Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1988

Estonia was an independent state between the two World Wars
but was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a constituent
republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)-
The United States does not recognize the forcible incorporation
of Estonia into the U.S.S.R.
Like the other Baltic states, Estonia is 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 Soviet Union. Nevertheless,
taking advantage of the policies of "glasnosf" (openness) and
"perestroika" (restructuring) adopted by General Secretary
Mikhail Gorbachev, Estonians in 1988 became outspoken in
expressing their resentment of Soviet policy in Estonia and in
demanding national, civil, and human rights. This burgeoning
activity culminated in the declaration in November by the
Estonian Supreme Soviet (parliament) that its laws superseded
those of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet. It also passed laws
emphasizing its control over all areas except defense and
foreign policy. The Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet
rejected the Estonian legislature's actions as inconsistent
with the Soviet Constitution.
Concerned about the survival of Estonia as a distinct nation,
the Estonian Supreme Soviet voted to make Estonian the
language of Estonia and to legalize the flag of independent
Estonia. Because of a low birthrate and an official
settlement policy that has resulted in an influx of
non-Estonian settlers, the ethnic Estonian proportion of the
total population has dropped from 92 percent in 1939 to
approximately 60 percent. Estonian organizations in 1988
pressed for a policy to discourage or stop such an influx.
The standard of living in Estonia is higher than the Soviet
average, but the margin is shrinking. Estonians resent the
fact that too much of the national income they generate is
transferred to other republics and that most major economic
enterprises are directly controlled by central ministries
located in Moscow. They also complain of the declining
quantity and quality of food supplies and consumer goods. The
Soviet Politburo in April decided to grant Estonia more
autonomy over a portion of its economy, but neither the extent
nor the forms of local control were made clear.
The human rights situation in Estonia improved markedly during
1988. Although some human rights violations by the Soviet
authorities continued, particularly against advocates of
independence for Estonia, unprecedented public expressions of
Estonian national sentiment and independent political views
were tolerated by the authorities in 1988. The People's Front
in Support of Perestroika, a political movement that included
many leaders of the Estonian Communist Party and Government,
was founded in October and became very active. Changes in the
Soviet legal code, 'which could affect some laws and
regulations used to repress legitimate political activity,
remained under discussion but were not implemented during 1988.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
      a. Political Killing
There were no reported cases of political killing in 1988.
      b. Disappearance
There were no known instances of permanent or prolonged
      c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
In Estonia, as in the Soviet Union, cruel and inhuman
treatment of prisoners occurs during both interrogation and
confinement in labor camps, prisons, or psychiatric
hospitals. Physical and psychological abuse of prisoners is
common, as is detention under extremely unhealthful
      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 1988 the authorities rarely
used these laws to arrest political activists, so that the
ability of Estonians to express their views and to criticize
the Governments in both Tallinn and Moscow improved
significantly. Nevertheless, a number of persons were
detained in February for participating in various
demonstrations. Most were released almost immediately, but
Sivert Zoldins was detained for distributing leaflets on
February 2 and held without trial until he was released in
July. Former political prisoner Heino Ahonen and several
other human rights activists left Estonia in early 1988 under
pressure from the authorities, including threats of criminal
prosecution. Such threats and pressures were rarely used
during the latter part of 1988, according to human rights
activists, although some advocates of Estonian independence
were questioned by the authorities about the formation of the
Estonian National Independence Party. At year's end, there
were no reports that anyone had been arrested for political
reasons in the latter part of 1988.
