Nations in Transit 2016 - Estonia

Regime Classification: 
Consolidated Democracy
Democracy Score: 
1.93
Estonia and CEE Regional AverageEstoniaCEE Regional AverageElectoralProcessCivilSocietyIndependentMediaNationalDemocraticGovernanceLocalDemocraticGovernanceJudicialFrameworkandIndependenceCorruption71234567Highcharts.com
Each spoke of the spider graph represents one category of NIT rated from 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The NIT 2016 ratings reflect the period from 1 January through 31 December 2015.
Nations in Transit Category and Democracy Scores
  2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
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 1.50 1.75 1.75 1.75 1.75 1.75 1.75 1.50
Civil Society 2.00 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 Framework and 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 2.50 2.25 2.25 2.50 2.50 2.50 2.50
Democracy Score 1.96 1.93 1.93 1.96 1.93 1.93 1.96 1.96 1.96 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).

Executive Summary: 

The rapid development that Estonia enjoyed since the restoration of independence, interrupted only by recessions in 1999 and 2008–09, has slowed down considerably. Estonia has a stable and well-consolidated democracy, but experts, academics, entrepreneurs, and most of the public share the view that the country has fallen into traps in several spheres of social life, and escaping them will require a new approach to development.[1] Weak economic growth, a shrinking population, shortage of skilled labor, and institutional issues demand difficult and complex policy responses.

            Hopes were therefore high in 2015 that national elections would bring novel ideas and a new energy to help society escape its stagnation. Indeed, two new parties—the center-right Estonian Free Party (EFP) and far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (ECPP)—entered the parliament, changing the political landscape as the shares of the existing four parliamentary parties shrunk. EFP was founded before the elections with the express aim of breaking the so-called cartel system in Estonian politics.

The newcomers in parliament did not make it into the government, however. The long negotiations to form a new coalition ended when the Reform Party (RP), who won the elections despite losing some seats, formed a government together with the Social Democrats (SD) and Pro Patria–Res Publica Union (PPRPU). RP has headed every government for the last 10 years, and both SD and PPRPU had been RP’s governing partners during the previous election period, although not at the same time. The new parties in parliament, EFP and ECPP, remained in the opposition, although at first RP had engaged EFP in coalition negotiations. The Estonian Center Party (CP), a large and long-standing opposition party with strong support from the Russian-speaking minority, also remained outside the coalition.

Throughout the year, party approval ratings showed a steady rise in popularity of the two new parliamentary parties.[2] On the one hand, this was due to the new parties gaining more exposure to the public and to financial resources through state support thanks to their parliamentary status. On the other hand, the ratings of coalition parties also fell because the new government immediately faced the complicated issue of migration to the European Union (EU), two of the coalition parties had fractious internal discussions on their performance in the elections, and because the new government had to adopt unpopular changes to the tax base structure to cover election promises.

            RP was not the only party in the new coalition that lost seats in the 2015 elections, as SD and even more so PPRPU both performed below their expectations. The former changed its leader in May and the latter in June. New SD chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski initiated a review of the newly adopted coalition agreement, and for several months there was confusion over what would become of the agreement and the coalition itself. The messy situation ended with SD replacing several ministers and the coalition approving minor amendments to the agreement.            

            In addition to internal problems, the new coalition had to face the migration crisis in Europe. The government did not take an active lead in explaining the situation to the public and devising adequate policy responses. This passivity left room for the ECPP and the non-parliamentary People’s Unity Party to strongly oppose the EU’s quotas for refugee allocation and campaign against the government on the issue, including through intolerant and racist speech.

At the same time, another activist group, Tolerant Estonia, started a civic movement to balance the public debate and organize pro-tolerance actions and events. In September, Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas confirmed that Estonia would agree to the number of refugees to be relocated to Estonia according to the European Commission’s plan.[3] Nevertheless, asylum policy continues to be a hotly debated public issue for the foreseeable future. 

            Estonia has long been considered to have a low level of corruption, outperforming in various indices even among some Western European countries. Two events this year may change that perception. In addition to several minor cases of money laundering, political patronage, and influence peddling, investigations by the Internal Security Service (ISS) revealed two major corruption cases. In one, the managing board of the state-owned Port of Tallinn was accused of taking bribes. In the second, CP head Edgar Savisaar was suspended from his post as mayor of Tallinn and accused of accepting property and monetary bribes. Savisaar has denied the charges. The process and outcomes of these cases will play a significant role in demonstrating the practical effects of anticorruption laws and other regulations that aim to enforce the country’s democratic principles.

Score Changes:

  • Electoral Process rating improved from 1.75 to 1.50 due to the conduct of free and fair parliamentary elections, including a growing number of ballots cast through a new electronic voting system.

As a result, Estonia’s Democracy Score improved from 1.96 to 1.93.

Outlook for 2016:

Discussions on how to deal with the major challenges facing Estonia—such as slow economic growth, declining population, shortage of skilled labor, weak local governments, imbalance between the capital and regions, and finding new revenue sources to cover increasing social costs—will remain on the political agenda. Although there are no quick solutions to Estonia’s internal problems or to burning external issues like the migrant crisis, it is obvious that these difficulties will not pass and the country must devise strategies to deal with them. Yet the government appears to have no clear idea how to address the challenges in an effective way and prefers to fine-tune existing measures. It is probable that the power struggle between the coalition parties will continue, and the government will likely not find the strength to deal with these pressing issues in 2016.

National Democratic Governance: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

2.25

  • The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2015, proved that Estonia’s politics remained rather stable, as the Reform Party (RP) again won the most votes and led the formation of a government cabinet for the fifth time since 2005. The success of RP lies, according to some experts, in the fact that it had successfully changed its party leader a year before the elections and also brought many new individuals into the party list who were able to attract more votes than the new faces of other established parties.[4]
  • There were two newcomers among the parties that exceeded the 5-percent electoral threshold: the Estonian Free Party (EFP) and Estonian Conservative People’s Party (ECPP). Taavi Rõivas, RP chairman and prime minister of the previous government, started coalition negotiations with the Social Democrats (SD), Pro Patria–Res Publica Union (PPRPU), and EFP, but the last left the coalition talks after three weeks due to disagreements. The second-largest party and main rival to RP, the Center Party (CP), was not invited to join the coalition, and the ECPP was also rejected due to its relatively radical right-wing views. In the end, RP, SD, and PPRPU signed the coalition agreement, and the new government took office on April 9.[5]
  • The current government represents parties of varying ideological perspectives, from the liberal RP to the conservative PPRPU to the left-leaning SD. Despite the fact that the coalition is led by RP, the coalition agreement has a more social character than previous ones.[6] The action plan of the new government has five broad priorities: improved conditions for families with children, improved conditions for low-wage workers, promoting economic growth and reduction of labor-related taxes, carrying out state (including local administrative) reform, and strengthening the national security and defense.[7]
  • The first days of the new coalition were challenging, as there emerged serious internal discontent among SD members with the coalition negotiations, agreement, and composition of the government.[8] As a result of an internal power shuffle, Jevgeni Ossinovski became the new chairman of SD, and Sven Mikser, the incumbent chairman and minister of defense, gave up his party position and withdrew from the government shortly after it had taken office.[9] In addition, nearly all SD members who had become ministers in the new cabinet were replaced.[10] SD’s internal discussion about the necessity of revising the recently approved coalition agreement resulted in a vote on whether SD should stay in the coalition.[11] In the end, it was decided to maintain the status quo, though the minister of entrepreneurship, Urve Palo, resigned in protest and was replaced by Liisa Oviir.[12] The president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, criticized the bickering over the coalition agreement and the large number of changes in the cabinet, saying it left the impression this was only “a temporary government.”[13]
  • While the coalition had to deal with internal tensions from day one, the opposition also faced unexpected developments. Shortly after the elections, the opposition leader, CP chairman and mayor of Tallinn Edgar Savisaar, became critically ill and was hospitalized for three months.[14] Suspicions about Savisaar’s future political career intensified when after his return to politics in September he was named as a suspect in a bribery case[15] and suspended from the mayor’s office (see “Corruption”).[16] CP held internal elections November 29, but no change in leadership took place, even though Kadri Simson, head of the CP faction in the parliament, ran against Savisaar. A new chairman of CP would have possibly made the party an acceptable coalition partner to RP. In fact, all leaders of the current coalition had ruled out cooperation with Edgar Savisaar before the parliamentary elections.[17] 
  • Besides these internal political developments, another topic that was intensely debated and divided the Estonian public was the migration crisis in Europe. Migration flows to Europe’s external borders compelled the European Union (EU) to introduce measures to alleviate the situation in southern Europe and share the burden among member states. The proposed compulsory refugee quotas—under which Estonia would accept 500 to 600 refugees over the next two years—were opposed by a large part of the Estonian population and some political parties, most vocally ECPP.[18] The government has therefore been bound, on the one hand, by its obligations and the values of the EU and, on the other, by the resistance of a large part of the population to changing Estonia’s current conservative immigration policy, especially concerning refugees.[19] 
Electoral Process: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.50

  • The March 1 parliamentary elections were considered free and fair, with equal campaigning conditions for all parties and an effective system of independent oversight for the election administration. Estonia has improved its legislation since the 2011 elections and now has a developed system of public financing for parliamentary parties and campaigns that establishes what the OSCE called “a generally solid legal framework,” albeit one that can still be improved upon in the margins.[20]
  • In the beginning of the electoral campaign, a civic initiative was created to monitor conduct of the elections.[21] The biggest problem, according to these observers, was the indirect use of public money for CP’s campaign in the capital city, Tallinn, where CP leader Edgar Savisaar was mayor. Observers considered the press coverage by Tallinn TV (a small station funded from the municipal budget but widely viewed to be a CP propaganda channel) as lacking neutrality toward other politicians and parties.[22]
  • According to official results, turnout was 64.2 percent and 6 parties exceeded the 5-percent electoral threshold. RP won the elections, receiving 27.7 percent of the vote (compared to 28.6 percent in the 2011 elections)[23] and earning 30 out of 101 seats in the parliament. CP followed RP with 24.8 percent of the vote, and SD with 15.2 percent. The results were most disappointing for PPRPU, which won only 13.7 percent of the vote (down nearly 7 percent from 2011) and lost 9 of the 23 seats it had held. Mainly because of this, but also due to problems related to the party’s internal trust and functioning, PPRPU chose a new chairman in June.[24]
  • In addition, two recently established parties were able to enter parliament: the Estonian Free Party (EFP), with 8.7 percent of the vote, and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (ECPP) with 8.1 percent of the vote. The latter has gained support among voters who are relatively opposed to European integration, immigration, and same-sex partnerships, which were legalized in 2014 under a cohabitation law. These are recent topics for the agendas of the ruling parties, and the ECPP is effectively channeling the discontent they have generated.[25]
  • The elections were significant due to the record-breaking number of electronic votes cast: 176,491 people voted online, or more than 30 percent of all votes. The percentage of e-votes has grown by more than 4 percent compared to the previous parliamentary elections, indicating a steady increase in the use of electronic participation channels in Estonia.[26]
  • One notable change in the electoral system was the passage in May of an amendment to the constitution that lowers the voting age to 16 in local elections.[27] This aims to increase the number of younger people participating in local elections and thereby engaging them in local decision-making.[28] However, the Act of Local Government Elections necessary for the amendment to take effect failed to pass with the necessary votes; this conflict between the constitution and the subordinate act will need to be resolved in the future.[29] The next round of local elections will take place in fall 2017.
Civil Society: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2.00

