announced his intention to seek the presidency, even though the election would not take place until late August.3The 67-year-oldKallas was seeking a crowning achievement to his long political career, and saw his early entry into the race as a way of ensuring support from the Reform Party that he had helped found in the mid-1990s. Although Kallas was the honorary chair of the party, hisrelations with some of the younger leaders had become strained over the years. In April 2014, he had caused a considerable amount of disarray when he sought to return to the prime minister’s chair after his decade of work in Brussels, only to abruptly renounce theendeavor when media scrutiny became too intense.

  • Kallas’s shaky political stature opened up the race to other contenders, and eventually all of the major parties in parliament nominated potential candidates. The left-learning Center Party humbled its long-time chairman Edgar Savisaar by rejecting his candidacy bid, andinstead backed a younger leader, Mailis Reps.4 The PPRPU and a smaller conservative party, the Free Party, declared their support for Allar Jõks, a former ombudsman and judge, while the Social Democrats nominated a veteran party member, Eiki Nestor. The radicalright-wing Conservative People’s Party advanced its chairman, Mart Helme, to contend the race, but Helme’s chances were seen as remote.

  • As public discussion continued through the summer, the prospect grew of one more candidate entering the fray. Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand had led a successful career in Estonia’s diplomatic service for more than 20 years before being appointed to the cabinetby the Reform Party in 2015. She was therefore seen as eminently qualified in foreign affairs, but also well placed domestically as she had not joined any party and was half Russian. By August, public opinion polls showed that she had more than 30 percent ofEstonians’ support to become president, although formally there would be no popular vote.5

  • Kaljurand’s meteoric rise placed Prime Minister Rõivas in a bind: he could not easily disavow Kallas, his party’s founder, but he also did not want to disappoint Kaljurand, a popular foreign minister. Eventually the Reform Party opted for Kallas after a tumultuousinternal discussion, leaving Kaljurand badly bruised.

  • When parliament gathered on August 29 and 30 for its first presidential vote, the voting predictably failed due to the divided field. Siim Kallas and Mailis Reps emerged with the highest number of votes, and therefore were automatically forwarded to the subsequentelectoral college. However, Jõks, Helme, and Kaljurand decided to continue their bids by getting enough members of the college to nominate their candidatures as well. The first round of voting in the 335-member college on September 24 revealed an incredibly tightrace: Jõks winning 83 votes, Kallas 81, Reps 79, Kaljurand 75, and Helme 16.6 However, the voting rules prescribed that only Jõks and Kallas would continue to a second round, and one of them would have to obtain an absolute majority in order to be elected. Bothcandidates failed to secure an outright majority, and for the first time in Estonia’s constitutional history, the presidential election was remitted to the parliament for further voting.

  • With just two weeks left before President Ilves was scheduled to leave office, the leaders of the different parties in parliament held emergency consultations to find a new and acceptable candidate. They found one in Kersti Kaljulaid, who for the last 12 years hadworked as Estonia’s representative to the EU’s Court of Auditors. Although she was relatively unknown to average Estonians because of this long stint abroad, she was seen as a knowledgeable leader and a good compromise candidate for the parliament to convincinglyappoint to the presidency. Kaljulaid received 81 votes on October 3, and assumed office a week later.7

  • Unsurprisingly, the political debacle surrounding the presidential vote quickly led to calls for a reform of the presidential selection process. The simplest approach involved requiring future rounds of voting in the electoral college to require a mere majority of votes castin order for a winner to ensue. However, even this small change would require an amendment to the Constitution, which all parties agreed would take time to prepare. Jüri Ratas’s new government pledged to review the matter, but provided no immediate details.

