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Summary Article: Estonia
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Country in northern Europe, bounded east by Russia, south by Latvia, and north and west by the Baltic Sea.

Government Estonia is a multiparty parliamentary democracy with a dual executive, comprising a president and a prime minister. Under its 1992 constitution, it has a 101-member national assembly or parliament (Riigikogu), whose deputies are popularly elected for four-year terms in 12 multi-member constituencies through proportional representation. The parliament elects a president, who must be an Estonian citizen by birth and at least 40 years old, for a maximum of two five-year terms. Presidential candidates must be nominated by at least a fifth of the parliament's deputies and win a two-thirds majority of the parliamentary vote. If this is not achieved after three rounds, an electoral college of parliamentary deputies and local councillors is set up to elect the president by a simple majority. The president nominates a prime minister, who needs approval by parliament, and a cabinet to govern the country.

History Independent states were formed in the area now known as Estonia during the 1st century AD. In the 13th century southern Estonia came under the control of the Teutonic Knights, German crusaders, who converted the inhabitants to Christianity. The Danes, who had taken control of northern Estonia, sold this area to the Teutonic Knights in 1324. There was an unsuccessful rebellion against German rule in 1343–44.

By the 16th century German nobles owned much of the land. In 1561 Sweden took control of the north, with Poland governing the south; Sweden ruled the whole country between 1625 and 1710. Estonia came under Russian control in 1710. Serfdom was abolished in 1816. With the spread of education, a nationalist movement developed in the second half of the 19th century. Initially centred on reviving he national culture, it developed into a more political movement for independence in response to Russia's efforts to impose Russian culture in the 1890s.

Independence 1919–40 Estonia was occupied by German troops during World War I. The Soviet forces, who tried to regain power in 1917, were overthrown by Germany in March 1918, restored in November 1918, and again overthrown with the help of the British navy in May 1919, when Estonia, having declared independence in February 1918, was established as a democratic republic. Estonia had a parliamentary democracy until a fascist coup in 1934, at a time of economic depression. Parliament was disbanded and Konstantin Päts became president, with emergency powers to rule by decree.

Soviet republic In August 1939 Nazi Germany and the communist USSR secretly agreed (the Molotiv-Ribbentrop Pact) that Estonia should come under Russian influence and the country was incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in August 1940. During this period of Soviet rule, many Estonian politicians were deported or killed. During World War II, Estonia was again occupied by Germany 1941–44. The USSR regained control in 1944 after fierce battles with German troops, but the fear of Soviet rule led to tens of thousands to flee to Finland, Sweden, and Germany.

Under the Soviet regime, agriculture was collectivized but there was strong opposition. In the early 1950s there was a guerrilla movement against Soviet rule. This followed the forcible deportation in 1949 of tens of thousands of Estonians to labour camps in Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians emigrated to Estonia, to man key posts in its industries and military bases, leading to growing Russian domination of the language and culture (‘Russification’).

Renewed nationalism With the Soviet Union and Estonian economies deteriorating in the 1980s, nationalist dissent grew, as in the other Soviet Baltic states (Latvia and Lithuania). This was not forcibly suppressed because the Soviet Union, under the reform-communist leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, was pursuing a new policy of political openness (‘glasnost’) and economic reform (‘perestroika’). In 1988 Estonia adopted its own constitution, with a power of veto on all Soviet legislation. The new constitution allowed private property and placed land and natural resources under Estonian control. An Estonian popular front (Rahvarinne) was established in October 1988 to campaign for democratization, increased autonomy, and eventual independence, and held mass rallies. In November 1988 Estonia's supreme soviet (state assembly) declared the republic ‘sovereign’ and autonomous in all matters except military and foreign affairs, although the USSR's parliament rejected this as unconstitutional. In 1989 a law was passed replacing Russian with Estonian as the main language and in November 1989 Estonia's assembly denounced the 1940 incorporation of the republic into the USSR as ‘forced annexation’.

Multiparty elections and independence Several parties had sprung up by the elections of March 1990 – the Popular Front, the Association for a Free Estonia, and the Russian-oriented International Movement – and a coalition government was formed. A plebiscite in the spring of 1991 voted 78% in favour of independence. By the summer the republic had embarked on a programme of privatization. The prices of agricultural products were freed in July 1991.

In August 1991, in the midst of the attempted anti-Gorbachev coup in the USSR, during which Red Army troops were moved into Tallinn and the republic's main port was blocked by the Soviet navy, Estonia declared its full independence and outlawed the Communist Party. In September 1991 the USSR and Western nations recognized this declaration and the new state became a member of the United Nations.

Economic hardship The Estonian economy had been closely integrated with that of the rest of the Soviet Union, so in the years immediately after independence there was economic disruption as Estonia adjusted to the need to compete in the world economy. In January 1992 prime minister Edgar Savisaar resigned, after failing to alleviate food and energy shortages, and was replaced by Tiit Vahi. Parliamentary elections in September 1992 produced an inconclusive result. The new parliament chose nationalist Lennart Meri of the Isamaaliit (Fatherland Union) as the new president and Mart Laar, a 31-year-old free-marketeer became prime minister.

