Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1
After enduring a recession during much of 1999 caused by the August 1998 Russian financial crisis, Estonia's economy showed signs of significant growth throughout the year 2000. The country's economic recovery served to improve government efforts to harmonize Estonian legislation and practices with requirements for eventual European Union (EU) membership, for which Estonia remains a front-runner among Eastern European and former Soviet states.
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 U.S.S.R. Under Soviet rule, approximately one-tenth of Estonia's population was deported, executed, or forced to escape to the West. Subsequent Russian immigration substantially altered the country's ethnic composition, with ethnic Estonians constituting 88 percent before World War II 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 parliamentary elections in March 1995 saw a shift to the center-left Coalition Party/Rural Union (KMU) over the right-of-center Pro Patria/Estonian National Independence Party coalition. The results reflected popular dissatisfaction among the elderly and rural electorate, who were hardest hit by the previous government's market reforms. The KMU subsequently formed a majority coalition government with the leftist Center Party, which held until October 1995, when the Center Party left the coalition and was replaced by the right-of-center Reform Party. In February 1997, Prime Minister Tiit Vahi resigned following allegations of corruption and Mart Siiman of the Coalition Party was named as the new prime minister.
In March 1999 parliamentary elections, the leftist Center Party won the largest percentage of votes, with 23.4 percent, capturing 28 of 101 seats. However, the Reform Party, Pro Patria, and the Moderates, who together took 53 seats, subsequently formed a center-right majority coalition government. The Center Party and its leader, Edgar Savisaar, with whom various political forces expressed reluctance to cooperate, was effectively forced into the opposition. The other three parties that secured enough votes to enter parliament were the centrist Coalition Party and the left-of-center Country People's Party, each of which took seven seats, and the United People's Party, representing some of the country's large ethnic Russian population, which captured six seats. Local elections held in October saw the three members of the national governing coalition enjoy victories in two-thirds of the country's local councils. In Tallinn, the Center Party secured the single largest number of seats. However, the "triple alliance" again managed to exclude the Center Party from its majority ruling coalition, which it formed with parties including those representing the country's Russian speakers.
In February 1999, parliament adopted amendments to the language law requiring those working in the service sector, including businesspeople, public servants, and local government workers, to use Estonian when working with the public. The law was criticized by political parties representing Russian speakers and by representatives of some international organizations as violating the principle of free movement of labor and services. In June 2000, the law was further amended to no longer require the unconditional use of Estonian in the private sector, but only in certain areas where it would be in the public interest, such as those involving health or safety.
Estonia's economy, which had suffered from the effects of Russia's 1998 financial crisis, enjoyed considerable growth throughout 2000. After having experienced -1.4 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP) for 1999, GDP grew by seven percent in the third quarter of 2000 year-on-year. Privatization of the last major infrastructure and energy firms, which has been plagued by political and financial concerns, proceeded slowly during the year.
EU membership remained high on the country's political and economic agenda throughout 2000. Despite the commitment of successive governments to harmonize Estonian legislation and practices with EU directives, the effects of membership on Estonia's economy ultimately remain unclear. Recent opinion polls have indicated a decline in public support for EU membership, particularly in connection with fears of increases in the prices of consumer goods.
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 noncitizens 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, the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections were free and fair.
The government respects freedom of speech and the press. There are three national private television stations that broadcast both Estonian- and Russian-language programs. More than 30 radio stations are privately operated, and dozens of independent 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 the government respects this provision in practice. Political parties are allowed to organize freely, although only citizens may be members. Workers have the right to organize freely, to strike, and to bargain collectively, and the main trade unions operate independently of the state.
While the judiciary is independent and generally free from government interference, low salaries and heavy workloads continue to deter many lawyers from choosing a career in the judiciary. There have been credible reports that some police officers physically or verbally abuse suspects. Despite ongoing improvements in the country's prison system, including recently announced plans to build a new detention center, overcrowding, a lack of financial resources, and inadequately trained staff remain problems.
Of Estonia's population of just under 1.5 million, more than 1 million are Estonian citizens, of which more than 112,000 have been naturalized since 1992. Although the exact number of illegal aliens is unknown, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 individuals in Estonia are without proper documentation, including temporary or permanent residence permits.
Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be underrepresented in senior-level business positions and the government.
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