Civil Society: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

  • Civil society in Estonia continued to be very active in 2016. In August, the fourth annual Opinion Festival (Arvamusfestival) took place, attracting a record number of 9,000 people who came to engage in open-air debates about diverse societal issues over two full days.8In fact, the special format has proven so popular that separate festivals were organized in Narva (in Russian) and in southeastern Estonia. Another civic tradition, the “Let’s Do It” outdoor cleaning event in May, drew more than 42,000 people to work together tidying uppublic spaces and community area.9

  • Estonia’s main civil society support agency, the National Foundation of Civil Society, issued a special report on Russian-speaking NGOs in Estonia. The report found that even though Russian-speaking NGOs are smaller than Estonian-speaking ones and concentrated innortheastern Estonia, there were no crucial differences between the two types in terms of operational capacities. The researchers found that NGOs using both languages in their daily activities often performed better than only Estonian- or Russian-speaking ones.10

  • NGOs continued to grow more financially sustainable, with a number of different fundraising initiatives (such as the Gift of Life foundation and the annual Rubber Duck Rally for children with cancer) becoming events. Likewise, internet-based donation platforms suchas Hooandja have attracted thousands of new contributors each year, and some 70 percent of their projects obtain funding.11Although many participants end up donating only once, others contribute regularly to different projects and appeals. Likewise, many banks haveestablished affiliated support programs, matching contributions made by single individuals.

  • In 2015, debate over how Estonia would help accept some of the thousands of refugees who have fled to the European Union prompted rising social tensions. In 2016, this discussion subsided as several regional NGOs and local governments took on the practical work ofresettling the first 77 refugees to arrive in Estonia. One of these was the group Pagula, which was working to provide integration services for refugees settled in the western town of Haapsalu.12 Another, the Estonian Refugee Council, was helping to train volunteers towork as support persons for newly arrived families.13 Meanwhile, the Estonian Human Rights Center offered free legal advice, especially assisting in the preparation of legal documents. By year’s end, refugees originating from Iraq, Syria and Yemen had arrived inEstonia, coming from camps in both Greece and Turkey. Overall, Estonia has pledged to receive over 500 refugees by 2018, although procedural hurdles–including refugee interviews, document processing, and security checks–have ensured that progress is gradual.

Independent Media: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

  • Estonia’s media landscape changed little in 2016. Alongside four main daily Estonian-language newspapers (Postimees, Eesti Päevaleht, Õhtuleht, and the business daily Äripäev), there are also two major weeklies, Eesti Ekspress and Maaleht. Seventeen localnewspapers serve more regional communities, while Delfi remained the biggest and most visited Estonian news portal.14

  • Estonia’s Russian-language media suffered a setback in October, when the Postimees Grupp announced that it was closing the print editions of two of the country’s last Russian-language national newspapers, Postimees na russkom yazyke and Den’ za dnyom. Thecompany cited declining print-runs for both newspapers, as well as a preference for boosting its Russian-language online portals as reasons for the move.15

  • Meanwhile, Estonia’s new state-sponsored Russian-language television channel, ETV+, remained stable in 2016. Estonian Public Broadcasting launched the channel in autumn 2015, in order to provide minority viewers an alternative to Russian Federation broadcasters,especially concerning news and local programming. While the daily viewership of the broadcaster continued to average just 0.6 percent (as opposed to over 10 percent for Estonian-language channels, and over 5 percent for Russian Federation networks),16 ETV+’s editorin chief, Darja Saar, said that viewers needed time to grow accustomed to the channel. Due to its link with Estonian Public Broadcasting, ETV+ also developed an online portal as well as a viewing app for tablets and smartphones.

  • Following many months of organizational preparation, the Russian Federation’s Sputnik news portal opened an Estonian-language web page on February 24. The date was chosen carefully to coincide with Estonia’s national independence day, and some Estonianobservers characterized the portal as part of Russia’s new hybrid information war.17 While Sputnik’s journalists were generally allowed to operate freely in Estonia, the Estonian Ministry of Defense announced that it would not include Sputnik on its information list, since it did not consider the Russian government press agency to be a legitimate news organization.18 At the end of the year, the portal was still working, but readership appeared very low, attracting only 30-50 clicks per article.19

  • A number of Estonian media outlets altered their policies on allowing anonymous commenting on internet portals. In February, the daily Postimees limited its commenting sections to registered users. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Merit Kopli, said that anonymouscommentators were often writing inappropriate comments about the outlet’s journalists and contributors, as well as about public figures in Estonia and abroad.20 Meanwhile, the business daily Äripäev also restricted commenting to registered readers, but at the same timeallowed readers to use a pseudonym when making their comments.21 The news portal Delfi offered both registered and unregistered readers the chance to post their views, while the daily Õhtuleht had only anonymous commenting.22

  • Debate over the merits of different commenting forums has ebbed and flowed. Although the debate attracted particular attention in 2015, when anonymous users occasionally posted comments hostile to refugees and other immigrants, media editors have also complained that political activists or interest groups have used the forums more broadly to amplify their views.

