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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Estonia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Estonia, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 29 November 2015]
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 is a parliamentary democracy that regained its independence in 1991 after more than 50 years of Soviet occupation. The Constitution, adopted by referendum on June 28, 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.

Estonia maintained that all Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States military forces should have left the country by the end of 1993. Estonia and the Russian Federation negotiated on this issue during 1993 but had not reached agreement on a timetable for the withdrawal of these troops by year's end. While the official conversion of the Soviet militia into the Estonian police preceded the reestablishment of the country's independence by about 6 months, its conversion into a Western-type police force committed in word and deed to procedures and safeguards appropriate to a democratic society is proceeding very slowly. Allegations of excessive use of police force are primarily handled administratively and, when brought to their attention, investigated by the Human Rights Institute.

Estonia is substantially transforming the centrally planned economy it inherited into a market-oriented system. Small and medium-scale privatization is moving toward completion; large-scale privatization began in 1993. The collapse of the trading network that existed in the Soviet Union necessitated finding new sources of fuel and new markets. Approximately two-thirds of exports are now directed to Western markets. There has also been rising unemployment – a matter of concern to employees of state-owned enterprises and to the ethnic Russian community – although overall the level has remained manageable.

The treatment of the substantial ethnic Russian community continued to be a major issue both domestically and in bilateral relations with Russia. Parliament's passage in June of an Alien Registration Law, officially designating all noncitizens – about 500,000 mostly Russian speakers – as aliens, led to renewed criticism from the Russian Federation. It again accused Estonia of "ethnic cleansing" and massive violations of the human rights of the Russian-speaking population (about 38 percent of the total), primarily because they were not automatically granted Estonian citizenship.

The Council of Europe (CE) and the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) commented on the law, suggesting a number of changes. Parliament adopted almost all of these proposed amendments, thereby substantially improving the original version. While welcoming approval of the amendments, the High Commissioner noted that many difficult problems remained to be solved. A local government election law, permitting noncitizens to vote but not to run for office (see Section 3), proved controversial, as did questions about the implementation of the law on language (see Sections 3 and 5). In answer to the need for increased dialog with the Russian-speaking community, the President organized a roundtable composed of representatives of the Union of Estonian Nationalities, political parties, and the Representative Assembly elected by the Russian-speaking community. At the beginning of 1993, a CSCE long-term mission began operations in Estonia and has been carrying out successfully its mandate of promoting stability, dialog, and understanding between the communities in Estonia.

Another area of concern involved the physical and psychological abuse of prisoners – a set of conditions remaining from the era of Soviet rule that the Government has been slow to rectify.

In May Estonia was admitted to full membership in the Council of Europe.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no known instances of such killing in 1993. There were, however, reports of the death of persons in custody from the use of force by other prisoners.

b. Disappearance

There were no known instances of abductions or disappearances.

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

Such practices are prohibited by law, but the harsh treatment of prisoners, physical and psychological abuse, overcrowding, and detention under extremely unhealthful conditions that were the rule during the Soviet period continued. There have been unsubstantiated reports of excessive use of force and police brutality during the arrest and questioning of suspects. The conditions of severe overcrowding and idleness, particularly at the Tallinn pretrial detention prison built in 1765, did not change. A Danish Helsinki Watch report issued in early 1993 strongly criticized prison conditions, as well as the severity of sentences received by young offenders. In August jurisdiction over the prison system was transferred to the Ministry of Justice from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. At the request of the Ministry of Justice, CE experts studied Estonian prison conditions in September in order to make recommendations on steps to bring them into accord with CE standards.

At the end of November, the Estonian police were criticized by several parliamentarians and the media for public endangerment and excessive use of force during and after the arrest of the leader of a voluntary paramilitary unit alleged to have information about a businessman missing since September. An official government commission was established to investigate the incident.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and laws forbid arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. There were no known instances of Estonian authorities' engaging in such activities. Under the Constitution, warrants issued by a court are required to make arrests. Detainees must be informed promptly of the grounds for the arrest and given immediate access to legal counsel. If a person cannot afford counsel, 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; this may be extended up to a total of 9 months by a court order. Police on rare occasions violate these limits. Pretrial detainees account for about 20 percent of the total prison population.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution establishes a three-tiered court system for the independent judiciary: rural and city courts, district courts, and the state court. The district and state courts are also courts for "constitutional supervision." At the rural and city level, court decisions are based on majority rule, with a judge and two lay judges sitting in judgment. The judicial reform law went into effect on January 1, 1993, but implementation was delayed until September 15 because of the difficulty in filling vacant judgeships.