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

1.75

  • Estonia has a stable and sustainable environment for civil society activity, demonstrated by the best score in Europe and Eurasia in USAID’s 2014 CSO Sustainability Index.[30] Two large grantmakers support civil society activity in Estonia: the Open Estonia Foundation, which acts as an administrator for European Economic Area (EEA) capacity-building funds in the total amount of 2.3 million euros over two years, and the National Foundation for Civil Society (NFCS), which distributes state funding with a budget of about 2.5 million euros per year.[31] The online crowdfunding portal Hooandja (comparable to Kickstarter) continues to be successful as a means of raising funds for volunteer causes. As the CSO Sustainability Index notes, private investors and businesses are increasingly open to cooperation with civil society organizations (CSOs);[32] one creative strategy for encouraging private contributions to nonprofit initiatives is the use of social impact bonds to support, for example, a program to reduce juvenile delinquency.[33]
  • The legal environment for CSOs in Estonia was stable in 2015. Organizations are allowed to earn income and compete for contracts, although there is a heavy procurement focus on price bids. This makes it difficult to produce social value in sectors where the government relies on nonprofit service providers, for example, in drawing vulnerable groups into the labor market. The legal framework for social enterprises is still vague, although the coalition government pledged in its agreement to analyze the regulatory barriers and to “assist socially responsible enterprises in their development.”[34]
  • Russian-speaking CSOs fall within this same environment of civil society activity in terms of legislation and available funding. Seventy-one percent of Estonians and 69 percent of other ethnicities do not belong to any CSO.[35]
  • Because Estonia provides a nonrestrictive space for nongovernmental activities, overseas and international organizations have established offices in the country. For example, after coming under severe government pressure after Russia’s 2011 and 2012 elections, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) moved its office to Estonia and from there continues to support capacity-building for democratically minded CSOs in Russia.[36]
  • In 2015, Estonian society was caught off guard by the issue of refugees and the necessity of addressing migration flows to Europe. While politicians hesitated to find appropriate talking points, municipal officials issued statements denying there was any influx of refugees, and heated debates took place both in traditional media and online social networks. These debates included intolerant and extremist views, advanced by various informal civic debate groups and formal organizations, including the right-wing ECPP in parliament and its youth league, the Blue Awakening (Sinine Äratus). The leader of ECPP in parliament, Martin Helme, referred to migrants as “parasites” and claimed that the number of black people on the streets of Tallinn was rising.[37]
  • Amidst these debates, there was an incident of hate crime in September when an outer wall of a center for asylum seekers in Vao was set on fire. No one was harmed in the arson.[38] In contrast to other political parties and government representatives, ECPP refused to denounce the attack. Estonian opinion was split on this particular incident and towards refugee and immigrant issues in general. There was active and confrontational posting on social media channels and apparent hostility expressed in public debates. Major online media portals (e.g., Delfi and Eesti Päevaleht) disabled the posting of public comments on the issue in an attempt to curb hate speech. An activist group, Tolerant Estonia, started a civic movement to protect asylum seekers from intimidation and to balance the public debate; it organized pro- tolerance and supportive actions and events, including an open-air concert on the main Freedom Square in Tallinn.[39]   
  • The debate has been framed as a conflict between traditionalist, conservative values and progressive, liberal values. Public opinion polls show that the majority of Estonian residents are against admitting asylum seekers into the country based on quotas, with just 32 percent of Estonian residents in favor of admitting refugees into the country.[40]
  • In 2015, the third Festival of Opinion Culture attracted a record number of people with the promotion of civilized discussion. The festival gathered over 10,000 participants to discuss social issues in 200 public debates, engaging politicians and civil society representatives on a common platform.[41]
Independent Media: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