An admirer of the British right-wing prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Laar referred to himself as ‘Thatcher's grandson’. His government embarked on an ambitious programme of market-centred economic reform, involving large-scale privatization. In 1994 Estonia became one of the first countries to adopt a ‘flat tax’, set initially at a uniform rate of 26% regardless of personal income. Social spending cutbacks and a controversial ‘aliens’ law, which required the republic's 500,000 former Soviet citizens to apply for residency or face expulsion, lost his government much popular support. In September 1994 Laar was voted out of office by parliament, and replaced by Andres Tarand. The last Russian troops were withdrawn in August 1994.

Ex-communists restored to power Economic hardship, arising from the economic-reform programme, led to former communists (Coalition Party) winning most seats in the March 1995 elections and a coalition government was formed under their leader, Tiit Vahi. It was expected to adopt a ‘social market’ strategy and to improve relations with Russia, but in the event it remained committed to further integration into Western and European institutions, signing a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union in June 1995. The government collapsed in October 1995, following a wiretapping scandal involving interior minister Edgar Savisaar. A new coalition, incorporating centre-right parties, was formed under Vahi. It collapsed in November 1996, but Vahi remained as prime minister, heading a coalition government. In February 1997 Vahi, who had been accused by the opposition of corruption, resigned and was replaced as prime minister by Mart Siimann, deputy chair of the Coalition Party.

In July 1997 the European Commission invited Estonia to participate in talks about integration into the EU.

Laar back in power The March 1999 parliamentary elections resulted in a swing to the right and Mart Laar, of the Pro Patria Union, became prime minister for a second time, again leading a centre-right government. The pace of economic reform accelerated. Estonia joined the World Trade Organization in November 1999 and made progress on talks concerning EU membership. Encouraged by the government's policy of low business and personal taxes and support for new technologies – with government services put online and fast broadband access provided – Scandinavian businesses relocated operations to Estonia. This brought an investment boom and strong economic growth in the early 2000s, as Estonia's economy developed.

In October 2001 Arnold Rüütel, a former head of state in the communist era and during the transition to independence, became president, after being elected by a special assembly comprising Parliament and 266 local government delegates.

In January 2002 Laar was replaced as prime minister by Siim Kallas, the former finance minister from the liberal Estonian Reform Party, after the ruling coalition broke up.

Entry into the EU Following the March 2003 parliamentary elections, the 37-year-old Juhan Parts, leader of the newly formed Res Publica party, became prime minister and Europe's youngest leader, heading a centre-right coalition government. During his premiership, the economy grew strongly, at 8% a year, taxes were cut, and Estonia became a member of the EU, on 1 May 2004. This followed a 2003 referendum in which 67% of voters supported accession. In March 2004 Estonia joined NATO.

Ansip and Reform Party in power In March 2005, after parliament passed a vote of no confidence in his justice minister Ken-Marti Vaher over anti-corruption measures, Parts resigned as prime minister. He was replaced by Andrus Ansip, leader of the right-of-centre Estonian Reform Party which had been a member of the Res Publica-led coalition. He formed a three-party coalition with the Centre Party and People's Union. A former investment banker, Anspi carried on with a market-centred, tax-cutting economic programme. In October 2006 Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former diplomat and Social Democrat, became state president; he was re-elected in August 2011.

Ansip retained power after the March 2007 general election, heading a new four-party coalition, comprising the Reform, Res Publica, Union of Pro Patria and Social Democrat parties. This election saw Estonia become the first country to allow online voting.

Estonia was hit badly by the 2008–09 global financial crisis, with GDP falling by 14% in 2009 and unemployment rising to 16%. The government responded by sharply cutting government spending. This enabled Estonia to adopt the euro as its currency in January 2011.

Ansip and the Reform Party held on to power after the March 2011 general election, forming a right-of-centre coalition with the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) party. But in late 2012, Reform lost much popular support after its mishandling of a party funding controversy, which ended with the resignation of the justice minister.

Reform Party under Rõivas re-elected amid concerns about Russian threat In February 2014 Ansip announced he was resigning as prime minister; he would later, in November 2014, become European Commissioner for the digital single market. He was replaced in March 2014 as Reform Party leader and prime minister by Taavi Rõivas, the 35-year-old social affairs minister, who formed a new coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats.

Rõivas took over at a time of increasing concerns in Estonia about Russia, which had annexed Crimea in March 2014. In September 2014 tensions heightened when Russian forces abducted Eston Kohver, an Estonian border guard whom they accused of crossing the border and spying. In response NATO strengthened its military presence in the Baltic states and conducted exercises in the region. In September 2015 Russia returned Kohver to Estonia as part of an exchange for Russian spy Aleksei Dressen, who had been imprisoned in Estonia in 2012.

The March 2015 general election saw support fall for the Reform Party, which won 30 seats (down 3). But it still finished well ahead of other parties and Rõivas continued as prime minister, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats and IRL.

In October 2016 Estonia's parliament elected Kersti Kaljulaid, a centre-right independent, as the country's first female president.

Centre Party leader Jüri Ratas heads new coalition government In early November 2016 Rõivas resigned as prime minister after losing the support of his coalition partners in a parliamentary vote of confidence. He later also resigned as Reform Party leader.

On 24 November 2016 the populist Centre Party, which had finished second with 27 seats in the 2015 general election, formed a new centre-left coalition government with the Social Democrats and IRL. The Centre Party drew strong support from Estonia's large Russian-speaking minority. Its 38-year-old leader Jüri Ratas, who had been mayor of Tallinn 2005–07, became prime minister.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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