Estonia, country in northeastern Europe, located on the eastern end of the Baltic Sea. Estonia is the northernmost and smallest of the Baltic states, which also include Latvia and Lithuania. The low-lying land of Estonia features wetlands and ancient forests teeming with wildlife. Islands abound in the country’s coastal waters. Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is an important Baltic seaport and the country’s largest city.
Ethnic Estonians make up a majority of the population. Estonians have maintained a distinctive culture despite a long history of foreign rule. Their culture is similar to the Nordic countries of Europe. In the Estonian language, which is closely related to Finnish, the country’s name is Eesti.
Russians constitute the country’s largest minority group. Many Russians settled in Estonia after it became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1940 the USSR forcibly annexed Estonia along with the other Baltic states, which had been independent countries since 1918.
Estonia regained independence in 1991. It quickly dismantled the communist institutions of the Soviet period, switching to a democratic form of government and a free-market economy. These reforms helped Estonia gain full membership in the European Union (EU) in 2004.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES|
Estonia is bordered by Russia on the east and Latvia on the south. Its other borders are on the Baltic Sea and its extensions, with the Gulf of Finland in the north and the Gulf of Rīga in the west. Tallinn is about 80 km (about 50 mi) across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, the capital of Finland, and ferries run between the two capitals several times a day.
Estonia covers an area of 45,227 sq km (17,462 sq mi), making it slightly bigger than Switzerland or Denmark and one of the smallest countries in Europe.
The land of Estonia is mostly a low-lying plain, with some hills in the central and southern regions. The average elevation of the country is only 50 m (164 ft) above sea level. The highest point in Estonia is a hill in the southeast called Suur Munamagi (“Great Egg Hill”), which has an elevation of 318 m (1,043 ft). It is also the highest place in the Baltic states.
Estonia has more than 1,500 islands, but only 400 are larger than 1 hectare (2 acres); the rest are small islets and reefs. The largest islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, are located off the western coast and separate the Gulf of Rîga from the Baltic Sea. The mainland of Estonia has a coastline 3,794 km (2,357 mi) long. Along the coast there are numerous bays, straits, and inlets. The coast varies from sheer limestone cliffs in the north to sandy beaches and wetlands in the west.
|A||Lakes and Rivers|
Estonia has more than 1,150 lakes and reservoirs, which cover about 5 percent of the land. The two largest lakes are Lake Peipus (Peipsi Järv) on the eastern border and Võrtsjärv in the south central part of the country. Wetlands, including marshes and peat bogs, cover more than 20 percent of the land.
The rivers of Estonia are separated by a watershed in the middle of the country. Those in the north and west flow directly into the Baltic Sea, while the rivers in the south and east flow into Lake Peipus or into the Narva River, which forms Estonia’s northeastern border with Russia and empties into the Gulf of Finland. The longest river in Estonia is the Pärnu, which follows a southwesterly course and empties into the Gulf of Rîga at Pärnu Bay. In the southeast the Emajõgi River serves an important ecological role by connecting lakes Võrtsjärv and Peipus. The Emajõgi is also culturally significant as a subject of Estonian folklore and poetry.
|B||Plants and Animals|
Nearly half the country’s land is forested. Pine, birch, spruce, alder, and aspen are the most common trees in Estonian woods. Part of the ancient forest that once covered Europe has been preserved in some areas of Estonia. About three-fourths of all plant species in the country are found in the western coastal regions because the climate is more moderate there.
Common mammals include roe deer, wild boar, and moose (called elk in Europe). Carnivores such as lynx, wolves, and brown bears also live in the wild. The country’s extensive wetlands are an important stopover for migrating birds. Several animal species have been protected by legislation because of their small numbers, including the European mink, dormouse, and flying squirrel. The European beaver, once hunted to extinction in Estonia, was successfully reintroduced in the 1950s.
Estonia lacks a wide variety of natural resources. It has extensive deposits of oil shale (used as fuel), phosphorite (used for fertilizer), and limestone and dolomite (used as building materials). Peat, a carbon-rich material used as fuel and mulch, is also plentiful. Timber is another important natural resource.
