Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 1,400,000
GNI/Capita: $10,066
Life Expectancy: 71
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: N/A
Capital: Tallinn


Estonia voted to join the European Union (EU) in a September 14, 2003 referendum, with more than two-thirds of voters affirming their support for EU accession. Countrywide parliamentary elections in early March produced a centrist government led by Res Publica, a newly formed political party. Despite his party's having received fewer votes than the Center Party, Res Publica chairman Juhan Parts outmaneuvered Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar to form a ruling coalition with the Reform Party and the People's Union. Estonia continued to prepare for its impending membership in NATO.

After gaining its independence from Russia in 1918, Estonia was occupied and annexed by the U.S.S.R. during World War II. Under Soviet rule, approximately onetenth of Estonia's population was deported, executed, or forced to flee abroad. Subsequent Russian immigration substantially altered the country's ethnic composition, with ethnic Estonians constituting just over 61 percent of the population in 1989. Estonia regained its independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The last few months of 2001 witnessed several dramatic political developments, including the September victory of former Soviet Estonian leader Arnold Ruutel to the largely ceremonial post of president. Prime Minister Mart Laar announced in late December that he would resign in January 2002 because of growing infighting among the national ruling coalition members, particularly after the Reform Party's break with the same coalition partners in Tallinn's City Council. On January 8, 2002, Laar fulfilled his pledge to step down and was replaced on January 22 by Reform Party leader and former central bank president Siim Kallas. The new national government mirrored that of Tallinn's city government, with the Reform Party and Center Party agreeing to form the ruling coalition. Also in 2002, both the EU and NATO extended invitations to Estonia for membership in 2004, fulfilling two of Estonia's long-standing foreign policy goals.

In the March 2, 2003 parliamentary elections, both the Center Party and Res Publica garnered 28 seats in the 101-seat Riigikogu, with the Center Party receiving about 4,000 more votes. However, Res Publica chairman Parts was the first to form a viable coalition, and President Ruutel appointed Parts prime minister on April 10. Of the 101 members of parliament, 57 will be serving their first term, including 27 out of 28 Res Publica deputies.

On September 14, Estonia became the seventh Central and Eastern European country to hold and pass a referendum on joining the EU. Despite a formal recommendation by the opposition Center Party to reject EU accession, 66.9 percent of voters voted yes, and voter turnout exceeded 63 percent. The positive result was facilitated by a late starting, but successful, pro-EU campaign waged by the government, including an unequivocal endorsement from Estonia's popular president, Arnold Ruutel.

Estonia continued to prepare to join NATO, signing the accession protocols in March 2003 and drafting a defense plan reflective of the demands of NATO membership. Additionally, Estonia dispatched a mine-clearing unit to Afghanistan and a 32-member peacekeeping unit to serve in Baghdad, Iraq.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Estonians can change their government democratically. The March 2003 parliamentary elections were free and fair and were conducted in accordance with the comprehensive dictates of the recently implemented Riigikogu Election Act. The 1992 constitution established a 101-member unicameral legislature (Riigikogu) elected for four-year terms, with a prime minister serving as head of government and a president in the largely ceremonial role of head of state. After the first president was chosen by popular vote in 1992, subsequent presidential elections reverted to parliamentary ballot. However, the current governing parties have agreed to endorse direct presidential elections, with a referendum on the necessary constitutional changes to be held in 2004.

Estonia's citizenship law has been criticized for effectively disenfranchising many Russian speakers through an excessively difficult naturalization process. Many ethnic Russians arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era and are now 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. In November 2001, parliament approved the abolition of Estonian-language requirements for candidates to parliament and local councils. Also in late 2001, parliament adopted legislation making Estonian the official working language of both parliament and local councils, although the government may grant local councils the right to use another language under special circumstances.

Prime Minister Juhan Parts has made his very popular anticorruption election platform a priority of his administration. However, on September 19, Finance Minister Tonia Palts resigned amidst a Tax Board investigation into alleged tax evasion at Plambos Holdings, an entity owned by Palts. In July, Palts had suspended Aivar Soerd, head of the Tax Board, and ordered an independent inquiry into the workings of the board.

The government respects freedom of speech and the press. There are three national television stations, including two in private hands, which broadcast both Estonian- and Russian-language programs. Dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations offer diverse viewpoints, and Estonia is one of the most Internet-friendly countries in the world.

Religious freedom is respected in law and practice in this predominantly Lutheran country. Estonia has very few restrictions on academic freedom.

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 become 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 governmental interference, the quality of some court decisions and the heavy workloads of many judges continue to be areas of concern. A courts act adopted in June 2002 is intended to address issues associated with executive monitoring of the judiciary branch, though its effective implementation has yet to be fully recognized. There have been reports that some police officers physically or verbally abuse suspects. Despite ongoing improvements in the country's prison system, overcrowding, a lack of financial resources, and inadequately trained staff remain problems.

Of Estonia's population of 1.4 million, more than 1 million are Estonian citizens, of which some 120,000 have been naturalized since 1992. Approximately 170,000 people are noncitizens, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians. In May 2001, parliament adopted legislation setting out specific requirements of Estonian-language proficiency for private sector employees, such as pilots, rescue workers, and teachers; the law built upon a previous amendment to the language law passed in June 2000 requiring that Estonian be used in areas of the private sector deemed to be in the public interest, such as health or safety.

Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be under-represented in senior-level business positions and the government. Parliament has yet to pass a gender equality act proposed in 2002.

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