With regard to forced or compulsory labor, see Section 6.c.
      e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Despite provisions for judicial objectivity in both the
Estonian and Soviet Constitutions, the State completely
controls the judicial process and, in political cases,
arbitrarily decides the outcome of all trials to suit its
requirements. No rights of a defendant override the
compelling "interests of the State." Some Estonian public
figures spoke out in 1988 for strengthening the rights of
defendants in Soviet trials, but it is as yet unclear whether
or how such reforms might be implemented. There were no known
convictions on purely political charges in 1988. Political
prisoners Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto, both sentenced in the
early 1980's to 10 years" imprisonment and 5 years' internal
exile on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,"
were released and allowed to return to Estonia in 1988.
      f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Government interference in personal life is pervasive through
the use of informers, mail censorship and confiscation,
electronic monitoring of telephones, and other means. Contacts
between Estonians and visitors from foreign countries continue
to be monitored, but the authorities facilitated a considerable
increase in such contacts during 1988. It is not clear whether
interference with mail and telephonic communications diminished
during the year, but Estonians seem less fearful about using
these means of communications to express their views.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
      a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for most internationally accepted
political liberties on condition that their exercise does not
threaten the security of the Socialist system. The Estonian
Supreme Soviet voted on November 16 to amend the first article
of the Estonian Constitution to include the provisions of the
United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well
as other internationally recognized international human rights
instruments, as "an inseparable part of the legal systen of
the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic." Unlike most other
constitutional amendments adopted on November 16, this
provision was not declared by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet's
Presidium to be inconsistent with the Soviet Constitution.
In practice, the authorities interpret these constitutional
guarantees to fit the convenience of the State. While
glasnost' has expanded the ability of official and unofficial
writers to explore heretofore taboo subjects and to spotlight
economic and social problems, these opportunities are still
subject to self-censorship and to limits which have not been
stabilized or defined. Over the course of 1988, these limits
appeared to expand considerably both with regard to personal
expression and to the range of items appearing in the official
In June the formerly banned flag of the independent Estonian
republic was officially proclaimed by the Estonian Supreme
Soviet to be the Estonian national flag. For the first time
since the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, Estonian print
and electronic media carried frank discussions of Estonian
history and Estonia's status as a Soviet republic. The 1939
Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact between Nazi Germany and
the Soviet Union, together with the secret protocols that
became the basis for the Soviet occupation and annexation of
the three Baltic states, were published in the Estonian press
for the first time in 1988.
Estonian radio provided live coverage of the founding congress
of the Estonian People's Front held in October, at which
several speakers strongly criticized the Communist Party's
monopoly on power and the role of the Soviet military in
Estonia. The official press published numerous documents and
resolutions of the People's Front, the Council of Estonian
Cultural Unions, and a youth forum, which called for human
rights, self-determination, and a multiparty system. The
media provided extensive coverage of ecological issues, and at
least two papers reported on a demand by the "Green" movement
for the resignation of the Prime Minister.
In general, however, criticism of the party leadership and
demands for Estonian independence are still considered by most
journalists to be off-limits. Virtually all Estonian
newspapers, magazines, journals, and books remained under the
control of the Communist Party, although the newly organized
People's Front published a bulletin that was reportedly not
censored by the authorities. Knowledgeable observers report
that the Estonian-language media were much more forthright
than the Russian-language media in reporting on social and
political developments in Estonia, especially during the first
half of 1988.
      b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The peaceful assembly of citizens is controlled by the
authorities, who retain the power to prohibit public
gatherings. Basic guidelines concerning the authorization and
holding of demonstrations and meetings are contained in a July
28, 1988, decree of the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme
Soviet. Unlike other Soviet republican legislative bodies,
however, the Estonian Supreme Soviet declined to adopt
implementing legislation on the model of the Russian Soviet
Federated Socialist Republic. Estonian Communist leaders also
publicly stated that they saw no need to implement another
U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet decree, providing for the use of
special Ministry of Internal Affairs troops to quell public
When the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet confirmed these decrees of
its Presidium--on demonstrations and on the use of special
internal affairs troops--a deputy from Estonia made an
unprecedented speech in opposition to the decrees. Deputies
from Estonia were among a handful of Supreme Soviet deputies
who voted against confirmation of the decrees, the first time
in recent history that the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet did not act
In practice, the people of Estonia were allowed to hold the
largest mass meetings and demonstrations in recent Estonian
history as the authorities' approach to such gatherings
evolved over the course of 1988. The authorities reacted with
hostility to a February 2 demonstration in Tartu to
commemorate the 1920 peace treaty between the Soviet Union and
independent Estonia in which the Soviet Union renounced any
territorial claims against Estonia. Leading participants of
that demonstration were subsequently pressured to leave
Estonia. Tallinn demonstrations to mark the 70th anniversary
of Estonian Independence Day (February 24) and the March 25
anniversary of Stalinist deportations from Estonia were also
met with some harassment from the authorities.