Local Democratic Governance: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

  • For nearly 20 years, administrative reform has been a perennial topic of debate in Estonia. With more than 250 municipalities for just 1.4 million people in the 1990s, there had long been a realization that local government structures needed to be restructured in order to better respond to a declining rural population and administrative challenges, such as the provision of e-government services. Several Estonian regional governments came to loggerheads over the issue, as different parties attempted to defend aspects of the status quo. Inthe meantime, smaller measures were passed, such as rewarding local governments for voluntarily merging. However, by 2015, the number of municipalities was still 213, with more than half having populations of fewer than 1,800 people.23

  • When Taavi Rõivas’s government pledged to prioritize an administrative reform package, few observers were confident he would succeed.24 The special minister appointed to prepare the measure, Arto Aas, was also not the first such official to attempt the task. After aseries of negotiations and hearings, the government introduced a formal bill to parliament in March 2016.

  • The bill’s objective was to formalize and intensify the legal framework through which local governments would merge into larger units.25 The government set a firm minimum of 5000 residents for all future municipal units. The approximately 80 percent of municipalities falling short of this minimum figure were instructed to begin negotiations with surrounding governments by October 1, 2016, in order to achieve the required size.26 To incentivize municipalities to the bargaining table, the government pledged to reward local governments who successfully concluded merger negotiations by this deadline with a bonus of €50 ($55) per inhabitant, or up to €400,000 ($435,000). Financial support would not be paid to those municipalities that did not merge voluntarily.27

  • During debate in parliament, opposition deputies from the Center Party staged a series of filibusters, arguing that the reform’s minimum requirement of 5,000 residents per municipality was too mechanical, and that in some cases this minimum would create giganticterritorial units, which would be too removed from people’s everyday needs. On June 7, however, the coalition prevailed with a final vote of 56 to 38.28 While promulgating the law, President Ilves also praised the mergers, saying that the more effective local governments created by the reforms would improve the provision of government services.

  • Mailis Reps (CP) and Allar Jõks (PPRPU) critiqued the new reform during the presidential campaign. The candidates hinted that, if elected, they would stall the changes–although, without mounting a substantive constitutional argument, it is unclear whether a presidential appeal of the law to the Supreme Court would be successful.29 The Center Party also called a special session of parliament in late August to voice their critiques once again.

  • However, as the summer progressed, most local governments seemed to fall in line. By October, some 186 municipalities were in engaged in some form of negotiation–often with five or six municipalities to a group.30 Almost all the municipalities on the island ofSaaremaa signed a merger accord transforming the island into a powerhouse government hub of more than 30,000 residents.31 Many other mergers were set to take place across county lines, thereby creating entirely new regional boundaries.

  • Despite the successful rate of negotiations, some local governments decided to resist the reform by using a special legal right to contest legislation in Estonia’s Constitutional Review Chamber. In early October, the plaintiffs argued before the Chamber that the 5000-resident rule was too arbitrary and formalistic, and that, as a result, the rule removed local governments’ constitutional right of autonomy. In its ruling, issued on December 20, the Chamber found in favor of the law, reasoning that parliament had not acted beyond its ambit in deciding the national structure of local government and setting size requirements, provided that the reforms were in the interest of ensuring the optimal provision government services.

