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Estonia Table of Contents


Constitutional Foundations

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.

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.

Data as of January 1995

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