The Constitution provides that court hearings shall be public but may be closed by the court for specific reasons, such as protection of state or business secrets or of the interests of juveniles. It further provides that defendants may present witnesses and evidence as well as confront and cross-examine government witnesses. Defendants have access to government evidence and enjoy a presumption of innocence.

Estonia continued to overhaul its criminal and civil procedural codes. An interim criminal code that went into effect in June 1992 basically revised the Soviet criminal code, eliminating, for example, political and economic crimes. New draft codes were not completed before the end of 1993.

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

Estonian law requires a search warrant for search and seizure of property. During the investigative stage, warrants are issued by the procurator upon a showing of probable cause. Once a case has gone to court, warrants are issued by the court. 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, and 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, but the media are relatively restrained in practice. While the press and broadcast media criticize the Government, they rarely single out individual officials because of harsh libel laws that put the burden of proof on the media. There is no evidence of punishment or threat of punishment for expressing antigovernment sentiment.

The most widely read papers are Rahva Haal, Postimees, and Molodyozh Estonii. Foreign newspapers and magazines are readily available but are very expensive for most people. The Government still provides most newsprint and printing and distribution facilities. There is no indication that it used this control to influence the print media, although there may be an inherent risk of a chilling effect. The Government is trying to privatize the last remaining government-owned papers. There are two major national Russian-language dailies, Molodyozh Estonii and Estoniya, in addition to several local Russian-language newspapers in northeast and southeast Estonia. The two major dailies receive the same indirect government support that major Estonian language dailies receive: below-market rent on a government-owned press building and cheap printing through a government-controlled printing company.

State broadcast media continue to receive large subsidies, but there are several independent television and radio stations throughout the country. There is one nationwide state television channel. The state television company has reduced its funding of the retransmission of Russian-language channels from Moscow from three to one. There is a state-funded Russian language radio channel on AM, FM, and Russian bands, as well as an independent Russian-language FM station in Tallinn which reaches an estimated 100,000 listeners. No decision on the ultimate fate of the state-funded Russian channel had been made by year's end.

There is complete academic freedom in Estonia. Research is conducted in Estonian, Russian, English, and German. Advanced degree study is almost always in Estonian.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right to assemble freely. Noncitizens are prohibited by the Constitution from joining political parties but 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. Numerous mass gatherings and political rallies took place peacefully in 1993 without government interference.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of conscience and of religious proselytism is provided for by law and honored in practice. There were no known instances of discrimination based on religious belief. There is no state church.

In May Parliament passed the Law on Churches and Religious Organizations which requires all religious organizations to have at least 12 members and register with the Interior Ministry and the Board of Religion. Leaders of religious organizations must be Estonian citizens with at least 5 years' residence in Estonia, but this requirement has not led to any complaints.

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 Parliament adopted an Alien Registration Law that defines the status of aliens. It provides for the registration of aliens who came to reside in Estonia under Soviet rule and the phasing out of Soviet external and internal passports over a 2-year period. Retired career military officers can obtain residence permits provided they were born prior to January 1, 1930, or their spouses or minor children are Estonian citizens residing in Estonia who are in possession of a permanent residence permit or whose sojourn in Estonia is deemed necessary for the State. The Government maintains, however, that applicants do not have to prove that they cannot obtain Russian citizenship in order to receive aliens' passports. Six retired officers of the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) and the State Military Administration (GRU) reportedly faced deportation at the end of 1993 when their residence permits were not extended by a district administrator in Viljandi. They were issued temporary 6-month residence permits on the understanding that they would depart Estonia in the spring of 1993. By the end of 1993, they were still in Estonia, although their status continued to remain unclear.

No restrictions are placed on the right of resident aliens to foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation, and they face no difficulties in returning to Estonia after a trip abroad. Noncitizens, however, may have difficulty in acquiring the necessary documentation to travel abroad. The Russian Government no longer supplies blank ordinary foreign passports of the former Soviet Union to enable the Estonian Government to issue non-Estonian citizens travel documents. Due to their short supply, passports of this type are issued only to those departing Estonia permanently. Ordinary Soviet foreign passports are valid for non-Estonian citizens to return to Estonia only if they bear a stamp from the Citizenship Department, indicating that the holder is authorized to return to the Republic of Estonia until July 12, 1995, or until the expiration date of the residence permit. By July 1995, all resident aliens must possess either passports issued by their country of citizenship or aliens' passports issued by the Estonian Government into which their residence and work permits will be placed. The Government expects to issue aliens' passports in the first half of 1994 to noncitizens resident in Estonia who cannot obtain a passport from their country of citizenship, as well as to stateless people.