  • Undeterred by these initial delays, Minister Aas issued an even broader 700-page reform plan in the summer, calling for the eventual abolition of counties and the development of regional divisions that would be responsible for coordinating national governmentservices.32 The new minister for government reform, Mihhail Korb (Center Party), pledge to continue in this vein, and to work out additional financial details in 2017.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

  • Estonia’s judicial framework remained largely unchanged in 2016, and Estonians continued to have trust in their judicial system. According to the EU’s Eurobarometer from 2015, 60 percent of respondents said they trusted the judicial system, while only 26 percent didnot. These results were higher than the EU average.33

  • In early June, parliament passed amendments to the system of judicial appointment.34 Noting that within five years a third of Estonia’s judges would be of retirement age, the government put forth an amendment to the Courts Act that would no longer require candidatesfor judicial service to have passed through a special training period. Instead, they would have only to pass a law examination and fulfill other professional qualifications; the amendments also ease the process of judicial recruitment for those individuals who hadpreviously worked as a defense lawyer or as a prosecutor. The Chief Justice of Estonia’s Supreme Court, Priit Pikamäe, welcomed the change, saying that it would increase flexibility and mobility within the legal sphere.35

  • In September, parliament also passed major amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure mandating that criminal searches may henceforth only be conducted with the permission of a court. Previously, the prosecutor’s office was responsible for giving permission to conduct criminal searches. Although in the future the prosecutor will still be able to sanction searches under special circumstances, a court will subsequently have to approve the order. Likewise, law enforcement officials will have to clearly state what they are lookingfor and how accidentally discovered evidence will be dealt with. The Minister of Justice, Urmas Reinsalu, argued that the previous system of prosecutor-sanctioned searches amounted to “an infringement of human property and the inviolability of the home.”36

  • The same legislation also shortened the maximum period of time a person could be held in custody. For second degree offenses, the period was reduced from six months to four, and for juveniles, down to two. The court must also review such detentions every two months.

Corruption: 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.25

2.25

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

  • Estonia has performed well in corruption indices, and in general has been seen to have a rather well performing anticorruption policy in both the public and private sectors. In 2015, Estonia ranked 23rd in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, the highest of any Central or East European country.37 At the same time, 2016 saw a veritable wave of corruption cases come to light. While law enforcement agencies judiciously handed all of these cases, they still showed that corruption was far from being eradicated in the country.

  • In August 2015, Estonia’s Internal Security Service (ISS) made headlines by arresting the director of the state-owned Port of Tallinn, Ain Kaljurand, and another board member, Allan Kiil. The ISS accused Kaljurand and Kiil of running an elaborate bribery scheme,going back many years and amounting to millions of euros. In January 2016, Kaljurand and Kiil were released from detention and later even allowed to travel abroad while their investigation continued. In May, the ISS further detained the chief of the Port’s maintenancedepartment, Martin Paide, but did not charge him with any wrongdoing.38

  • In June, a special parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the Port of Tallinn scandal issued a report saying that part of the problem lay in the way in which political parties had grown accustomed to appointing their members to the boards of state companies as part of parliamentary oversight. This often led to cronyism, which in turn allowed managers like Kaljurand to act with impunity. The committee’s report stopped short of blaming the fiasco on the two parties, the RP and the PPRPU, who had most frequently been onthe Port’s board. However, the head of the committee, Artur Talvik, said that the report proved that political corruption existed in Estonia.39 In its new coalition agreement, the Ratas government pledged to stop the appointment of any MPs to public enterprise boards.

  • In another long-standing investigatory saga, in November Estonia’s prosecutor general finally issued formal criminal charges of bribery and other offenses against the mayor of Tallinn and former Center Party leader, Edgar Savisaar, along with six other politicalprotégés and business associates.40 The process had been delayed, as officials had wanted to conflate a number of different accusations into one criminal case. In addition to being accused of taking repeated bribes from different businesspeople, Savisaar was alsocharged with money laundering, embezzlement, and misuse of municipal funds for electoral purposes.

  • The prosecutor had been waiting for the last of these allegations to arise against Savisaar. In early November, the Estonian Supreme Court upheld an administrative court ruling fining Savisaar more than €116,000 ($126,000) for allowing the Tallinn city government toproduce a series of videos and billboards featuring Savisaar in 2013. The billboards called on people to vote in upcoming local elections, and promoted certain city achievements.41 While Savisaar claimed that these were merely municipal informational campaigns, thecourt found that the ads’ temporal proximity to the elections meant that they had been designed expressly to promote Savisaar’s reelection bid at the time. For the prosecutor general, this meant that Savisaar’s administrative offense could now be taken up as a criminalone in the form of misuse of municipal finances.