The situation was considerably different, however, when the
People's Front organized a mass meeting on June 17 at the
Tallinn song festival grounds to discuss the Estonian
delegation's platform for the XlXth Soviet Conununist Party
Conference. Over 100,000 people gathered peacefully, with the
cooperation and support of the authorities, and the meeting
was attended by Estonian delegates to the party conference.
Several thousand Estonians also gathered peacefully in Tallinn
August 23 to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the Molotov-
Ribbentrop Pact at a meeting organized by the People's Front
and at a separate demonstration organized by independent
associations including the Estonian National Independence
Party. As many as 300,000 people reportedly converged for a
festival of patriotic songs and an outpouring of national
political expression under the sponsorship of the People's
Front on September 11.
The People's Front held its own officially sanctioned founding
congress on October 1-2, attended by more than 3,000 delegates
from Estonia as well as political activists from various parts
of the Soviet Union and hundreds of Soviet and foreign
journalists. Throughout the summer and early fall, members of
the Estonian National Independence Party and other human
rights activists maintained a regular picket and information
post in front of the Tallinn Supreme Court building to demand
the release of political detainee Sivert Zoldins and long-term
political prisoners Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto. The picketers
initially encountered some harassment and official press
criticism, but they were not prevented from carrying out their
activities. The authorities eventually met the picketers'
demands, first by releasing Zoldins in July and subsequently
by freeing Niklus and Tarto in the early fall.
The Constitution provides for the right to associate in public
organizations, but this right has been limited by legislation
and practice. There was some harassment of human rights
activists, religious nonconformists, and independence
advocates early in the year. Later, the authorities tolerated
the activities of a wide range of unofficial groups. While
exercising control over the official mass organizations, the
authorities acquiesced in the rapid growth and development of
the Estonian People's Front as an independent political
organization. The Estonian Supreme Soviet voted November 16
to add several references to the role of "social movements"
such as the People's Front to the Estonian Constitution.
These provisions were not challenged by the Presidium of the
U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet when it declared other Estonian
constitutional amendments to be inconsistent with the Soviet
While many leaders and members of the People's Front are in
the Communist Party, the People's Front maintains that it is
not subordinate to the party and that it has some 100,000
members. It has taken stands on many issues which differ from
official party positions. It called for Socialist democracy
and pluralism, political and economic sovereignty for Estonia,
cultural autonomy, and the protection of citizens' rights.
For a discussion of freedom of association as it applies to
labor unions, see Section 6. a.
      c. Freedom of Religion
Although the Soviet Constitution provides for the right to
profess, or not to profess, any religion, both the party and
Government promote atheism. As in the Soviet Union, the
regime adopted a less confrontational posture toward organized
religion in 1988 than in previous years. For the first time
in the postwar period, Christmas was celebrated in Estonia as
an officially sanctioned holiday. The Archbishop's Christmas
eve service at the Tallinn cathedral was shown on Estonian
television. There were indications that new Soviet legislation
may ease some restrictions on religious associations, and that
the Estonian authorities may adopt separate legislation which
takes account of local conditions.