Estonia generally has cool summers and cold winters. The Baltic Sea tempers the climate, making the winters relatively mild for the country’s northern location. The marine influence is strongest in the western part of the country, and temperatures can be more extreme in the interior. Temperatures rarely exceed 21°C (70°F) in summer and often stay below freezing from mid-December to late February. Annual precipitation is moderate, ranging from 500 to 700 mm (19 to 27 in), and July and August are the wettest months. The combination of rain and melting snow in the spring often causes some flooding of rivers.
Like other former Soviet republics, Estonia suffers from decades of environmental mismanagement. The development policies of the Soviet Union did not include provisions for protecting the environment. Today, industrial pollution is a major problem in Estonia. The country’s thermal power plants, which burn mostly oil shale, heavily pollute the air with sulfur dioxide. Estonia’s chemical factories, paper plants, and other industries also emit very high levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and particulates (tiny solids suspended in the air). Air pollution is especially severe in northeastern industrial centers such as Narva and Kohtla-Järve. Coniferous forests in northern Estonia are damaged by acid rain, which is caused by air pollution. In many places, soil and groundwater are contaminated with petroleum products, and many of the country’s lakes are polluted with organic waste. The Gulf of Rîga is severely polluted by industrial waste.
In the late 1980s awareness of environmental issues led Estonians to stage their first large demonstrations against Soviet government policies. They organized to protest the expansion of open-pit phosphorite mining in northeastern Estonia. Their success in stopping the expansion prompted further demonstrations as part of the country’s independence movement. Since independence Estonia has taken measures to protect the environment. The government has ratified international agreements to reduce emissions of hazardous wastes and greenhouse gases, as well as to protect biodiversity, wetlands, and endangered species. Estonians cherish the countryside, and 31 percent of the land is protected in national parks and nature reserves.
The population of Estonia was estimated to be 1,307,605 in 2008, giving the country an average population density of 30 persons per sq km (78 per sq mi). However, the northern portion of the country, where the largest cities are located, is much more densely inhabited than the south.
Estonia is highly urbanized, with 70 percent of the people living in cities or towns. Nearly one-third of the total population resides in the capital, Tallinn, on the northern coast. The only significant population concentrations in the south and west are in the cities of Tartu, an important cultural center, and Pärnu, a popular seaside resort. The Russian minority in Estonia is overwhelmingly urban and forms a majority of the population in some northeastern cities, including Narva and Kohtla-Järve. Ethnic Estonians are more evenly distributed throughout the country, and even urban dwellers maintain strong rural ties.
Ethnic Estonians make up 64 percent of the population. They are ethnically and linguistically close to the Finns. Russians are the largest minority group, constituting 29 percent of the population. Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Finns also live in Estonia, but in much smaller numbers. The country’s ethnic composition reflects decades of immigration from elsewhere in the Soviet Union after World War II ended in 1945. The Soviet government recruited large numbers of Russians to work in new Soviet-built factories in Estonia. Before the war, Russians made up only 4 percent of Estonia’s total population, and ethnic Estonians constituted about 90 percent.
After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, only those citizens and their descendants who lived in Estonia before Soviet occupation received automatic citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Russians, Ukrainians, and others who came to Estonia during Soviet times have been slow to pursue citizenship, in part because the citizenship exam requires proficiency in the Estonian language. Some of the country’s residents, mostly ethnic Russians, are stateless (not citizens of any country). In 1998 Estonia eased its citizenship laws so that children born in the country after February 1992 are eligible for automatic citizenship, regardless of their parents’ status.
Religious life in Estonia is a mosaic of different faiths and denominations. About 46 percent of the people are practicing Christians, including Evangelical Lutherans, Methodists, and Orthodox Christians. There are also Muslim and Jewish congregations in the country. About 36 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation or beliefs.