  • Throughout most of the year, prominent members of the Center Party had insisted that they would stick by their embattled leader, including covering the costs of his legal defense. In early September, that prospect became more tenuous as financial controversy engulfedthe party. Media reports revealed that, in 2014, the then-secretary general of the party, Priit Toobal, had secretly issued a pair of letters of indemnity totaling €730,000 ($793,100) to an advertising company.42 Although the party immediately tried to get these lettersnullified in court, it soon became clear the documents would stick and the party would probably have to sell its headquarters building in Tallinn in order to pay off its liabilities. The new party chairman, Jüri Ratas, announced that the party’s budget for coveringSavisaar’s legal expenses had been suspended and that the question of whether the party would continue to pay Savisaar a salary while he remained suspended from his mayoral position was also open.43

  • Additional corruption cases included one from June, when Tõnis Allik, the head of Tallinn’s largest hospital, was accused and later charged with accepting bribes as part of a catering procurement contract at the conglomerate. Allik eventually resigned from his position,but within a few months was hired again as the chief executive of Estonia’s largest HMO, Medicum.44 Likewise, a procurement official from Estonian Railways, Indrek Süld, was detained by the ISS in March on suspicion of bribery during his tenure managing a numberof tenders for railway crossing equipment.45 In January, a number of driving license examiners were accused of taking bribes when applicants tried to pass their driving tests.46

  • A special Estonian-Danish comparative study issued in January by the Ministry of Justice corroborated this seeming complacency toward corruption. The research showed that only 27 percent of Estonian business leaders believed that turning to law enforcementofficials would help reduce corruption–as opposed to 72 percent in Denmark. Likewise, 57 percent of Estonian respondents admitted to having had at least some kind of contact with corruption, usually demands for kickbacks or other conflicts of interest.47

 

Authors: VELLO PETTAI and PILLE IVASK

Vello Pettai is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Tartu; Pille Ivask is a journalist for the business daily Äripäev.

Notes: 

1 “Vaata, mida lubab tuleva aasta riigieelarve” [Look what is promised in next year’s state budget] Äripäev Online, 12 December 2015, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2015/12/10/vaata- mida-lubab-tuleva-aasta-riigieelarve; Maarit Eerme, “Uuring: kui palju eestlastest käib Läti piiril alkoholi ostmas”[Research: how many Estonians are purchasing alcohol from Latvian border shops] Kaubandus.ee, 07 September 2016, http://www.kaubandus.ee/uudised/2016/09/07/uuring-kui-palju- eestlastest-kaib-lati-piiril-alkoholi-ostmas

2 “Haigekassa teenis hiigelkahjumi” [Haigekassa earned record loss] Äripäev Online 19 August 2016, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2016/08/19/haigekassa-teenis-hiigelkahjumi

3 Andres Eimann, “Siim Kallas teatas valmisolekust kandideerida presidendiks” [Siim Kallas announces presidential candidacy] Postimees Online, 16 April 2016, http://www.postimees.ee/3657887/siim-kallas-teatas-valmisolekust-kandideerida-presidendiks

4 Kristi Krisberg, “Mailis Reps was nominated as a candidate for President”, The National Election Committee, http://www.vvk.ee/general-info/news/mailis-reps-was-nominated-as-a-candidate- for-president/

5 “EMOR: Marina Kaljuranna toetus püsib vahetult enne presidendivalimisi kõrgeim” [EMOR: Marina Kaljurand has highest public support right before the elections] Delfi, 22 September 2016 http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/emor-marina-kaljuranna-toetus-pusib-vahetult-enne-presidendivalimisi-korgeim?id=75684421

6 “SUUR VALIMISBLOGI: valijameeste otsustamatus ja poliitmängud nurjasid valimised: Eesti ei saanud uut presidenti” [Electoral blog: indecisiveness of members of electoral college and political games ruined elections: new president of Estonia was not elected] Delfi, 24 September 2016,http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/suur-valimisblogi-valijameeste- otsustamatus-ja-poliitmangud-nurjasid-valimised-eesti-ei-saanud-uut-presidenti?id=75705079