Despite the regime's more tolerant attitude toward religious
believers, Lutheran and other pastors were nevertheless called
in for questioning about activities related to political or
nationalist causes. The authorities did not cease their
efforts to harass and suppress numerous unregistered Baptist,
Pentecostalist , and other religious groups, including members
of the small "Word of Life" church. At least two religious
believers were imprisoned because of their refusal to perform
military service.
      d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Freedom of movement is neither guaranteed by law nor respected
in practice. The right to emigrate by choice is not
recognized by Soviet law. Travel abroad for family
reunification or family visits is limited by restrictive
legislation and arbitrary enforcement, although bureaucratic
procedures seem to be less cumbersome in Estonia than in the
Soviet Union as a whole. Many Soviet Jews in Estonia were
reportedly denied permission to emigrate in previous years,
and the vast majority of Estonians are still not even allowed
to apply.
Nonetheless, the upsurge in Soviet Jewish emigration has had a
positive effect on Jewish emigration from Estonia as well. A
number of Pentecostalists were also granted permission to
emigrate. The number of Estonians allowed to .visit relatives
and friends in the United States, and the number of United
States citizens formerly residing in Estonia who were allowed
to return as visitors rose considerably. Several Estonian
activists, including former political prisoner Heino Ahonen,
were encouraged to depart Estonia for the West under pressure
from the authorities.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
The people of Estonia, as those of the Soviet Union, are not
free to change government leaders or the system of
government. For the first time in recent Estonian history,
however, Soviet authorities were prepared to tolerate a great
deal of political activity conducted outside the framework of
the Communist Party. The most striking example of such
activity was the development of the People's Front, which
quickly attained semiofficial status and qualified endorsement
from the party leadership. A small group of former political
prisoners and other activists, many of whom had previously
been active in the Group for the Publication of the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in Estonia, were also able to form an
Estonian National Independence Party.
Early in 1988, many Estonians outside the Communist Party
began to articulate proposals for Estonian "sovereignty,"
economic autonomy, Estonian citizenship, and official
recognition of Estonian as the state language. At the time,
the Estonian Communist leadership opposed such proposals and
vigorously attacked the upsurge in glasnost'. Even in the
absence of democratic political institutions, popular
discontent played a role in the June replacement of the
Communist Party First Secretary in Estonia. New First
Secretary Vaino Valjas was quick to adopt many proposals which
had originally put forward by groups and individuals from
outside the party structure. Popular opposition to former
Estonian Prime Minister Bruno Saul, including the "Green"
movement's publicly stated demands for Saul's resignation,
almost certainly played a role in Saul's November replacement
by former Communist party ideology Secretary Indrek Toome.
The stated goals of party leaders are to enhance Estonia's
political and economic "sovereignty" within the structure of
the Soviet Union, to enhance the role of Estonian as the
official language of the republic, and to establish some form
of Estonian citizenship. The leadership also claims that it
would like to see a stronger role for elected government
bodies, including local and republic Soviets (councils), and
they have not ruled out the possibility of nonparty candidates
for government offices.
In a culmination of such efforts, the Estonian Supreme Soviet
in November declared the supremacy of its laws over those of
the U.S.S.R. It amended its laws and Constitution so as to
control its land, resources, banks, enterprises, and housing.
It also passed laws to exercise control in all areas except
defense affairs and foreign policy. The U.S.S.R. Supreme
Soviet retorted that the Estonian legislature's actions were
inconsistent with the U.S.S.R. Constitution. In December the
Estonian Supreme Soviet amended the Estonian Constitution to
make Estonian the official language of the Republic. Amid an
intense debate between representatives of the Estonian and
Russian-speaking populations, the Supreme Soviet deferred
consideration of a more detailed language law until 1989.
Women, in general, do not play a large role in the Estonian
Communist Party or in political activities. Two exceptions
are Marju Lauristin, a leader of the People's Front, and Lagle
Parek, a leader of the Estonian National Independence Party.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The Soviet Government has adopted a more forthcoming approach
to foreign criticism of its human rights record, acknowledging
problems and stating the desire to make Soviet society more
"humane." It has also acknowledged that human rights are a
legitimate subject of official multilateral and bilateral
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Language, or Social Status
Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or other grounds is
prohibited in the Constitution. Tensions between ethnic
Estonians and Russians are always near the surface in Estonia,
and in 1988 these tensions were expressed in public debate
over a number of issues. Ethnic Estonians increasingly
expressed their concern that they are subjected to
discrimination in their own homeland. They complained that
they could not always conduct business in their own language
and that "migrants" from the Soviet Union receive favored
treatment in the provision of housing and other social
Fundamentally, Estonians also voiced their concern that
important decisions -affecting Estonia's economy and ecology
were been made by Estonians themselves. These concerns led to
the proposals, accepted by Estonian Communist Party leaders,
to make Estonian the official language, to establish criteria
for Estonian citizenship, to take measures to discourage
immigration, and to move toward full economic autonomy. Some
Estonians also suggested that economic and other incentives
should be offered to encourage "re-migration" of non-Estonians
to the Soviet Union.
Ethnic Russians and other Russian-speaking residents of
Estonia were generally concerned by proposals for Estonian
language and citizenship laws, fearing that they would be
disenfranchised or converted into second-class citizens. They
were also concerned by mass outpourings of Estonian national
sentiment and the rapid rise of the People's Front, whose
membership is predominantly ethnic Estonian. Russian speakers
already complain that it is not always possible to conduct
their business in Russian, and they argue that it would be
unrealistic to institute the use of the Estonian language in
cities such as Narva, which have an overwhelmingly Russian
population. Some Russian residents of Estonia formed an
"International Movement," calling for establishment of both
Russian and Estonian as official languages of Estonia and
opposing many of the positions favored by the People's Front.
Some Russian workers in Estonia tried to strike in protest
against Estonian national sentiment, but the effort was not
successful. A planned November 15 strike at Tallinn's large
All-Union factory, encouraged by the factory directors
themselves to protest growing Estonian national activism,
failed to materialize when both Russian and Estonian workers
refused to participate.
In response to debates between ethnic Estonians and the
Russians, which were characterized by the circulation of
rumors and inflammatory leaflets, the People's Front organized
a "forum of peoples" in September. The forum brought together
representatives of various ethnic groups in Estonia and
adopted statements calling for "cultural autonomy" for
Estonia's minority populations. Despite such efforts,
however, ethnic tensions remained significant.
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. In general,
however, women hold less remunerative positions than do men in
the same professions.
Section 6 Worker Rights
      a. The Right of Association
Soviet labor law and practice are enforced in Estonia. There
is no right of association as defined by the International
Labor Organization. Although the Constitution grants Soviet
citizens the right to form trade unions, any attempt to
exercise this right independently of the state-controlled
unions is repressed. Workers do not have the right to strike,
and past attempts to call strikes at state enterprises have
been denounced by local officials.
      b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Workers in Estonia may not organize or resort to collective
bargaining. There are no economic incentive zones or special
industries in which labor standards differ from those
elsewhere in Estonia.
      c. Prohibition of 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,
and the standard workweek is 40 hours. There is no indication
of widespread violations of these norms.
      e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Labor conditions in Estonia are similar to those in the Soviet
Union. According to the Soviet State Statistical Committee,
the average monthly wage in the U.S.S.R. for blue- and whitecollar
workers in mid-1988 was $350 and for collective farm
workers $250 at the official rate of exchange. The minimum
monthly wage in the U.S.S.R. was $132. (The ruble is not a
convertible currency, and its value here in terms of the U.S.
dollar does not represent actual pruchasing power for
international purposes.) Although specific information is not
available, average wages in Estonia are believed to be higher
than average wages in the U.S.S.R. as a whole.
The average workweek is 40 hours for most white-collar workers
and 48 hours for most blue-collar workers. Soviet law
establishes minimum conditions of health and safety. Press
reports suggest, however, that the laws on maximum hours of
work and health and safety standards are widely ignored