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Estonia - The Constitution

Under the constitution adopted on June 28, 1992, Estonia has a parliamentary system of government, with a prime minister as chief executive. Parliament also elects a president, whose duties are largely ceremonial, although the first holder of this office, Lennart Meri, sought to assert his independence. The constitution also governs the work of a legal chancellor, an auditor general, and the National Court.

The constitution opens with a set of general provisions and a forty-eight-article section establishing the fundamental rights, liberties, and duties of citizens. Freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of information, the right to petition the courts, and the right to health care are all guaranteed. Censorship and discrimination on the basis of nationality, gender, religion, or political belief are forbidden. The official language of Estonia is Estonian. However, in deference to heavily Russian areas of northeastern Estonia, the constitution allows for the use of other languages in local government where the majority of the population is non-Estonian. Article 9 of the constitution guarantees equal constitutional rights to both citizens and noncitizens living in Estonia. Noncitizen permanent residents are also allowed to vote in local elections. Noncitizens may not, however, join political parties or hold elected office.

The Riigikogu (State Assembly), which replaced the transitional Supreme Council in 1992, has 101 members, who are chosen every four years by popular election. Members must be at least twenty-one years old. Each member may belong to only one committee. The president of the republic is elected to a five-year term by a two-thirds majority of the Riigikogu. The president nominates the prime minister, who must receive a vote of confidence from the Riigikogu. The Riigikogu passes legislation as well as votes of no confidence in the government. The president can dissolve parliament if there is a prolonged delay in the nomination of a prime minister or in the adoption of a state budget, or after a vote of no confidence in the government.

The president promulgates all laws after their adoption by the Riigikogu. However, he or she may also refuse to promulgate (i.e., veto) a law and send it back to the Riigikogu for reconsideration. If the Riigikogu passes the same law again by a simple majority, the president's veto is overridden. In 1993 President Meri vetoed seven laws, most of which were later modified by the Riigikogu. An early string of vetoes in the spring of 1993 especially angered members of the government coalition in parliament who had helped to elect him. Meri declared it his obligation, however, to protect the balance of power in government. His involvement was particularly critical during the domestic and international crisis surrounding Estonia's Law on Aliens.

The legal chancellor is appointed by the Riigikogu to a seven-year term and provides guidance concerning the constitutionality of laws. This official has no powers of adjudication but can issue opinions and propose amendments. Both the legal chancellor and the president may appeal to a special committee of the National Court for a binding decision on any law, national or local, that they consider unconstitutional. The court system comprises rural and city, as well as administrative, courts (first-level); district courts (second-level); and the National Court, the highest court in the land. Criminal justice is administered by local first-level courts as well as by second-level appellate courts. Final appeal may be made to the National Court, which sits in Tartu.

Central government policy at the regional level is carried out by the administrations of Estonia's fifteen counties (maakonnad ). These counties are further subdivided into 255 local administrative units, of which forty-two are towns and 213 are townships (vald ). Local councils are elected for a three-year term by permanent residents of the towns and townships.

Estonia - Mass Media

The mass media in Estonia played a catalytic role in the democratic upsurge of the late 1980s that led to independence. Responding during 1985-86 to Mikhail S. Gorbachev's call for glasnost (openness), the Estonian media, especially newspapers, began to focus on the many social and economic problems afflicting the country at the time. Yet, the blame for these social and economic ailments soon began to fall on the political system, an outcome that Gorbachev had not intended. For instance, the fight against an extensive and environmentally dangerous plan to mine phosphorus in northeastern Estonia was energized in 1987 by several articles in the monthly Eesti Loodus . The Tartu daily Edasi (later renamed Postimees ) would become a lively forum for the discussion of economic reforms such as Estonia's economic autonomy plan, the IME plan. The daily newspaper of Estonia's Komsomol, Noorte Hääl , took the lead in exposing the abuse many young Estonian men were suffering in the Soviet army. Many Estonian cultural publications, such as the weekly newspaper Sirp ja Vasar and the monthly journals Looming and Vikerkaar , carried historical overviews of Estonia's annexation in 1940 and of the deportations that followed. Finally, on television and radio, several roundtable debate programs were aired, where more ideas were articulated. As political mobilization grew, the mass media became interactive players, reporting on the new events while giving further voice to varied opinions.