  • While there is significant media cross-ownership and little opportunity for new entrants, Estonia’s numerous media outlets express a wide variety of views and operate without government interference.[42] Estonia ranked 14th in the world in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press index.[43]
  • The national elections in March had a direct effect on journalism as 11 journalists ran as candidates, thus giving up their roles as objective reporters and analysts. In a small society like Estonia, parties are eager to recruit well‐known faces, and journalists very often rotate into politics. Six of them were elected to the parliament, while others have mostly resumed their work in the media.[44]
  • The Estonian-language print media landscape includes four major national dailies and three popular weekly newspapers, with an average circulation of approximately 25,000 copies. In 2015, the ownership of Eesti Meedia, one of Estonia’s leading media groups, became concentrated completely in one holding company, UP Invest. In connection with the consolidation, Eesti Meedia chairman Mart Kadastik resigned, leaving the group’s top management without any journalistic experience.[45] The Eesti Meedia companies include Estonia’s largest daily Postimees, TV station Kanal 2, and several radio stations, regional newspapers, and online classifieds portals. The other significant holding company, Ekspress Grupp, also merged two media organizations in its portfolio into a joint corporation.[46] The two holding companies dominate the domestic media market, and their business moves thus far have occurred without partisan connotations.
  • The number of local Russian-language outlets remains limited. Estonia’s approximately 400,000 Russian-speaking residents usually access information and entertainment from media (especially television) broadcast from the Russian Federation. Regional and local print media are also popular.
  • In fall 2015, the national broadcasting corporation, Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR), launched a new public Russian-language TV channel, ETV+, with an annual budget of approximately 4 million euros. Aside from news programs and morning talk shows, the channel plans to air various original features, both entertainment and analytical.[47] Although described by some foreign media outlets as Estonia’s tool against Kremlin propaganda, editors and spokespersons of ERR have rejected this assumption and stressed that the goal is to provide domestic broadcasting to Russian-speaking residents.
  • Russian-language programming has long been a topic of debate in Estonia. In the early 2000s, ERR cut its slate of offerings in Russian due to budgetary pressures. For years, its sole Russian-language production was a little-watched news program. One of the main arguments has been that it is pointless to compete with Russian TV channels, with their much larger budgets and established audience relationships.[48]
  • While geared toward Estonia’s Russian speakers, the new station’s audience so far is mostly ethnic Estonians. In its debut week, ETV+ attracted 294,000 viewers, with ethnic Estonians accounting for 217,000 and the remaining 77,000 of other ethnicities. According to TNS Emor metrix, 31,000 viewers visited the ETV+ website in an average week.[49] During its first three months of programming, the daily share of viewing time for all Estonian viewers has remained at 0.5 percent. So far, the channel does not compete with the three main Russian TV channels—PBK (16.9 percent), NTV Mir (15.5 percent), and RTR Planeta (13.3 percent)—that Russian speakers historically favor.
  • Sputnik, the Russian state-financed multimedia channel, started to recruit journalists in Estonia in 2014 to prepare for its launch in the Baltic region.[50] According to some researchers, Russia’s state-controlled broadcast media are trying to gain access to cable channels in Estonia and other countries in the former Soviet space to build support for Vladimir Putin among Russia’s “compatriots” abroad.[51] Estonian officials have claimed that there are technical obstacles to opening radio channels as there are no available frequencies, and that the only option is internet radio.[52]
  • After an immigration center in Vao was set on fire in September[53] (see “Civil Society”), major online media portals disabled public comments on the issue in an attempt to curb hate speech.
Local Democratic Governance: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

  • Although local administrative and territorial reform has been on the agenda of several consecutive governments, the policy of voluntary mergers of small local government units has been ineffective. As of the end of 2015, Estonia had the same number of municipalities as the year before: 213 (30 cities and 183 parishes).[54] Many experts consider this too many municipalities for a country of only 1.3 million people, because the average number of residents in a local government unit is too small to sustain a viable community. Political parties are interested in retaining the units, however, because they provide a mechanism for ensuring support at the local level. The capacity of small local government units to develop local life is weak, as development initiatives require a high level of cooperation, and many efforts get bogged down in conflicting interests and competition for scarce resources.[55] As a result, many municipalities lack the necessary capacity to meet the needs of the public.
  • With these problems in mind, the government committed in its coalition agreement to carry out public administration reform.[56] According to the action plan, the aim is to adopt the Law for Administration Reform by July 1, 2016. The government also created a dedicated Ministry of Public Administration. The new minister formed an expert commission in May, whose task was to make recommendations on the criteria for carrying out local government reform. In October, the commission presented its recommendations, advising that the minimum number of people living in a municipality should be 5,000.[57] After the reform law is adopted, the government will assess local government units, and those that do not match the criteria will be merged according to the government plan.[58] The main criticism so far is that the plan concentrates too much on the prospective size of the new units, while issues such as quality of local democracy and access to public services under the prospective larger municipalities are treated as secondary.[59]
  • Apart from administrative reform, local politics has revived due to the intensified debate on immigration and refugees. The state has consulted local governments on their capacity to host asylum seekers.[60] Most municipalities have opposed the idea of resettling refugee families, even though there is no formal obstacle preventing these families from moving to any local community once they arrive in Estonia. In September, the prime minister called upon the representatives of local governments to demonstrate more humanity and solidarity regarding this issue.[61]
Judicial Framework and Independence: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