Claiming lack of resources, the Government does not accord refugee status or asylum, but there were no reports of any persons seeking asylum in Estonia.

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

Citizens have the right to change their government. In September 1992, they elected their first post-Soviet Parliament in accordance with the Constitution adopted by referendum in June 1992. 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. The next regular parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 1995.

The Law on Local Elections, passed on May 19, permits noncitizens to vote in local elections but not to run for office. Noncitizen officeholders were not allowed to seek reelection or run in local elections, although in a substantial number of cases the Government made arrangements for accelerated naturalization so that these noncitizen candidates could become citizens before the local elections took place, allowing them to run for office.

In the wake of the political controversy and tension over the Alien Registration Law, the city councils of Narva and Sillamae decided without government approval to conduct referendums on July 17 on whether the cities should become autonomous units within Estonia in which all inhabitants would enjoy equal rights. About 60 percent of the local population voted, and almost all voted for autonomy. The Government did not try to stop the referendums from taking place. Estonia's legal chancellor ruled the referendums unconstitutional and without legal effect, and the State Court subsequently upheld these rulings, which local officials in Narva and Sillamae announced they would respect.

On October 17, new local government councils were elected in cities and parishes by secret ballot in multiparty elections. About 170,000 noncitizens registered to vote nationwide. There are, however, no nationwide statistics on how many noncitizens actually voted, but turnout was apparently higher than among Estonian citizens.

The issue of citizenship continued to be a central political issue in 1993. Political debate moved from who is to be automatically considered a citizen to naturalization requirements and, specifically, the requirement to know the Estonian language. Parliament spelled out the content of the language requirement and authorized the Government to relax it for persons born before 1930 and those with certain disabilities. The Parliament also waived the language requirement for any applicants among the resident aliens who had registered as citizenship applicants with the Estonian Congress in February 1990. In March Parliament amended the law to apply retroactively so that citizenship is transmitted at birth through either citizen parent; the 1938 law only allowed fathers to pass on citizenship to children.

The Citizenship Law, adopted in February 1992, implemented the 1939 Citizenship Law and also covered naturalization requirements, including, among other things, 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 had resided in Estonia since that date was eligible to apply for Estonian citizenship as of March 30, 1992. The 1-year waiting period would make them eligible 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 October 15, only 19,316 aliens had applied for and received Estonian citizenship. Some observers attribute the relatively low number thus far to the fact that people need more time to decide what citizenship they wish to pursue.

It is possible that the language requirement was one reason for the low number of ethnic Russians applying for naturalization. The pamphlet outlining the language requirements for citizenship was initially published only in Estonian but has since been made available in Russian. Furthermore, while some enterprises organized free language courses for employees and unemployment offices provided some instruction to those out of work, many people had to finance their own instruction, and some ethnic Russians cited cost as a precluding factor. After an applicant has submitted his citizenship application, he must pass the language examination within 9 months. The applicant is allowed one attempt to pass the examination; retired people generally are allowed two attempts. The applicant who fails must reapply for citizenship, triggering the 1-year waiting period again.

Article 16 of the Citizenship Law Implementation Act provides that applications for naturalization shall not be accepted from "(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 persons or who have a criminal record of repeated convictions for felonies; and (4) persons lacking a legal steady income."

The Alien Registration Law, which went into effect in July, excludes the same categories for residency permits as does the Law on Citizenship for citizenship. The Alien Registration Law, however, provides for a review of those excluded for residency permits, while those excluded from naturalization under the Citizenship Law have no appeal rights.

In July 1992, after they realized that noncitizens would not be permitted to participate in the parliamentary or presidential elections, a dozen moderate Russian politicians formed an organization to "protect the interests and rights of noncitizens." On January 30, 1993, the Russian speakers' Representative Assembly held a congress attended by over 300 delegates and elected a presidium. During debate over the Alien Registration Law, the Government officially registered the Assembly on July 6. The Assembly played an active role in the President's roundtable (see Section 4), and a number of its candidates were voted into local office in the October 17 local elections.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government and politics; 12 of 101 members of Parliament and 2 of 14 government ministers are women.

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. In response to criticism about the treatment of ethnic minorities, the President established a Human Rights Institute that convened for the first time on December 10, 1992. The purpose of the Institute is to monitor human rights in Estonia and to provide information to the international community. It investigates reports of human rights violations, such as allegations of police abuse. In addition, because of tensions surrounding the adoption of the Elections Law and the Alien Registration Law in July, the President established a roundtable composed of representatives of the Union of Estonian Nationalities, political parties, and the Russian-speaking population's Representative Assembly.