The Estonian-language media operated in sharp contrast to Estonia's two main Russian-language dailies, Sovetskaya Estoniya (later renamed Estoniya ) and Molodezh' Estonii , whose editors took a defensive stance toward rising Estonian nationalist feeling. The Russian community in Estonia was more heavily influenced by local communist party leaders, who remained loyal to Soviet rule. The Russian-language newspapers also echoed some of the views of the Intermovement and other Soviet loyalist groups. In the aftermath of independence, both newspapers were left searching for a new identity, as was most of the Russian community now living as a minority cut off from Russia.

In the early 1990s, the Estonian media diversified greatly as competition among newspapers grew. The flashy weekly Eesti Ekspress , run by a Finnish-Estonian joint venture, captured much of the early market, but it was soon joined by other rivals. Business-oriented publications emerged, such as Äripäev, a joint venture with Sweden's Dagens Industri . In 1992 a new daily, Hommikuleht , was launched by a group of private investors. Estonia was also the base for the Baltics' largest circulating English-language newspaper, Baltic Independent . Still, the growth in the number of newspapers could not compensate for a rise in subscription rates and a decline in overall readership. Print runs fell from nearly 200,000 in 1990, when newsstand copies cost the equivalent of US$0.05, to an average of 40,000 in 1993. Still, in 1993 there were approximately 750 serial publications in Estonia, three times the number in 1987.

Television and radio changed as well. During 1992-93 three commercial radio stations went on the air. Each offered a mix of rock music, news, and features. State-owned Estonian Radio spun off one of its two stations to compete with the new formats. Several regional radio stations also began broadcasting. Estonian state television received competition in the fall of 1993 when the government gave rights to three companies to start broadcasting on two channels previously used by Russian television. Earlier, the government had decided to stop paying for the rebroadcast of the Moscow and St. Petersburg channels in Estonia.

Estonia - Foreign Relations

Both before and after independence, Estonia's foreign policy had a strong Western orientation. Western recognition of Estonia's legal independence was a key source of strength for the republic in its struggle with the Soviet Union. After 1991 Estonia worked to maintain that relationship and integrate with European political institutions as a further safeguard against potential threats from Russia. The last Russian troops stationed in Estonia after 1991 finally were withdrawn in August 1994, but relations with Yeltsin's Kremlin remained cool. Growing instability in Russia and Western attempts to placate Russian nationalism left Estonia anxious for greater European security guarantees but wary of being squeezed again in great-power politics.

Relations with the West

During 1990-91 Estonia undertook a vigorous lobbying campaign on behalf of international support for its bid for independence from the Soviet Union. The Estonian foreign minister at the time, Lennart Meri, was one of several Estonian officials who traveled widely to sustain the Western commitment to the republic's independence. Although the West generally remained in favor of renewed statehood for Estonia and the other Baltic states, Western leaders believed that the real key to that independence lay in Moscow. In August 1991, release of that key came in the form of the attempted coup d'état by conservative elements of the Soviet government.

In the wake of independence, Estonia moved quickly to join the international community. In September it was admitted to both the United Nations (UN) and the CSCE. In the UN, Estonia would later find common ground with the East European countries as well as participate in the organization's various committees and auxiliary bodies, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In March 1992, Estonia took part in the creation of the Council of Baltic Sea States, an association of all the countries bordering the Baltic Sea and dedicated to furthering regional economic and political cooperation. A year later, the Estonian representative was elected to a one-year term as president of the organization. In the realm of security, Estonia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) in late 1991 and actively sought support for its efforts to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Cooperation with the European Union included significant economic aid as well as talks on a free-trade agreement.

Estonia's greatest foreign policy success came in May 1993 with its admission to the Council of Europe. After applying in September 1991, Estonia had to hold its first free parliamentary elections in 1992 before being seriously considered for membership. Although Estonia's citizenship policy came under close scrutiny by council delegations, in the end they accepted Estonia's legal arguments for denying automatic citizenship to Soviet-era immigrants, taking encouragement from the noncitizens' right to participate in local elections. Estonia considered admission the equivalent of a clean bill of health for its young democracy, which Russia had sought to tarnish with accusations of human rights violations.

In the mid-1990s, Estonia's staunchest foreign allies were the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden. In 1990 the three Baltic states established regular contacts with the Nordic Council, the main political organization uniting the five Scandinavian states. Denmark's prime minister, Poul Schlüter, became in 1991 the first Western head of government to visit Estonia. The Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, became an outspoken defender of Estonia after Russian threats to impose economic sanctions on Tallinn heightened tensions in 1993.