7 Kati Varblane, “Vabariigi presidendiks valiti Kersti Kaljulaid” [Kersti Kaljulaid elected next President of Estonia] Official homepage of the Parliament of Estonia, 3 October 2016, http://www.riigikogu.ee/istungi-ulevaated/vabariigi-presidendiks-valiti-kersti-kaljulaid/

8 Raivo Juurak, “Arvamusfestivalil käisid osalejad, mitte külastajad” [People visiting Opinion Festival were participants not just visitors] Õpetajate Leht, 19 August 2016 http://opleht.ee/2016/08/arvamusfestivalil-kaisid-osalejad-mitte-kulastajad/

9 “Talgupäeval osales kokku vähemalt 42 013 talgulist. VAATA, kui palju inimesi sinu kodukohta korrastas” [At least 42 013 participants took part in Let’s Do It Day] Delfi, 07 May 2016, http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/talgupaeval-osales-kokku-vahemalt-42-013-talgulist- vaata-kui-palju-inimesi-sinu-kodukohta-korrastas?id=74460299

10 “Millises olukorras on Eesti venekeelsed ühingud? Tule uuringu esitlusele ja saa teada” [In what situation are Russian-speaking NGOs in Estonia?] National Foundation of Civil Society, 10 March 2016, http://www.kysk.ee/millises-olukorras-on-eesti- venekeelsed-uhingud-tule-uuringu-esitlusele-ja-saa-teada

11 Interview with Kairi Kase, Communication and Project Manager of Hooandja

12 Kann, Lemmi, “MTÜ Pagula: meie ei too pagulasi Eestisse või Läänemaale” [MTÜ Pagula: we do not bring refugees to Estonia or to Lääne County], Lääne Elu, 20 November 2015, http://online.le.ee/2015/11/20/mtu-pagula-meie-ei-too-pagulasi-eestisse-voi-laanemaale/

13 Website of Estonian Refugee Council, http://www.pagulasabi.ee/en . See also Monika Hanley and Donna Doerbeck, “Estonian NGOs gear up for refugee intake,” The Baltic Times, 2 September 2015, http://www.baltictimes.com/estonian_ngos_gear_up_for_refugee_intake/

14 Members of Estonian Newspaper Association, 2016, http://www.eall.ee/eall_liikmed.html; Delfi Ärileht,“Delfi on Eesti suurim uudisteportaal!” [Delfi is the biggest news portal in Estonia!] Delfi Ärileht, 7 September 2016, http://arileht.delfi.ee/news/uudised/delfi-on-eesti-suurim-uudisteportaal?id=75552057

15 Dario Cavegn, “Postimees to stop Russian-language papers”, ERR News, 29 September 2016, http://news.err.ee/v/business/02013fcc-2560-48ef-bd5e-70c04834b3ee/postimees-to-stop-publishing- russian-language-papers

16 Kantar Emor, “Teleauditooriumi ülevaade augustikuus” [Overview of television viewing in Estonia in August] Kantar Emor, 7 September 2016, http://www.emor.ee/teleauditooriumi-ulevaade-augustikuus2016/; “Teleauditooriumi ülevaade septembrikuus” [Overview of television viewing in Estonia in September] Kantar Emor, 7 October 2016 http://www.emor.ee/teleauditooriumi-ulevaade-septembrikuus-2016/; “Teleauditooriumi ülevaade jaanuarikuus” [Overview of television viewing in Estonia in January] Kantar Emor, 7 February 2017 http://www.emor.ee/teleauditooriumi-ulevaade-jaanuarikuus-2017/

17 Urmas Sutrop, “Urmas Sutrop: Russia launches propaganda in Estonian”, Postimees Online, 14 November 2014, http://news.postimees.ee/2992003/urmas-sutrop-russia-launches-propaganda-in-estonian

18 Anna Põld, “Vene propagandakanal Sputnik plaanib peatselt avada uudisteportaali ka Eestis” [Russian propaganda channel Sputnik plans to open news portal in Estonia], Delfi, 20 February 2016, http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/vene-propagandakanal-sputnik-plaanib-peatselt-avada-uudisteportaali-ka-eestis?id=73732885