1.50

  • The efficiency and effectiveness of Estonia’s judicial system have been improving step by step over a long period. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Estonia’s judicial independence 21st among 140 countries.[62] One of the outcomes of these improvements is the continuing overall decrease in crime, due mostly to effective policing. Crime in the first half of 2015 was down 17 percent from the same period in 2014.[63]
  • Several members of the main opposition Center Party (CP) questioned the impartiality of the judicial system when the Harju County Court suspended from office the mayor of Tallinn (and CP chairman) Edgar Savisaar in connection with a corruption investigation (see “Corruption”).[64] Savisaar said the investigation was politically motivated,[65] but the Tallinn Circuit Court held that his suspension was justified and honored the lower court’s decision.[66] Estonia’s Chancellor of Justice (similar to an ombudsperson but with greater powers and status) responded to a request from CP to comment on the case, stating that all people are equal before the law and an electoral mandate does not exempt anyone from accountability.[67] In November, following his victory in CP’s internal party elections, Savisaar denounced the Estonian legal system.[68] The media criticized Savisaar for sowing mistrust in the legal system among his followers.[69]
  • The September arson attack on the Vao center for asylum seekers caused a new round of discussions on whether the penal code should address hate crimes specifically, which was not included in a major reform in 2014. The Estonian Human Rights Center urged the government to clamp down on hate speech and amend the penal code. Erkki Koort, the Deputy Secretary General for Internal Security Policy at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, agreed that the current penal code is too soft on hate crimes. The current language is ineffectual against hate speech because it stipulates that verbal abuse must be accompanied by a direct threat to life or well-being.[70] Yet, after several years of discussions, there is still no agreement on new language for the code.[71] Meanwhile, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has recommended that Estonia remove the restriction stipulating that an offense may not be deemed to have taken place unless proven to involve a risk to the victim’s health, life, or property.[72] The Justice Minister continues to oppose this measure, however.[73]
Corruption: 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.25

2.25

2.50

2.50

2.50

2.50

  • Estonia performs well in global corruption indices, and better than some Western European countries. Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Estonia 23rd among 168 countries and territories.[74] There are ongoing problems with political corruption, however. Allegations of bribery came to the forefront in 2015 as the Internal Security Service (ISS) initiated two major corruption cases.
  • On August 26, ISS arrested Ain Kaljurand, CEO of the state-owned Port of Tallinn, and Allan Kiil, a port board member and longtime member of RP.[75] Both men were accused of taking bribes over the course of many years. The port’s supervisory board stepped down in acknowledgement of their failure of financial oversight. A new eight-member board has been appointed, with no politicians included. The supervisory board previously included four representatives from political parties of which three were members of RP.[76]
  • In the discussions that ensued on the issue of overseeing state-owned companies, the prosecutor general advised that a state presence should be guaranteed, but the proportion of politicians and management specialists should be more balanced. The chief of internal security recommended that the National Audit Office should have increased means and opportunities to check up on large companies.[77] Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kristen Michal proposed concentrating state-owned companies under one or a few umbrella organizations (e.g., one for all state infrastructure), thus changing the status of supervisory boards.[78]
  • In the second major case, ISS announced in September an investigation of Edgar Savisaar, Tallinn mayor and head of CP, on allegations of bribery. Savisaar is suspected of accepting properties and favors in 2014 and 2015 with a total value of hundreds of thousands of euros on behalf of himself and CP.[79] Kalev Kallo, currently the head of the Tallinn city council and a CP member, is also suspected of aiding and taking bribes.
  • On September 30, the Harju County Court suspended Savisaar from office as Tallinn mayor.[80] The prosecutor general’s office requested the suspension on grounds that Savisaar could hinder the investigation if he were to continue to serve as mayor, e.g., by destroying or hiding evidence or influencing witnesses.
  • While the investigation was underway, Savisaar announced plans to continue as leader of CP. The party collected signatures in support of Savisaar after his suspension,[81] and in November he won a tight reelection as party chairman. After reinforcing his position, the party imposed new rules that removed the penalty of automatic expulsion for members found guilty of criminal charges. This rule change allowed CP secretary Priit Toobal to remain in the party after being found guilty of instigating unauthorized surveillance in a case involving the hacking of an email account belonging to a member of parliament (MP) from another party.[82] A number of former politicians who had been found guilty of crimes may also now return to politics.
  • In addition to these high-profile cases that received thorough media coverage, there were several lesser incidents exposed in 2015. In September, the PPRPU head of Tartu municipality came under investigation on suspicion of embezzling some 100,000 euros.[83] In June, ISS arrested a council member in Jõhvi in northeastern Estonia, accusing him and two others of rigging state procurements, bribery, and influence peddling.[84]
  • The parliament, elected in spring 2015, formed an Anti-Corruption Select Committee tasked with monitoring implementation of legally established anticorruption measures and assessing potential incidences of corruption involving officials. The committee will monitor compliance with restrictions on MP activities and verify MP declarations of interest.[85] In October, the justice minister supported a long-discussed initiative to establish a register for lobbyists and set clear guidelines for interest-group interactions with elected officials in parliament.[86]
Notes: 

Author: Hille Hinsberg, Jane Matt, Rauno Vinni

Hille Hinsberg is an expert in the Governance and Civil Society program at the Praxis Center for Policy Studies in Tallinn, Estonia. Jane Matt is an analyst in the Governance and Civil Society program for Praxis. Rauno Vinni is the head of Praxis’s Governance and Civil Society program.

