Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1990
Estonia, an independent state between the two World Wars, was
annexed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)
in 1940 as a constituent republic. The United States does not
recognize the forcible incorporation of Estonia into the
Like the other Baltic states, Estonia has been generally
subjected to the same centralized rule, the same constitution
and judicial system, and the same restrictions on civil and
political liberties as in the U.S.S.R. Political power has
been exercised by the leadership of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union, which tightly controlled the activities of local
government and Communist party structures in Estonia.
Estonians have utilized liberalization in the U.S.S.R. in the
past few years to gain more control over their own affairs.
In November 1988, in response to demands for political
democracy and human rights, the Estonian Supreme Council
(legislature) adopted a "Declaration of Sovereignty,"
proclaiming that its laws superseded those of the U.S.S.R.
Supreme Soviet. In November 1989, the Estonian Supreme
Council officially noted that Estonia had been illegally
occupied and incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1940. In March
1990, for the first time since 1940, free elections were held
nationwide, and the People's Front, a coalition of democratic
forces, won a majority of seats in the Supreme Council. Edgar
Savisaar became Prime Minister.
On February 24, elections were held for an Estonian Citizens'
Congress after a year-long petition drive had registered over
700,000 citizens of the prewar Republic of Estonia and their
descendants. The Congress' aim is to restore that republic.
On August 7, the Estonian Supreme Council declared that the
U.S.S.R. law of August 6, 1940, on the admission of Estonia
into the U.S.S.R. was not binding and could not serve as a
basis of relations.
The primary law enforcement organization is the militia
(police). The Committee for State Security (KGB), special
troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) , and regular
Soviet armed forces, which maintain a significant presence in
Estonia, are controlled by Moscow. During 1990 the Estonian
militia underwent a series of reforms. Through an agreement
with the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs, Estonia was
supposed to take over control of the militia in January 1991.
The standard of living in Estonia is higher than the Soviet
average, but the margin is shrinking. Estonians resent the
fact that much of the national income they create is
transferred to other republics and that most major economic
enterprises are controlled by central ministries in Moscow.
They also complain about a continuing decline in the quality
and quantity of food supplies and consumer goods. In an
attempt to gain more control over the Estonian economy, the
Supreme Council implemented an "economic border" plan on
October 15. Prices for bread, meat, and dairy products were
substantially increased as the Supreme Council reduced food
price supports. At the same time, an economic border regime
was declared with the aim of controlling the flow of goods and
people in and out of Estonia. By year's end, however, the
border regime was not fully operational.
The human rights situation continued to improve. Freedom of
speech, press, assembly, association, and religion was widely
respected. Free elections were held. However, progress was
limited, both in Estonia and the U.S.S.R., toward legislative
reforms that would institutionalize human rights improvements.
In January 1991, dozens of unarmed protesters were killed or
wounded by Soviet troops taking over government and Communist
Party buildings in the Baltics.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person Including
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no known cases of such killing in 1990.
There were no known instances of permanent or prolonged
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Harsh treatment of prisoners occurs during both interrogation
and confinement in labor camps, prisons, or psychiatric
hospitals. Physical and psychological abuse of prisoners,
overcrowding, and detention under extremely unhealthful
conditions are common. Prisoners went "on strike" several
times during the year, refusing to eat or work in protest
against prison conditions and low wages for their work. The
Government established a commission in October to examine
prisoners' claims and complaints.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Soviet laws are written and interpreted so broadly that
persons may be arrested and convicted for trying to exercise
their basic human rights. During 1990, however, the
authorities in Estonia did not use these laws to arrest
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Despite provisions for judicial objectivity in both the
Estonian and Soviet Constitutions, the State retains the
ability to control the judicial process and arbitrarily
determine the outcome of trials. Procedural safeguards, such
as the right to a public trial and to a defense attorney, are
generally respected but are not sufficient to guarantee fair
There were no known trials on purely political charges in
1990, and no Estonians were known to be imprisoned for purely
political reasons at year's end.
Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
Soviet authorities continued to interfere in personal life
through the use of informers, the monitoring of mail and
telephones, surveillance, and other means. The security
apparatus did little, however, to intimidate Estonians or to
hinder the expansion of social and political activism which
continued in 1990.
Contacts between Estonians and foreigners continued to be
monitored, despite a considerable increase in such contacts
during 1990. Although many Estonians continued to assume that
telephones and mail were monitored, they exhibited little fear
of using these means of communications to express their views.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
In 1990 freedom of speech was widely respected. The
authorities tolerated public expression of virtually any
viewpoint, including criticism of Estonian officials and calls
for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet "occupation" troops
Estonian media expanded their coverage of political subjects.
Besides advocating Estonian independence and opposing the
presence of Red Army troops in Estonia, the media frec[uently
criticized the Communist Party as well as the central
Government in Moscow. The media provided extensive political
coverage of the positions of candidates in both the March 18
Supreme Council elections and the February 24 elections to the
Estonian Congress. Estonian television even offered live
coverage of the three sessions of the Estonian Congress.
Despite this openness, many publications remained under the
formal control of official organizations or the Communist
Party. The number of independent publications also expanded
during 1990; among them were those published by the Estonian
People's Front, the Estonian Heritage Society, the Jewish
Cultural Society, and other nonofficial organizations.
Unauthorized (samizdat) publications were also produced and
distributed, although the number of samizdat declined as the
official press increasingly reflected a wide range of opinions.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
A 1988 U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet decree sets out guidelines on
demonstrations and meetings, but the Estonian Supreme Council
declined to adopt relevant implementing legislation.
In practice, Estonians were allowed to hold mass meetings and
demonstrations without official hindrance in 1990. For
instance, on March 14, during the election campaign to the
Estonian Supreme Council, thousands of ethnic Russian
supporters of Intermovement , a Russian nationalist group
opposed to Estonian independence, gathered in Tallinn on
Freedom Square. Two days later, the Estonian Popular Front
held a mass rally in support of Estonian independence at
exactly the same spot. The authorities did not interfere with
c. Freedom of Religion
The Estonian Supreme Council passed legislation guaranteeing
freedom of conscience and freedom of religious proselytism.
Christmas was celebrated for the third consecutive year as an
officially sanctioned holiday, and religious services were
regularly shown on television. Furthermore, church property
which had been confiscated in the 1940 's began to be returned
by the Soviet State.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Freedom of movement is neither guaranteed by law nor fully
possible in practice, although Soviet officials have publicly
pledged to bring their legislation into conformity with
international standards. The right to emigrate is not
recognized by Soviet law. Persons wishing to leave
temporarily must present an invitation from abroad. Many
Soviet Jews in Estonia were denied permission to emigrate in
previous years, but the upsurge in Soviet Jewish emigration
has had a positive effect on Jewish emigration from Estonia as
Although travel abroad is limited by restrictive legislation
and arbitrary enforcement, bureaucratic procedures are
considerably less cumbersome in Estonia than in the U.S.S.R.
as a whole. For the third consecutive year, the number of
Estonians visiting the United States and other Western
countries increased. Leading figures in all of the Republic's
main political movements, including the People's Front and
groups favoring immediate Estonian independence, visited
Western countries to present their views. An unprecedented
number of Estonian-Americans, other emigres, and persons of
Estonian descent were able to visit Estonia in 1990, with many
visitors permitted to visit areas that are formally "closed"
to foreigners. On several occasions during the year, however,
American citizens were denied permission to visit because of
their participation in the independence movement.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
In 1990, for the first time in postwar history, Estonians were
given the opportunity to determine the composition of their
own parliament and government. On March 18, free,
multicandidate elections were held to the Estonian Supreme
Council. A Popular Front Government was voted into power as
Communists were overwhelmingly rejected at the polls.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
No requests for investigations are known to have been made in
1990. The Government generally welcomed foreign and
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or other grounds is
prohibited by the Constitution. Tensions between ethnic
Estonians and Russians, however, are always near the surface
in Estonia where a low Estonian birthrate and an official
Soviet settlement policy have caused the ethnic Estonian
proportion of the population to fall from 92 percent in 1939
to approximately 60 percent in 1990.