In some respects, the development of Scandinavian ties appeared to be a higher priority for Estonia than the fostering of greater Baltic cooperation, begun during the three republics' common struggle for independence. Baltic leaders held regular summit meetings beginning in 1990 and issued numerous joint declarations concerning their relations with Russia. An interparliamentary Baltic Council was established in 1990 to promote further cooperation at semiannual meetings. In mid-1993 Baltic military commanders even met to discuss plans for a joint infantry battalion that would be offered for peacekeeping missions around the world. Yet, progress on a free-trade agreement among the three countries was slow, and this situation was not helped in 1992 when Estonia elected a center-right government while Lithuania voted back in Algirdas Brazauskas and the former communists. Ultimately, a free-trade agreement was signed in April 1994.

Estonia's relations with the United States were strong, although the George H.W. Bush administration's initial delay in establishing diplomatic ties with the republic disappointed many in Tallinn. The United States held off recognition for several days in deference to Mikhail S. Gorbachev. However, Secretary of State James A. Baker visited all three Baltic states in September 1991 and five months later was followed by Vice President J. Danforth Quayle. Relations with the William J. Clinton administration appeared solid, although some Estonian officials expressed concern about what they perceived as its unqualified support for Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin.

Estonia - Relations with Russia

Estonia's ties with Boris N. Yeltsin had weakened since the Russian leader's show of solidarity with the Baltic states in January 1991. Issues surrounding Russian troop withdrawals from the Baltic republics and Estonia's denial of automatic citizenship to noncitizens ranked high on the list of points of contention. Immediately after independence, Estonia began pressing the Soviet Union, and later Russia, for a speedy withdrawal of Soviet troops from its territory. Estonia insisted that the process be completed by the end of the year. The Soviet government, citing a lack of available housing for its troops, said not before 1994. In January 1992, some 25,000 troops were reported left in Estonia, the smallest contingent in the Baltic states. Still, more than 80,000 hectares of land, including an inland artillery range, remained in the Russian military's hands. More than 150 battle tanks, 300 armored vehicles, and 163 battle aircraft also remained. The last troops did not leave until August 1994.

In the fall of 1991, as Estonia laid down its new citizenship policy, the Soviet Union called the move a violation of human rights. Under the citizenship policy, most of the country's large ethnic Russian minority were declared noncitizens. The Soviet government linked the further withdrawal of troops from Estonia to a satisfactory change in Estonia's citizenship stance. In response, Estonia denied the human rights charges and invited more than a dozen international fact-finding groups to visit the country for verification. As the propaganda war and negotiations dragged on, Estonia and the other two Baltic countries gained international support for their position on troop withdrawal at a July 1992 summit of the CSCE in Helsinki. The final communiqué called on Russia to act "without delay . . . for the early, orderly and complete withdrawal" of foreign troops from the Baltic states. Resolutions also were passed in the United States Senate in 1992 and 1993 linking the issue of troop withdrawals to continued United States aid to Russia.

Yet, Estonian and Russian negotiators remained deadlocked throughout 1993. At several points, President Yeltsin and other Russian officials called an official halt to the pullout, but the unofficial withdrawal of forces continued. By the end of 1992, about 16,000 troops remained. A year later, that number was down to fewer than 3,500, and more than half of the army outposts had been turned over to Estonian defense officials. The Estonian and Russian sides continued to disagree, primarily over the pace of Russia's withdrawal from the town of Paldiski, on the northern coast some thirty-five kilometers west of Tallinn. The Soviet navy had built a submarine base there that included two nuclear submarine training reactors. Russian officials maintained that dismantling the reactor facility would take time; Estonia demanded faster action along with international supervision of the process. The last Russian warship, carrying ten T-72 tanks, departed in August 1994. However, Russia was to retain control of the reactor facility in Paldiski until September 1995.

Territorial issues also clouded Estonian-Russian relations. Estonia continued to stick by its demand for the return of more than 2,000 square kilometers of territory annexed to Russia by Stalin in 1945. The annexed land was within the borders Estonia and Russia had originally agreed to as part of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty. However, the Yeltsin government disavowed any responsibility for acts committed by the Soviet regime.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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