 


[1] Raivo Vetik, 2015. “Introduction: Estonia’s position in the Human Development Index”, in Estonian Human Development Report 2014/2015. Estonian Cooperation Assembly, Tallinn. See also K. Hainsalu, “National Audit Office dissatisfied with governmental efforts to develop economy”, Postimees, 24 November 2014, http://news.postimees.ee/3411027/national-audit-office-dissatisfied-with-governmental-efforts-to-develop-economy

[2] “Emori uuringueksperdi kommentaar erakondade reitingu uuringu tulemuste erinevuse kohta,” [The comments of TNS Emor research expert on the differences in the ratings outcomes of parties], 20 November 2015, Emor.ee, http://www.emor.ee/emori-uuringueksperdi-kommentaar-erakondade-reitingu-uuringu-tulemuste-erinevuse-kohta/ 

[3] “PM says Estonia agrees with number of refugees offered by Commission,” Postimees, 10 September 2015, http://news.postimees.ee/3323995/pm-says-estonia-agrees-with-number-of-refugees-offered-by-commission

[4] „Uus jõud Reformierakond. Kuidas palun?“ [Reform Party the new power. Excuse me?], Poliitika.guru, 5 March 2015, http://www.poliitika.guru/uus-joud-reformierakond-kuidas-palun/

[5] „Coalition talks to continue between three parties, Free Party to go into opposition“, Estonian Public Broadcasting, 23 March 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/9a422178-b0ea-461e-b208-7ead215b88cd; J. M. Laats, „Coalition Agreement Signed and New Ministers Announced”, Estonian Public Broadcasting, 8 April 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/fe4461b5-314a-4c20-8d9c-23a07c97c48e; Website of the Republic of Estonia Government, accessed 28 October 2015, https://valitsus.ee/en

[6] See also “Lauristin: isikutevahelised pinged lõhuvad valitsuse enne nelja aastat”[Lauristin: tensions between individuals break the coalition within four years], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 10 April 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/1b2a5eab-cb9f-41e9-a55b-f47b6a392c71  

[7] Coalition Policy Agreement, Website of the Republic of Estonia Government, accessed 2 February 2016, https://valitsus.ee/en

[8] S. Tambur, “Ossinovski causes trouble for coalition on day 1,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 9 April 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/521b38a3-acfd-484d-bfa6-9270ce560fc9

[9] J. M. Laats and S. Tambur, “Ossinovski named Social Democrat head,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 1 June 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/5bdcd2af-999d-418c-9681-b1a3d22f39df

[10] S.Tambur, “SDE in ministerial reshuffle,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 7 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/265c5032-75df-4af0-be6e-74b309f4581e

[11] A. Ammas, “Business minister resigns,” Postimees, 31 August 2015, http://news.postimees.ee/3311061/business-minister-resigns

[12] J. M. Laats, “SDE votes to continue in government; Palo resigns,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 31 August 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/a10405f8-801b-4355-890f-75bdf89fa0a5

[13] For criticism of the president, see T. H. Ilves, “Lets us renew Estonia,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 15 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/opinion/4e27539c-a488-49f4-8bb5-fb143eb0ad1a/toomas-hendrik-ilves-let-us-renew-estonia

[14] S. Tambur, “Savisaar still in critical condition in Tartu University Hospital,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 19 March 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/45132bc7-f646-45b5-ae0f-6a5e89cd8ef5

[15] M. Oll and S. Tambur, “Savisaar named suspect in bribery case,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 22 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/bd2685cb-2efe-4d7c-ac33-c26c09f9cf3d

[16] M. Oll, “Circuit Court upholds Savisaar's suspension,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 23 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/5dfd5ac8-15e8-40c5-bdd4-6b83b70db86f

[17] S. Tambur, “Kadri Simson runs against Savisaar for Center Party leadership,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 16 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/society/0c79fe4b-39b8-4ed0-9a8e-1af156f908d4/kadri-simson-runs-against-savisaar-for-center-party-leadership#comments

[18] Accordingly, Estonia has to accept around 500-600 people over the next two years. On public attitudes see also Jüristo, T.; Lepik, K.; Solvak, M.; Tamkivi, S.; Vaarik, D.; Vassil, K. “Pagulasprobleemist empiiriliselt” [About the refugee problem empirically], Memokraat 18 November 2015, http://memokraat.ee/2015/11/uuring-mida-eesti-elanik-arvab-pogenikest/

[19] M. Oll “POLL: Estonians distrustful of government's refugee policy,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 18 November 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/8154884a-a3e1-45b6-bf35-6fc606b6a387/poll-estonians-distrustful-of-governments-refugee-policy#comments

[20] OSCE, “Parliamentary elections 1 March 2015,” accessed March 2016, http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/estonia/160131?download=true

[21] A.Rajavee (ed.), “Valimiste valvurid alustavad tööd” [The election guards start their work], Estonian Public Broadcasting , 15 January 2015, http://valimised.err.ee/v/riigikogu_valimised_2015/valimiste_valvurid/2ad57bdb-6587-4207-bf86-c788567a179c