Ethnic Estonians continued to complain that they could not
always conduct business in their own language and that
immigrants from the U.S.S.R. receive favored treatment in the
provision of housing and other social services.
Ethnic Russians, on the other hand, complained that new laws
passed by the Estonian Supreme Council discriminated against
non-Estonian ethnic groups. Russians were concerned about a
detailed language law, passed in 1989, which required that
incumbents of certain managerial and service positions
eventually be bilingual. Russians also felt threatened by new
immigration laws passed by the Supreme Council on June 26
which limited immigration to . 1 percent of the population per
year and which made it difficult even for relatives of
permanent residents of Estonia to immigrate to Estonia. New
regulations to prevent nonresidents of Estonia from purchasing
goods—and particularly the "economic border" law which set up
barriers to the free export of food out of the Republic—also
irritated ethnic Russians.
The 1989-90 campaign by the Estonian Congress to register
prewar Estonian citizens and the subsequent elections to an
Estonian Citizens' Congress alarmed many Russians as well.
Although the Congress movement encouraged ethnic Russians and
other post-1940 immigrants to petition for citizenship (and
subsequently allowed the "petitioners" to elect nonvoting
delegates to the Congress), only 18,000 ethnic Russians
While major ethnic tensions in Estonia divide the Estonian and
Russian populations, most ethnic groups have formed officially
recognized cultural societies which work closely with the
Estonian People's Front on proposals to enhance their cultural
autonomy. A law to protect the rights of national minorities
was adopted by the Supreme Council in December 1989.
Women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men, and an
extensive system of day care service and maternity benefits
assists women in obtaining and retaining jobs.
Estonian statistics on the problem of violence against women,
including wife beating, are unavailable. The official Soviet
press discussed the issue, and in 1989 the Soviet Council of
Ministers set up a special branch (headed by a woman) to study
the problems of women. Human rights and women's rights groups
in Estonia are aware of the issue but have focused their
efforts thus far on the broader questions of independence and
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Soviet labor law and practice has generally been enforced in
Estonia. The right of association, as defined by the
International Labor Organization (ILO), has been virtually
nonexistent. Although the Constitution grants Soviet citizens
the right to form trade unions, attempts to exercise this
right independently of the state-controlled union had always
been repressed. New professional associations with no ties to
Moscow were created in 1989, but it is not yet clear whether
they will effectively exercise trade union functions.
A dual effort to reform Estonian labor legislation and
practice began to take shape in 1990 with adoption of a new
law on trade unions and moves toward comprehensive overhaul of
the official trade union organization. The law cites ILO
standards and provides for trade unions to exist as
independent organizations with the right to strike to defend
workers' interests. It is too soon to judge the practical
effects of these proposed changes, which are consistent with
the stated goals of the Estonian economic autonomy plan.
In addition to the politically motivated strikes by at least
40,000 predominantly Russian workers protesting against the
new Estonian election law, a few other brief strikes were
reported in the Estonian press. There were no reports of
repression against strikers in 1990.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Workers in Estonia generally have not been able to organize or
engage in collective bargaining. Virtually all workers in the
U.S.S.R. automatically become members of an affiliate of the
official Soviet trade union organization, the All-Union
Central Council of Trade Unions (restyled in October as the
General Confederation of Trade Unions), in order to be
entitled to government social welfare benefits. There are no
economic incentive zones in Estonia.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Soviet law contains no prohibition on forced or compulsory
labor. Most prisoners are confined to camps where they are
forced to labor, often under harsh and degrading conditions.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The statutory minimum age for employment of children is 16.
There is no indication of widespread violations of this law.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Labor conditions in Estonia are similar to those in the
U.S.S.R. According to the Soviet State Statistical Committee,
however, the average monthly wage in Estonia for blue- and
white-collar workers was well above the Soviet average.
The standard workweek is 40 hours. The average workweek is 40
hours for most white-collar workers and 41 hours for most
blue-collar workers. Soviet law establishes minimum
conditions of health and safety. Press reports suggest,
however, that legislation on maximum hours of work and health
and safety standards are widely ignored.