20 Karin Kangro, “Postimees sulgeb veebuarist anonüümse kommentaariumi” [Postimees to close anonymous commentary from February] Postimees Online, 30 December 2015, http://www.postimees.ee/3451469/postimees-sulgeb-veebruarist-anonuumse-kommentaariumi

21 “Kommenteerimisest saab tellija privileeg” [Commenting will be the privilege of a subscriber], Äripäev Online, 2 Octrober 2014, http://www.aripaev.ee/arvamused/2014/10/01/kommenteerimisest-saab-tellija-privileeg

22 “Luik: Delfis kommentaariumi sulgemine oleks liiga elitaarne” [Luik: closing the commentary on Delfi would be too elitist], Äripäev Online, 30 December 2015, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2015/12/30/luik-delfi-postimees-kommentaarium

23 Aili Vahtla, “Proponents, opponents of administrative reform law present arguments to Supreme Court” ERR News, 5 October 2016, http://news.err.ee/v/e700f161-7bb5-4bec-a795- 4273a79dc837

24 “Taavi Rõivas: tänased valitsuse otsused on haldusreformi avalöök” [Taavi Rõivas: decisions government makes today are just the beginning of administrative reform], Delfi, 21 July 2016, http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/taavi-roivas-tanased-valitsuse-otsused-on- haldusreformi-avalook?id=75125501; “Noorkõiv: haldusreform on raam, seadus tuleb alles sisustada” [Noorkõiv: administrative reform is just a framework that needs to be fulfilled], 7 June 2016, ERR News, http://uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/e7b1c5f0-2e1c-4477-adf1-3ef079151397/noorkoiv- haldusreform-on-raam-seadus-tuleb-alles-sisustada

25 Administrative Law bill text, in Estonian, http://haldusreform.fin.ee/haldusreformi-seadus/

26 Official homepage of administrative reform. Aims and schedule of administrative reform. http://haldusreform.fin.ee/haldusreformi-seadus/haldusreformi-eesmargid-ja-ajakava/

28 “Estonian parliament adopts administrative law bill”, Postimees Online, 7 June 2016, http://news.postimees.ee/3723855/estonian-parlt-adopts-administrative-reform-bill

29 Keskerakond, “Mailis Reps haldusreformi arutelul: me ei saa endale lubada reforme, mida tehakse vaid reformi enda pärast” [Presidental candidate Mailis Reps in the discussion of administrative law: we cannot make reforms just for making them] Official homepage of Center Party of Estonia, 2016,http://www.keskerakond.ee/et/meedia/uudised/899-mailis-reps-haldusreformi-arutelul-me-ei-saa-endale-lubada-reforme,-mida-tehakse-vaid-reformi-enda-p%C3%A4rast.html; “Allar Jõks: 5 asja, mida saab järgmine president teha, et maal oleks elu” [Presidental candidate Allar Jõks: 5 things that the nextpresident can do in order the life in rural areas won’t die out] Postimees Online, 14 September 2016, http://arvamus.postimees.ee/v2/3835271/allar-joks-5-asja- mida-saab-jaergmine-president-teha-et-maal-oleks-elu

30 “Ligi 190 omavalitsust ühineb vabatahtlikult” [Almost 190 municipalities are merging voluntarily], Postimees Online, 3 October 2016, http://pluss.postimees.ee/v2/3859563/ligi-190-omavalitsust-uehineb-vabatahtlikult

31 “Rõivas: Saaremaa merger into one local government would be exemplary”, ERR News, 29 July 2016, http://news.err.ee/118673/roivas-saaremaa-merger-into-one-local-government-would-be-exemplary

32 “Uus plaan kaotab 15 maavalitsust, asemele tuleb regionaalamet” [New plan abolishes 15 county governments, instead Regional Board will be created], Eesti Päevaleht, 29 June 2016, http://epl.delfi.ee/news/eesti/uus-plaan-kaotab-15-maavalitsust-asemele-tuleb- regionaalamet?id=74926117