Because of the Russian Federation's continued allegations of the "massive violation of the human rights" of the Russian-speaking population, Estonia requested the CSCE to establish a mission of long duration in Estonia. The mission, which began operations in February, had not found a pattern of human rights violations or abuses by year's end. It has been actively engaged in helping to alleviate political and social tensions. The mission is approved on a 6-month basis and has already been extended once.

Numerous international and nongovernmental human rights groups visited Estonia in 1993.

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

Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, religion, skin color, extraction, political or other beliefs, as well as economic or social status or for any other reason, is prohibited by the Constitution.


Women possess the same legal rights as men and are legally entitled to equal pay for equal work. In practice, men and women tend to get equal pay for equal work, although there are female- and male-dominated professions. Most women carry major household responsibilities in addition to their employment burden. Women make up slightly over one-half of the work force. There has been no organized effort by women's groups or others to make this an issue of public policy.

There is little public discussion of violence against women. Women's rights groups have not been notably active or effective in asserting women's rights.


Estonia has demonstrated a strong commitment to the rights and welfare of children. Estonia became a party to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1991, shortly after it was admitted to U.N. membership and adopted its own domestic child protection law, patterned on the U.N. Convention, in June 1992.

During 1993, the welfare of children received increased public attention as economic dislocation tended increasingly to disrupt family life. Social welfare workers at their own initiative established several small safe havens for children. Nongovernmental child welfare societies received and distributed international humanitarian aid to children. In addition, all children under the age of 14 receive monthly government support payments of about $6 (90 Estonian crowns) paid to the parents on behalf of children.

There is no pattern of societal child abuse.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

In July the President established a roundtable to promote constructive dialog among Estonia's ethnic groups and political parties representing them. A cultural autonomy law for minority groups was adopted by the Parliament on October 26 and declared into law by the President on November 11.

Relationships between Estonians and the large ethnic Russian community remain tense. During the years of Estonia's forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union, large numbers of non-Estonians, predominantly Russians, were brought to Estonia both on a permanent and temporary basis to work as laborers and administrators. These people and their descendants now make up approximately one-third of the total population. About 8 percent of the population of the pre-1940 republic was Russian.

Non-Estonians, especially Russians, continued to allege job, salary, and housing discrimination because of Estonian-language requirements for certain jobs. They are fearful that laws discriminating against them may be adopted. Estonian law makes no distinction on citizenship or other such grounds as to who may enter into business or own property (other than land). All residents of Estonia may participate equally in the privatization of state-owned housing.

Estonian-language training is accessible. Estonian-language requirements of the 1989 language law for those employed in government offices and in the service sector went into effect on February 1, 1993. The language office is authorized to grant extensions – and has done so liberally – to persons who can explain their failure to meet their requisite competence level in 4 years. A separate law covering the language requirement for citizenship was passed in February. It established the proficiency level required. Russian representatives charge that the language requirement was too difficult. 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

There are constitutional protections against discrimination of people with disabilities. While there is no legal discrimination against disabled individuals, 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 voluntarily.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution guarantees 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. In 1993 EAKL's membership dropped to some 330,000, organized in 27 unions. The EAKL explains the drop in membership by the breakup of large government-owned enterprises and privatization. A new Public Service Workers Union was organized in late 1993; it has a membership of some 40,000, most of whom are also EAKL members.

The right to strike is legal, and unions are independent of the Government and political parties. There were no strikes in 1993. 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, with about 70 percent of the work force. According to EAKL leaders, the distinction between management and labor is not widely understood, and 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 it hopes will 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 employees have the right to go to court to enforce their rights. In 1993 a collective bargaining law, a collective dispute resolution law, and a shop steward law were adopted.

No export processing zones have been established.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by the Constitution and is not known to occur. It is effectively enforced by the Labor Inspections Office.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

According to labor law, the statutory minimum age for employment is 16. Minors aged 13 to 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 late 1993, the minimum wage was $23 (300 Estonian crowns) per month. The minimum wage is not sufficient to provide a worker and family a decent standard of living. It has not been increased since October 1992. About 3 percent of the work force receive the minimum wage. The average wage is about three times the minimum.

Under a law adopted by Parliament at the end of the year, the standard workweek was reduced to 40 hours. 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 achieve in practice. They are supposed to be enforced by the Labor Inspections Office, the effectiveness of whuch may improve with experience.

The overriding concern of workers during the period of transition to a market economy is to hold on to their jobs and receive adequate pay. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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