[22] Valimiste valvurid, “Valimiste valvurite koondtabel: kiitused ja laitused” [The summary table of the guards of the elections: commendations and dispraised] , Estonian Public Broadcasting , 01 March 2015, http://valimised.err.ee/v/riigikogu_valimised_2015/valimiste_valvurid/1c4eba89-e907-41ee-bc92-c72e907b0adf

[23] Estonian National Electoral Committee,  “Hääletamis ja valimistulemused hetkeseisuga,” [The results of the parliamentray elections], (Tallinn: Estonian National Electoral Committee, 20 March 2015), http://rk2015.vvk.ee/voting-results.html

[24] J. M. Laats, “Tsahkna named IRL chairman, pledges to unite party,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 08 June 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/53d81d62-1ee6-47ff-a26b-b5e6ed775955

[25] “EKRE-kingitus kõige nõrgemale” [ECPP – a present to the weakest], POLIITIKA.guru, 6 March 2015, www.poliitika.guru.ee,

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[28] The Parliament of Estonia, “Riigikogu andis 16- ja 17- aastastele õiguse hääletada kohalikel valimistel” [The Parliament gave the 16- and 17- years  the right to vote in local elections], 6 May 2015, http://www.riigikogu.ee/pressiteated/riigikogu-andis-16-ja-17-aastastele-oiguse-haaletada-kohalikel-valimistel/

[29]P.Luts; M.Pärli (ed.), “Riigikogu tööapsu tulemusel jäi valimisiga langetamata” [As a result of the mistake in Riigikogu’s work the voting age remained not lowered], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 10 November 2015,  http://uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/2c408cbd-af1d-4a7f-85d6-979359dc91ac/riigikogu-tooapsu-tulemusel-jai-valimisiga-langetamata

[30] United States Agency for International Development, The 2014 CSO Sustainability Index

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[32] United States Agency for International Development, The 2014 CSO Sustainability Index

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[33] Social impact bonds are mechanisms to encourage private investments for public outcomes. For example, the state procures a service from a nonprofit organization on the condition that it delivers a certain public good, like reduced juvenile delinquency. The nonprofit raises capital from private investors to perform the public good, and then repays its investors from the money the state pays when the outcome is achieved. See “Charity or business? Private investors expect interest from decreased criminal behaviour by youth” [Heategevus või äri? Erainvestorid loodavad noorte kuritegevuse vähendamiselt kasumit], Eesti Päevaleht, 26 August 2015. http://www.heategu.ee/uudised/heategevus-voi-ari-erainvestorid-loodavad-noorte-kuritegevuse-vahendamiselt-kasumit

[35] Kallas, K. et al. 2015. Monitoring of Integration of Estonian Society 2015 [Eesti ühiskonna integratsiooni monitooring 2015], http://www.kul.ee/sites/kulminn/files/1peatykk.pdf

[36] The National Democratic Institute,  Field Offices of The National Democratic Institute, https://www.ndi.org/field_offices

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[38] Immigration center set on fire“, Estonian Public Broadcasting, 3 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/a87a85c1-1408-4e81-8621-893cf9a5f495

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[46] “Ekspress Grupp merges AS Eesti Ajalehed and AS Delfi,” 19 January 2015, EGrupp,

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[47] S. Tambur, “Estonia Launches Its First Russian-language TV-channel” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 28 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/ba7558c7-7b24-4e02-9af5-ff5270acea40

[48] H.Tiikmaa, “Estonia’s third channel struggles to connect with Russian speakers Xindex,” Index on Censorship, 4 January 2016, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/01/estonias-third-channel-struggles-to-connect-with-russian-speakers/

[49] “Estonian Public Broadcasting's new Russian TV channel popular among Estonians,” The Baltic Course, 7 October 2015 http://www.baltic-course.com/eng/good_for_business/?doc=111377

[50] “Russian propaganda channel aiming to launch in Estonia,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 11 November 2014, http://news.err.ee/v/main_news/2d35ec6c-a6d6-49c6-9ef0-188f9200720b

[51] J.Dougherty, R.Kaljurand, Estonia’s “Virtual Russian World”: The Influence of Russian Media on Estonia’s Russian Speakers, Integration Centre for Defence Studies, 2015. http://www.icds.ee/fileadmin/media/icds.ee/failid/Jill_Dougherty__Riina_Kaljurand_-_Estonia_s__Virtual_Russian_World_.pdf.

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[54] “Kohalikud omavalitsused” [Local governments], Estonia Ministry of the Interior, accessed 29 October 2015, https://www.siseministeerium.ee/et/tegevusvaldkonnad/kohalikud-omavalitsused

[55] Praxis Centre for Policy Studies and Estonian Centre for Applied Research CentAR, Perioodi 2007-2013 struktuurivahendite mõju regionaalarengule [The impact of the 2007-2013 structural funds on regional development], (Tallinn: Praxis and CentAR, 2015)

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[58] “Haldusreformi valitsuskomisjon hindas omavalitsuste ühinemise ajakava ja liitumistoetusi,” [The governmental commission for administrative reform assessed the timetable and subsidies for the mergers of local governments], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 12 June 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/3718e18a-65ce-43a6-a912-f89772170001