33 Eurobarometre, 2015. L’opinion publique dans l’union Europenne, p 71, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb83/eb83_publ_fr.pdf

34 “Kohtute seaduse muutmise ja sellega seonduvalt teiste seaduste muutmise seadus” [The amendment of the Courts Act and Associated Acts Amendment Act] 1 August 2016, https://www.riigiteataja.ee/akt/122062016021

35 Supreme Court of Estonia, 2016, http://www.nc.ee/?id=1615

36 “Justiitsminister arutas põhiõiguste paketi üle” [Minister of Justice in Estonia is discussing package basic rights] Pealinn Online, 19 August 2016, http://www.pealinn.ee/koik- uudised/justiitsminister-arutas-pohioiguste-paketi-ule-n174527

37 Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, 2015, http://www.transparency.org/cpi2015#results-table

38 “Kapo pidas kinni veel ühe Tallinna sadama juhi” [Internal Security Service detained chef of the Port’s maintenance department] Äripäev Online, 19 May 2016, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2016/05/19/kapo-pidas-kinni-veel-uhe-tallinna-sadama-juhi

39 Urmo Andressoo, “Uurimiskomisjon otsustab: Tallinna Sadama nõukogu vastutab” [Investigation committee has made a decision: the board of Port of Tallinn is responsible] Äripäev Online, 14 June 2016, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2016/06/14/tallinna-sadama-uurimiskomisjoni- pressikonverents

40 Piret Pappel and Andra Nõlvak, “Savisaar läheb kohtu alla” [Savisaar will go on trial], Õhtuleht online, 29 November http://www.ohtuleht.ee/773589/savisaar-laheb-kohtu-alla, ERR News, 2016 “Statement of charges in Savisaar case presented to lawyers”, 29 Novemberhttp://news.err.ee/v/news/c95dab07-9d3a-4ae3-a67a-2e01560dc7e6/statement-of-charges-in-savisaar- case-presented-to-lawyers

41 “Edgar Savisaar required to pay 116,000€ back to city of Tallinn”, EER News, 11 November 2016, http://news.err.ee/v/news/e8e37202-6a0d-4887-8942-bba02d546080/edgar-savisaar-required-to-pay- 116000-back-to-city-of-tallinn

42 Laura Mallene, “Garantiikirju on kaks: Toobal pani mängu 700 000 eurot” [There are two letters of indemnity worth 700 000 euros in total] Eesti Päevaleht, 5 September 2016, http://epl.delfi.ee/news/eesti/garantiikirju-on-kaks-toobal-pani-mangu-700-000-eurot?id=75527303

43 Piret Lakson and Andres Einmann, “Keskerakond: Savisaarega seotud tänavused kulud on ligi 190,000 eurot” [Center Party: This year’s expenses related to Savisaar amount to nearly 190,000 euros], 24 November http://www.postimees.ee/3922065/keskerakond-savisaarega-seotud-taenavused-kulud-on- ligi-190-000-eurot

44 “PERHi juht Tõnis Allik otsustas ametist tagasi astuda” [The head of Tallinn’s largest hospital Tõnis Allik resigns] Postimees Online, 15 June 2016, http://majandus24.postimees.ee/3733289/perhi-juht-tonis-allik-otsustas-ametist-tagasi-astuda

45 Andres Reimer and Andres Einmann, “Estonian Railways cadre detained”, Postimees Online, 04 March 2016, http://news.postimees.ee/3606671/estonian-railways-cadre-detained

46 Otti Eylandt, “Altkäemaksuafääri tulemus: Harjumaal vaid üks mootorratturite eksamineerija” [Result of the bribery scandal: in Harju county there is only one motorcycle examiner], Transparency International Estonia, 12 May 2016, http://www.transparency.ee/cm/artiklid/altkaemaksuafaari- tulemus-harjumaal-vaid-uks-mootorratturite-eksamineerija

47 Kadri Põlendik, “Korruptsioon ei pane juhti politseisse pöörduma” [Corruption is not making leaders to go to police] Äripäev Online, 25 January 2016, http://www.aripaev.ee/uudised/2016/01/25/korruptsioon-ei-pane-juhti-politseisse-poorduma