1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


Estonia's parliament voted in 1998 to ease citizenship restrictions for the country's resident stateless children; the banking sector was marked by further consolidation, including several mergers and bankruptcies; and Estonia began formal negotiations for fast-track accession to the European Union (EU).

Dominated by Sweden in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and annexed by Russia in 1704, Estonia became independent in 1918. Soviet troops occupied the country during World War II, following a secret protocol in the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact which forcibly incorporated Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, approximately one-tenth of the population was deported, executed, or forced to flee to the West. Subsequent Russian immigration substantially changed the country's ethnic composition, with ethnic Estonians comprising 88 percent of the population before the Second World War and just over 61 percent in 1989. Estonia regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Estonia's second post-independence election for the 101-member parliament, in March 1995, saw a shift to the center-left Coalition Party/Rural Union (KMU) over conservatives in the Fatherland Party/Estonian National Independence Party coalition. The election results reflected popular dissatisfaction among the elderly and rural electorate, hardest hit by the previous government's market reforms. The KMU subsequently formed a majority coalition government with the leftist Center Party. In October 1995, Prime Minister Tiit Vahi resigned after dismissing from office Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar, who was implicated in secretly taping conversations of leading politicians. Savisaar's Center Party, with 16 seats, left the ruling coalition. At the end of the month, parliament approved a new coalition government, again led by Vahi, in which the right-of-center Reform Party joined with the KMU. The delicate left-right partnership held until February 1997, when Vahi resigned following allegations that he had participated in the illegal procurement of luxury apartments during the 1993-1995 privatization process. In March, President Lennart Meri approved Mart Siiman, the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Coalition Party, as the new prime minister.

In early 1998, the ruling KMU minority government was unable to increase its support in parliament after failing to expand the membership of its coalition. Finding it increasingly difficult to carry out his political programs, including difficult legislative reforms for EU membership, Prime Minister Siiman called for early elections through a no-confidence vote in his government. The ruling coalition ultimately rejected the proposal, and the next national elections will take place as scheduled in March 1999.

After several unsuccessful attempts, parliament voted in November to abolish electoral alliances, just four months before the next legislative ballot. The effectiveness of the ban, which is an attempt to promote the consolidation of the country's numerous political parties and allow for a workable coalition government, remains a source of considerable debate.

In December, parliament adopted controversial legislation requiring all elected officials and candidates for public office, both at the national and local levels, to demonstrate sufficient proficiency in Estonian to participate in debates and understand legal acts. Max van der Stoel, the OSCE's High Commissioner for National Minorities, criticized the new legislation as unfairly limiting the voters' choice of candidates and inhibiting the integration of Russian-speakers into Estonian society. The language requirements, which enter into force in May 1999, will not affect the March elections.

Russia's financial crisis had a strong impact on Estonia's agricultural sector, especially the dairy and fishing industries for which Russia is an important export market, and a more limited effect on the country's banking system, which has greater ties to the West.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Estonians can change their government democratically. However, the country's citizenship law has been criticized for disenfranchising many Russian-speakers who arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are regarded as immigrants who must apply for citizenship. Although non-citizens may not participate in national elections, they can vote, but not serve as candidates, in local elections. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member unicameral legislature elected for four-year terms, with a prime minister serving as head of government and a president as head of state. After the first president was chosen by popular vote in 1992, subsequent presidential elections reverted to parliamentary ballot. According to international observers, both the 1995 national and 1996 local elections were conducted freely and fairly. Political parties are allowed to organize freely, although only citizens may be members.

The government respects freedom of speech and the press, and the media routinely conduct critical investigative reports. There are several major independent television and radio stations which broadcast Estonian and Russian-language programs. Dozens of privately-owned national and regional newspapers offer diverse viewpoints. Religious freedom is respected in law and practice in this predominantly Lutheran country.

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and there were no reports in 1998 of government interference in political rallies or other mass gatherings. Workers have the right to organize freely and to strike, and unions are independent of the state as well as of political parties. Collective bargaining is permitted, though few agreements have been concluded between management and workers. One-third of the country's labor force belongs to one of the three main trade union organizations.

The judiciary is independent and judges may not hold any other elective or appointive office. There have been reports that some members of the police force use excessive force and verbal abuse during the arrest and questioning of suspects. Despite some recent improvements in the country's prison system, overcrowding and a lack of financial resources and adequately trained staff remain a problem. Parliament voted in March to abolish the death penalty, despite opinion polls indicating that the majority of Estonians favor capital punishment.

Of Estonia's population of just under 1.5 million, over 1 million are Estonian citizens, of which 105,000 have been naturalized since 1992. Almost 330,000 are stateless, but hold Estonian residence permits, and over 100,000 are citizens of other countries, most of Russia. On December 8, parliament amended the Citizenship Law to allow stateless children born in Estonia after February 26, 1992, to legally resident stateless parents to acquire Estonian citizenship at the request of their parents and without having to pass a language test. Both the EU and OSCE supported easing the country's naturalization requirements, which could immediately affect an estimated 6,500 Russian-speaking children.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, although they frequently earn lower salaries and are underrepresented in senior level positions and the government.

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