[59] J.M. Laats, “Hiiumaa revolts against municipality head,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 2 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/b52ed1ef-25c5-44c6-a1b0-714ceba2e771

[60] “Riik alustab kõnelusi omavalitsustega pagulaste vastuvõtuks lähipäevil,” [The government starts the talks over refugees acceptance with local governments], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 30 June 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/c09ae14f-0a7a-4acb-ac30-234935283e70

[61] “Rõivas: kutsun omavalitsusi üles järele mõtlema” [Prime minister Rõivas:  local governments should rethink about refugees], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 10 September 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/51141a78-9fd7-4805-b267-a6e85aa89222/roivas-kutsun-omavalitsusi-ules-jarele-motlema

[62] Klaus Schwab and Xavier Sala-i-Martín, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016. Full Data Edition” (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2014), p 165, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/gcr/2015-2016/Global_Competitiveness_Report_2015-2016.pdf

[63] “Kuritegevuse barometer” [Crime barometer], August 2015, Crime policy website of the Ministry of Justice, http://www.kriminaalpoliitika.ee/et/statistika-ja-uuringud/baromeeter

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[65] “Egdar Savisaar: see oli mõrvakatse!” [Edgar Savisaar: it was an attempted murder”], Pealinn, 5 October 2015, http://www.pealinn.ee/newset/edgar-savisaar-see-oli-morvakatse-n154101 

[66] “Circuit Court upholds Savisaar's suspension,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 23 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/5dfd5ac8-15e8-40c5-bdd4-6b83b70db86f/circuit-court-upholds-savisaars-suspension

[67] “Estonia's justice chancellor says mandate doesn't exempt anyone from liability”, Postimees, 23 October 2105, http://news.postimees.ee/3373013/estonia-s-justice-chancellor-says-mandate-doesn-t-exempt-anyone-from-liability

[68] “Savisaar: Keskerakond seob end lahti Eesti õigussüsteemist” [Savisaar: Centre Party binds itself to rid the Estonian legal system], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 29 November 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/7db43e9a-6841-46a1-b23c-756435906f8b/savisaar-keskerakond-seob-end-lahti-eesti-oigussusteemist

[69] Editorial: a ranting Savisaar untoppled”, Postimees, 30 November 2015, http://news.postimees.ee/3418013/editorial-a-ranting-savisaar-untoppled

[70] “Hate speech laws too soft, says human rights watchdog,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 04 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/08634d9f-9808-4ca4-8abe-86409b8bb000/hate-speech-laws-too-soft-says-human-rights-watchdog

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[72] “ECRI calls Estonia to criminalize racist offenses”, Estonian Public Broadcasting, 22 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/society/ae011188-ad71-437e-bd84-bbe321807171/ecri-calls-estonia-to-criminalize-racist-offenses

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[74] Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, https://www.transparency.org/cpi2015/#results-table

[75] “Authorities detain Port of Tallinn CEO on corruption allegations,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 26 August 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/cf7d4f70-5d2b-4716-b07c-8517adbf38cb/authorities-detain-port-of-tallinn-ceo-on-corruption-allegations

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[77] “Security service and prosecution advise on how to check state-owned companies,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 15 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/c9d953fd-9b87-461c-bbbe-ab86eb09ec31/security-service-and-prosecution-advised-on-how-to-check-state-owned-companies

[78] “Minister pledges to depoliticize state company boards ahead of possible privatization,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 2 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/bcc09994-a972-4aa8-9f4f-e0efc4c52939

[79] M. Oll and S. Tambur, “Savisaar Named Suspect in Bribery Case,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 22 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/bd2685cb-2efe-4d7c-ac33-c26c09f9cf3d/internal-security-services-detain-savisaar-suspect-him-of-repeatedly-taking-bribes

[80] S. Tambur, “Savisaar Suspended from Mayor’s Office,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 30 September 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/2b68a0b6-7636-4070-8389-f9751d5874a4

[81] M. Oll, “Center Party launches signature campaign in support of suspended mayor Edgar Savisaar,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 6 October 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/080d836f-52af-4c0a-9b38-168db9db36df/center-party-launches-signature-campaign-in-support-of-suspended-mayor-edgar-savisaar; “Tallinna linnavolikogule anti üle ligi 17 000 allkirja Savisaare toetuseks” [Over 17 thousand signatures in support for Savisaar were presented to the Tallinn City Council], Estonian Public Broadcasting, 15 October 2015, http://uudised.err.ee/v/51e3af3a-7819-40c1-b4f2-8bc64c884337

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[84]  J.M. Laats, “3 arrested in Jõhvi municipality corruption case,” Estonian Public Broadcasting, 18 June 2015, http://news.err.ee/v/politics/9b7f676d-ead7-41b8-bcfd-fe17cb90aa9a

[85] The Parliament of Estonia, “Draft resolutions on formation of select committees passed first reading in Riigikogu,” 5 May 2015, http://www.riigikogu.ee/en/press-releases/draft-resolutions-on-formation-of-select-committees-passed-first-reading-in-riigikogu/

[86] “Minister of Justice supports the creation of lobby register to the Parliament,” Postimees, 14 October 2015, http://www.postimees.ee/3362265/reinsalu-toetab-riigikogu-juurde-lobifirmade-registri-loomist