Freedom in the World 2009


As Estonia’s economy worsened during 2008, members of the three-party coalition government publicly disagreed on the issues of spending cuts and unemployment compensation. Meanwhile, relations with Russia remained tense, and a long-awaited Estonian-Russian border treaty had yet to be ratified at year’s end.

Estonia gained independence from Russia in 1918, but it was captured—along with Latvia and Lithuania—by Soviet troops during World War II. Under Soviet rule, approximately one-tenth of Estonia’s population was deported, executed, or forced to flee abroad. Subsequent Russian immigration reduced ethnic Estonians to just over 61 percent of the population by 1989. Estonia regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. It adopted a new constitution in July 1992 and held its first legislative elections in September of that year. Russian troops withdrew from Estonia in 1994.

After the 2003 legislative elections, the newly formed right-leaning Res Publica party outmaneuvered the left-wing Center Party to form a centrist coalition government with the Reform Party and the People’sUnion. In March 2005, Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher, prompting Res Publica leader Juhan Parts to step down as prime minister. Vaher had announced plans to implement a quota system for the number of corruption cases to be prosecuted, a move that many regarded as reminiscent of Soviet-era practices. The Reform Party’s Andrus Ansip became prime minister in a new cabinet that took office in April. Former foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves defeated incumbent Arnold Ruutel in the country’s 2006 presidential vote.

In the March 2007 parliamentary elections, the Reform Party captured 31 seats, followed closely by the Center Party with 29 seats. The remaining seats were won by the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (19 seats), the Social Democratic Party (10 seats), the Greens (6 seats), and the People’s Union (6 seats). The Reform Party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, and the Social Democratic Party formed a left-right coalition, and Ansip returned as prime minister.

The new government faced a major crisis in April, when plans to relocate a Soviet World War II memorial and exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried at the site touched off protests, mostly by young ethnic Russians. The demonstrations erupted into two days of violence, as police responded with tear gas and water cannons to widespread looting and vandalism. About 150 people were injured, 1 protester died, and some 1,200 people were detained by police, though most were held only briefly. The monument was moved from its original place in the center of Tallinn to a nearby military cemetery.

Meanwhile, protesters from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi surrounded the Estonian embassy in Moscow for days, harassing the country’s diplomats. Various Estonian government and commercial websites suffered a series of large-scale cyber attacks for several weeks after the street violence in Estonia, forcing them to shut down temporarily. The initial attacks were reportedly traced to internet addresses registered in Russia, including some in the presidential administration, although direct links to the Russian government could not be proven.

In 2008, the country’s economic slowdown revealed strains in the ruling coalition, whose three parties openly disagreed over proposed spending cuts and reductions in the personal income tax to produce a balanced budget for 2009. The coalition members also clashed in January over proposed reforms that would reduce unemployment compensation and job security to increase economic competitiveness; a compromise solution was reached in April.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August raised concerns in Estonia that the Kremlin would attempt to extend its influence over other post-Soviet states. President Ilves and the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland issued a joint declaration condemning Russia’s actions, and Estonia’s parliament adopted a statement identifying Russia as the aggressor in the conflict. Russia and Estonia remained deadlocked throughout the year on ratification of a border treaty signed in 2005; the Russian parliament had balked at the document after Estonia insisted on adding a preamble referring to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, which ended a war between Estonia and the Soviet Union.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Estonia is an electoral democracy. Elections have been free and fair, and the 2007 polls were the world’s first parliamentary elections to employ internet voting; about 30,000 people voted online. The 1992 constitution established a 101-seat, unicameral Parliament, or Riigikogu, whose members are elected for four-year terms. A prime minister serves as head of government, and a president with a five-year term fills the largely ceremonial role of head of state. After the first president was chosen by popular vote in 1992, presidential elections reverted to parliamentary ballot. The prime minister is chosen by the president and confirmed by Parliament. Only citizens may participate in national elections, though resident noncitizens may vote (but not run as candidates) in local elections. About 10 percent of Parliament members are ethnic minorities.

Political parties organize freely, though only citizens may be members. The country’s two main right-wing parties, Pro Patria and Res Publica, merged in 2006 to become the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. Other major parties include the Center Party, the Reform Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the People’s Union.

Corruption is regarded as a relatively minor problem in Estonia, which was ranked 27 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. In late 2007, the security police announced a corruption probe into land-exchange deals involving well-known political and business figures; the investigations were ongoing at the end of 2008. Legal guarantees for public access to government information are respected in practice. Government decisions are almost instantly available on the internet, where Estonians may comment and exchange views.

The government respects freedom of the press. In addition to the public broadcaster, Estonian Television, there are a variety of commercial channels. Dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations offer diverse viewpoints. The wave of cyberattacks in 2007 temporarily disrupted access to the online versions of some of the country’s newspapers. There are no government restrictions on access to the internet, and Estonia is among the leading countries in the world with regard to internet penetration.

Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice. A new synagogue—the only building in Estonia specifically designated for that purpose—opened in May 2007; the country’s Jewish community numbers some 2,500. Estonia does not restrict academic freedom. In 2008, the government continued to implement a program launched the previous year that calls for 60 percent Estonian-language instruction in the country’s public Russian-language high schools by 2011.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government upholds those rights in practice. Public gatherings may be prohibited to ensure public safety. Civil society is vibrant, and the government involves nongovernmental organizations in the drafting of legislation. Although workers have the right to organize freely, strike, and bargain collectively, the Estonian Confederation of Trade Unions has reported antiunion discrimination in the private sector. Approximately 10 percent of the country’s workers are union members.

The judiciary is independent and generally free from government interference. Laws prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention and ensuring the right to a fair trial are largely observed, though lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern. There have been reports of police officers physically or verbally abusing suspects. During the April 2007 riots in Tallinn, some police allegedly used excessive force against demonstrators; while eight criminal cases were opened against officers, all of the charges were eventually dropped. The country’s prison system continues to suffer from overcrowding and limited access to medical care, although the opening of a new prison in July 2008 reduced crowding.

Many ethnic Russians arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are now regarded as immigrants who must apply for citizenship through a process that requires knowledge of the Estonian language. The authorities have adopted policies to assist those seeking Estonian citizenship, including funding Estonian language courses. The use of Estonian is mandatory in certain work environments, including among public-sector employees, medical professionals, and service personnel. Some ethnic Russians allege that language requirements result in employment and salary discrimination. According to a 2008 Estonian university survey on the integration of Russian speakers, knowledge of the Estonian language among non–ethnic Estonians has improved, and income inequality has declined; however, infrequent interethnic social contact and limited access to Russian-language programs in the Estonian media remain obstacles to improved integration. The granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol is legally protected and provided in practice.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they do not always receive equal pay for equal work. About one-fifth of the members of Parliament are women. Violence against women, including domestic violence, remains a problem. Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. In 2008, 55 women received assistance, including psychological and legal counseling, through a Nordic-Baltic pilot project for trafficking victims.

2009 Scores



Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights