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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Estonia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Estonia, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Estonia, a parliamentary democracy, regained its independence in 1991 after more than 50 years of forced annexation by the Soviet Union. The Constitution, adopted by referendum in 1992, established a 101-member unicameral legislature (State Assembly), a Prime Minister as Head of Government, and a President as Head of State. Free and fair elections were held in 1992 for the State Assembly and the President. After more than 2 years of negotiations, on August 31 the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia, although a number of demobilized Russian officers remain in Estonia.

Official conversion of the Soviet militia into the Estonian police preceded the reestablishment of the country's independence by about 6 months. However, conversion of the police into a Western-type force committed to procedures and safeguards appropriate to a democratic society is proceeding slowly. The police, ethnically mixed and subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, continue to commit human rights abuses. The security service, called security police, is also subordinate to the same Ministry.

Estonia has a balanced economy, emphasizing light industrial products and food production. It has substantially transformed the centrally planned economy it inherited into an open market system. Small- and medium-scale privatization is moving toward completion, and large-scale privatization progressed significantly in 1994. Gross domestic product grew by about 5 percent, and approximately two-thirds of Estonian exports (textiles, food products, metals) are now directed to Western markets. Unemployment remained low (unofficially about 8 percent), but significantly higher rates exist in the predominantly ethnic Russian northeast and in rural areas. The major human rights abuse continues to be police mistreatment, including physical and psychological abuse, of detainees and prisoners. The substantial noncitizen population, primarily ethnic Russians, is about 28 percent of the total population. Treatment of noncitizens continued to be a major issue domestically and bilaterally with Russia. The Government extended the deadline for submission of residence permit applications for noncitizens established by the 1993 Law on Aliens by 1 year because of implementation difficulties. In addition, officials began issuing temporary travel documents to eligible noncitizens to enable their departure from and return to Estonia. Both the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) mission to Estonia, established in 1993, and the CSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities declared that they could find no pattern of human rights abuses in Estonia. However, both did regard the language requirement, as administered, a hardship for noncitizens. Ethnic ussians remained concerned about the application of Estonian-language proficiency requirements in seeking employment and naturalization.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of such killing in 1994.

Although the numbers declined, there continued to be reports that prisoners killed other prisoners. The State Prosecutor's office reported that prisoners in 1992 had killed 32 other persons in custody; in 1993, 11; and, during the first 9 months of 1994, 2. The State Prosecutor's office investigated all such cases and prosecuted when there was sufficient evidence. It obtained 5 convictions in the 1992 cases, with 2 cases still in court and one finding of self-defense; it also obtained 2 convictions in the 1993 cases and 1 in the 1994 cases.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of abductions or disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but police continued to subject detainees and prisoners to harsh treatment, including physical and psychological abuse and detention under overcrowded and extremely unhealthful conditions. Credible reports of the excessive use of force and police brutality during the arrest and questioning of suspects also continued. In one case, six police officers were convicted of beating detainees, and given sentences ranging from 30 months to a fine. Another case is still pending.

The conditions of severe overcrowding and idleness, particularly at the Tallinn pretrial detention prison built in 1765, did not change. However, work began on remodeling two buildings which should significantly reduce overcrowding at the Tallinn prison. At the invitation of the Ministry of Justice, experts from the Council of Europe (COE) studied Estonian prison conditions and made numerous general and specific recommendations, some of which were implemented.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and laws forbid arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile. There were no known instances of Estonian authorities engaging in such activities. Under the Constitution, a judicial warrant is required for an arrest. Detainees must be informed promptly of the grounds for arrest and given immediate access to legal counsel. If a person cannot afford a lawyer, the State will provide one. A person may be held for 48 hours without formally being charged; further detention requires a court order. A person may be held in pretrial detention for 2 months; a court order may prolong detention up to a total of 12 months. Police rarely violate these limits. Pretrial detainees account for about 20 percent of the total prison population.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution establishes an independent judicial branch operating through a three-tier court system: rural and city courts, district courts, and a supreme State Court. The district courts and the State Court are also courts of "constitutional supervision." At the rural and city level, court decisions are made by majority vote with a judge and two lay assessors sitting in judgment. Judges and lay assessors must be Estonian citizens. The President nominates and the State Assembly confirms the Chief Justice of the State Court. The Chief Justice nominates State Court judges who are subject to confirmation by the State Assembly. He also nominates the rural, city, and district judges, whom the President then appoints. All judges hold office until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65.

The Constitution provides that court proceedings shall be open to the public. Courts may hold closed sessions, but only in cases in which state or business secrets need to be protected or in cases concerning minors. It further provides that defendants may present witnesses and evidence as well as confront and cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Defendants have access to prosecution evidence and enjoy a presumption of innocence.

Estonia continued to overhaul its criminal and civil procedural codes. An interim Criminal Code which went into effect in 1992 basically revised the Soviet criminal code, eliminating, for example, political and economic crimes. New codes were being drafted at year's end.

There were no political prisoners being held.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Estonian law requires a search warrant for search and seizure of property. Prosecutors, rather than judges, issue such warrants during the investigative stage upon a showing of probable cause. Once a case has gone to trial, however, judges then issue search and seizure warrants.

The Constitution guarantees secrecy of the mail, telegrams, telephones, and other means of communication. Police must obtain a court order to intercept a person's communications. Illegally obtained evidence is not admissible in court.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press are generally respected, and the media are beginning to do more investigative reporting. Foreign newspapers and magazines are readily available. Although the Government still provides most newsprint and printing and distribution facilities, the role of private companies is growing rapidly. There are five major national Estonian-language and three Russian-language dailies.

State broadcast media, including one nationwide television channel, continue to receive large subsidies, but there are several independent television and radio stations. The Government has stopped retransmission of television channels from Russia owing to nonpayment of fees, but several Russian-language programs, mostly Estonian produced, are broadcast over state and private television channels. State-funded Russian-language radio broadcasts continued, substantially subsidized by funds from the state budget; the State has assured that these subsidies will continue.

There is complete academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right to assemble freely but prohibits noncitizens from joining political parties, although they may form social groups. Permits for all public gatherings must be obtained 3 weeks prior to the date of the gathering. The authorities have wide discretion to prohibit such gatherings on public safety grounds but seldom exercise it. There were no reports of government interference with mass gatherings or political rallies.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of conscience and of religious proselytism is provided for by law and honored in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law permits free movement within the country, and it is honored in practice. It also guarantees the right of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation for Estonian citizens.

In July 1993, Parliament enacted the Law on Aliens which defines an alien as a person who is not a citizen of Estonia, i.e., a citizen of another country or a stateless person. The majority of noncitizens are ethnic Russians (see Section 5). The Law on Aliens originally provided a 1-year period in which noncitizens who came to reside in Estonia prior to July 1, 1990, and who had permanent registration in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, could apply for temporary residence permits valid for 3 years. They could also apply for permanent residence at the same time. The Law on Aliens envisages that those with temporary residence could activate their applications for permanent residence toward the end of the 3-year temporary residence period. Following delays and confusion in implementation as well as criticism by international human rights observers, the Law on Aliens' application deadline was extended by another year, until July 12, 1995. Despite the extension, some international observers hav criticized the Law on Aliens as being too rigid and as having created too high a barrier for establishing residency.

No outright restrictions are placed on the right of noncitizens to foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. The Government did begin issuing temporary travel documents to noncitizens in June. At first these temporary travel documents, valid for only one departure and reentry, were good for 6 months. The Government later extended their validity to 2 years in order to accommodate entry visa requirements of other countries. The Government began issuing alien's passports in the fall. Regulations permit issuance to the following categories of resident aliens not in possession of any other valid travel document: (1) a person who has been designated as stateless; (2) a foreign citizen who lacks the opportunity to obtain a travel document of his/her country of origin or of another state; (3) a person who is seeking Estonian citizenship and has passed the language examination if required; (4) an alien who is permanently departing Estonia.

The Government does not accord refugee status or asylum. The representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Nordic and Baltic states urged Estonia to develop and adopt legislation distinguishing between refugees, applicants for asylum, and illegal immigrants, and distributed Estonian-language copies of the UNHCR handbook on determining refugee status. Estonia had not acted on the recommendations by year's end. Amnesty International reported that the Government detained 100 asylum seekers, mostly Iraqi Kurds. The organization also repeated allegations that some of the asylum seekers had been denied medical treatment following a hunger strike. A hijacker who diverted a plane from Russia to Estonia in November applied for asylum. Russia requested his extradition. The Government had not decided how to proceed by year's end.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have the right to change their government. In 1992 they elected their first post-Soviet Parliament in accordance with the Constitution adopted by referendum 3 months earlier. The 101-member Parliament (Riigikogu or State Assembly), elected by secret ballot in multiparty elections, confirmed the Prime Minister who put together a coalition government based on a slim parliamentary majority. When the Parliament passed a vote of no confidence on September 26, the Prime Minister and his government resigned, and a new Government was formed with a new Prime Minister. The next regular parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 1995. The Law on Local Elections adopted in May 1993 permits resident noncitizens to vote but not to run for office.

The citizenship law enacted in 1992 readopted the 1938 citizenship law. According to the law, anyone born after 1940 to an Estonian citizen parent is an Estonian citizen by birth. The parent does not have to be an ethnic Estonian. The law includes requirements for naturalization, such as a 2-year residency requirement, to be followed by a 1-year waiting period, as well as knowledge of the Estonian language. The implementation law provided that the 2-year residency requirement could be met by residency starting on March 30, 1990. Thus, any noncitizen who resided in Estonia since that date was eligible to apply for Estonian citizenship as of March 30, 1992, and for naturalization on March 30, 1993. The law allows the Government to waive requirements for applicants who are ethnic Estonians or who have performed valuable service to Estonia.

As of September, some 40,000 people had applied for and received citizenship. Some observers attributed the application for naturalization of such a small proportion of resident noncitizens to: (1) indecision over whether to apply for Estonian citizenship or citizenship of another country (principally Russia)--the latter choice was encouraged by both Estonian and Russian nationalists; (2) bureaucratic delays; and (3) the Estonian-language proficiency requirement. Those who desire language instruction confront serious problems stemming from an insufficient number of qualified teachers, lack of funds, poor educational infrastructure, and an examination process which some allege is arbitrary. Article 16 of the Citizenship Law Implementation Act bars the naturalization of: "(1) foreign military personnel on active service; (2) persons who have been in the employment of the security and intelligence organizations of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; (3) persons who have been convicted of serious criminal offenses against people or who have a criminal record of repeated convictions for felonies; and (4) persons lacking a legal steady income." The Law on Aliens, which went into effect in July 1993, denies residency permits to similar categories of people. However, it provides for judicial review of those excluded for residency permits, while those excluded from naturalization under the Citizenship Law have no right of appeal. No expulsions of noncitizens, whether legally or illegally resident, were reported.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government or politics; 12 of the 101 members of Parliament are women, and 3 of the 14 government ministers who took office in the fall of 1992 were women, of whom only 1 remained in office by year's end.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government does not restrict the formation or functioning of human rights organizations or interfere in the visits of international and nongovernmental human rights groups. In response to criticism about the treatment of ethnic minorities, the President established a Human Rights Institute in 1992 to monitor human rights in Estonia, investigate reports of human rights violations, and provide information to the international community. In addition, because of tensions surrounding the adoption of the elections law and the Law on Aliens in 1993, the President established a roundtable composed of representatives of the Union of Estonian Nationalities, political parties, and the ethnic Russian population's Representative Assembly. In addition, with financial assistance from the Danish Government, a nongovernmental legal information center opened in Tallinn in October to provide free legal assistance to citizens and noncitizens seeking advice on human rights-related issues.

In the context of repeated Russian allegations of human rights violations among the noncitizen population and the widespread belief among international observers that the CSCE mission could play a more active role, Estonia agreed to extensions in the mission's mandate in Estonia. The CSCE mission acted to address political and social tensions and did not find a pattern of human rights violations or abuses in Estonia. The Government repeatedly expressed concern about what it deemed biased reporting by the mission. By the end of the year, relations between the Government and the mission appeared to be on track again.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, skin color, extraction, political or other beliefs, as well as economic or social status or for any other reason. Ethnic Russians total nearly 30 percent, and non-Estonians as a whole 37 percent, of the population of 1.5 million.


Women possess the same legal rights as men and are legally entitled to equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, in September the State Statistical Office published the results of a study conducted in November 1993 which revealed that, on the average, female midgrade specialists in Estonia earned only 60 percent as much as their male counterparts. There continue to be female- and male-dominated professions. Most women carry major household responsibilities in addition to comprising slightly more than one-half of the work force. Although women's groups have undertaken no organized effort to make this an issue of public policy, in March several groups established an Information Center for Women's and Family Associations in order to collect and disseminate information about their activities. Public discussion of the role and situation of women in the society increased noticeably during the year, but little or no attention was paid to the subject of violence against women. Women's groups have not been notably active or effective in asserting women's rights. The common perception among Estonian women's groups and law enforcement officials is that Estonia is not plagued by family violence. The police note that they are rarely called to the scene of domestic violence. Police officials say that, in most cases when they are called, the abused spouse declines to press charges. There are no laws specifically against spousal abuse.


Estonia has demonstrated a strong commitment to the rights and welfare of children and in 1992 adopted a strong domestic child protection law, patterned on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is no observed pattern of societal child abuse. However, the nongovernmental Estonian Union for Child Welfare is conducting a research project on children and violence in the home and school.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

In 1993 the President established a roundtable to promote constructive dialog among Estonia's ethnic groups and the political parties representing them. There is a tradition of protection for cultural autonomy, dating to a 1925 law. Parliament passed a new cultural autonomy law for minority groups in 1993.

During the years of Estonia's forced annexation by the Soviet Union, large numbers of non-Estonians, predominantly ethnic Russians, were encouraged to migrate to Estonia to work as laborers and administrators. These workers and their descendants now comprise approximately one-third of the total population, whereas about 8 percent of the population of the pre-1940 republic was ethnic Russian.

Non-Estonians, especially Russians, continued to allege job, salary, and housing discrimination because of Estonian- language requirements. They are fearful that new discriminatory laws may be adopted. Estonian law makes no distinction on the basis of lack of citizenship or other such grounds regarding business or property ownership (other than land). All residents of Estonia may participate equally in the privatization of state-owned housing. Estonian-language requirements for those employed in government offices and in the service sector went into effect in 1993.

The language office liberally grants extensions to persons who can explain their failure to meet their requisite competence level in 4 years. Estonian-language training is available, but some claim it is too costly. A separate law covering the language requirement for citizenship was passed in 1993. Russian representatives charge that the language requirement is too difficult; however, at least one Western NGO representative has noted that examiners pass applicants with even minimal knowledge of Estonian. The examination fee for either language test--for employment or citizenship--is 15 percent of the monthly minimum wage, although it is waived for the unemployed.

In districts where the language of more than one-half of the population is a language other than Estonian, the inhabitants are entitled to receive official information in that language, and the local government may conduct business in that language. (See also Sections 2.d. and 3 for a discussion of laws on citizenship and aliens.)

People with Disabilities

The Constitution contains provisions to protect disabled persons against discrimination. While there is no legal discrimination against the disabled, little has been done on a societal or governmental level to enable disabled people to participate normally in public life. There is no public access law, and very little has been done on a voluntary basis.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right to form and join freely a union or employee association. The Central Organization of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL) came into being as a wholly voluntary and purely Estonian organization in 1990 to replace the Estonian branch of the official Soviet labor confederation, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU). Workers were given a choice as to whether or not they wanted to join the EAKL. While in 1990 the AUCCTU claimed to represent 800,000 members in Estonia, in 1992 the EAKL claimed to represent about 500,000 members, organized in 30 unions. By 1994 EAKL's membership had dropped to about 200,000 organized into 25 unions. The EAKL explains the drop in membership by the breakup of large government-owned enterprises and privatization. EAKL officials estimate that some 40 percent of approximately 600,000-strong work force are organized.

The right to strike is legal, and unions are independent of the Government and political parties. There were no strikes in 1994. There are constitutional and statutory prohibitions against retribution against strikers. Unions may join federations freely and affiliate internationally.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

While Estonian workers now have the legally acquired right to bargain collectively, collective bargaining is still in its infancy. The Government remains by far the biggest employer. According to EAKL leaders, few collective bargaining agreements have been concluded between the management and workers of a specific enterprise. The EAKL has, however, concluded framework agreements with producer associations, which provide the basis for specific labor agreements. The EAKL was also involved with developing Estonia's new Labor Code covering employment contracts, vacation, and occupational safety. The Labor Code prohibits antiunion discrimination and gives employees the right to go to court to enforce their rights. In 1993 Parliament passed a collective bargaining law, a collective dispute resolution law, and a shop steward law. EAKL officials reported that a court reinstated a union official who alleged dismissal because of union activity. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The Labor Inspections Office effectively enforces this prohibition.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

According to labor law, the statutory minimum age for employment is 16 years. Minors aged 13 through 15 may work with written permission of a parent or guardian and the local labor inspector, if working is not dangerous to the minor's health, considered immoral, or interferes with studies, and provided that the type of work is included on a list the Government has prepared. State authorities effectively enforce minimum age laws through inspections.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government, after consultations with the EAKL and the Central Producers Union, sets the minimum wage and reviews it monthly. In September the minimum wage was raised to $36 per month--450 Estonian crowns. The minimum wage is not sufficient to provide a worker and family a decent standard of living. About 3 percent of the work force receive the minimum wage. The average wage is about four times the minimum wage.

The standard workweek was reduced from 41 to 40 hours in 1993. There is a mandatory 24-hour rest period in the workweek.

According to EAKL sources, legal occupational health and safety standards are satisfactory, but they are extremely difficult to implement in practice. The National Labor Inspection Board is charged with enforcement but has not been very effective. In addition, the central labor unions have occupational health and safety experts who, upon request from workers through their local representatives, assist workers in bringing employers into compliance with the legal standards. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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