Estonia became Lutheran during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, but the church administration and most of the pastors remained German until 1918. Religious practice flourished during Estonia’s brief interval of independence from 1918 to 1940. During the Soviet period, religious activity was strongly discouraged and at times banned by the officially atheistic (nonreligious) government. However, religious groups managed to covertly survive Soviet rule. In the late 1980s most of the restrictions regarding religion were lifted, stimulating a revival of religious practice.
|C||Language and Education|
The official language of the republic is Estonian, which with the Finnish language belongs to the Finno-Ugric languages, a subfamily of the Uralic languages. Estonian was adopted as the official language in 1989 as part of Estonia’s movement toward independence from the Soviet Union. Members of minority ethnic groups tend to speak their own native languages, especially Russian, and in some communities Estonian is rarely heard.
Estonia has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Education is compulsory for 9 years beginning at the age of 7. The language of instruction at all levels is either Estonian or Russian. Estonia has several institutions of higher education. The oldest is the University of Tartu, founded in 1632 by Swedish king Gustav II Adolph. Another major university is Tallinn Technical University, founded in 1936.
In the 19th century an Estonian national movement emerged, and its first aim was the development of a distinctive and modern Estonian culture. A literary tradition began to develop in the early 1800s with the poems of Kristjan Jaak Peterson. In the mid-1800s a national epic poem, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), which incorporated hundreds of Estonian legends and folk tales, was written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. The most notable poet of the late 1800s was Lydia Koidula, whose works best represent Estonia’s national awakening.
Estonian culture thrived during the country’s brief period of independence in the first half of the 20th century. The foremost literary figure of this period was the novelist Anton Hansen Tammsaare, who completed his historical saga, Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice), in 1933. This five-volume work documented Estonian life from the 1870s to the 1920s. Under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR from 1922 to 1953, many Estonian writers and intellectuals were persecuted and deported to the Gulags (Soviet concentration camps). Poetry was especially significant during the Soviet period because its indirect meaning was less prone to government censorship. In the late 1980s writers and other intellectuals were in the vanguard of the Estonian independence movement. Since independence the historical novels of Jaan Kross have won critical acclaim internationally, making him one of Estonia’s most translated writers. His novels, which explore the moral dilemmas faced by succeeding generations of Estonians, include Keisri hull (1978; The Czar’s Madman, 1992) and Paigallend (1998; Treading Air, 2002). The works of poet and essayist Jaan Kaplinski have also gained international recognition.
Folk songs are an important part of Estonian culture. During the Soviet period many signs of national culture, such as the Estonian national anthem and other songs, were suppressed. The song My Fatherland Is My Love, based on a poem by Koidula and music by composer and conductor Gustav Ernesaks, became the de facto anthem. Estonia’s independence movement was known as the Singing Revolution because huge song festivals were held in which previously banned songs were again publicly heard.
Cultural events in Estonia include numerous song festivals, which involve the periodic assembly of choruses from all over the country for performances in Tartu or Tallinn. The Estonian National Opera, the Estonian Drama Theatre, and the Estonian National Ballet are based in Tallinn. Symphony orchestras perform at the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn. Museums include the Estonian Museum of Art and the Estonian History Museum, both located in the capital, and the Estonian National Museum, established in 1909 in Tartu.
Spectator sports such as basketball, ice hockey, and soccer are very popular in Estonia. In 1992 Estonia participated in the Olympic Games for the first time since 1936. Estonians enjoy leisure activities such as horseback riding, cross-country skiing, birdwatching, and boating.
In the 1990s Estonia rapidly dismantled the centrally planned economic system of the Soviet period and switched to a free-market economy. The change was the country’s fourth radical economic transformation in the 20th century. Estonia had been an agrarian country in the early 1900s, with the Estonian peasantry farming large foreign-owned estates. After Estonia declared independence from Russia in 1918, it carried out a sweeping land reform that broke up the large estates and distributed smaller farms to the people.
Estonia suffered much destruction during World War II, and its economy was left in shambles. After the war the Soviet Union fully integrated Estonia into its economic system. The Soviet government took all farmland under its control and grouped farmers into large collective farms. It also pushed heavy industrial development, causing extensive environmental degradation, especially in northern Estonia. As one of the last republics to be absorbed into the Soviet Union, Estonia had a stronger economy than most and was better prepared for renewed independence five decades later. The USSR used Estonia as an outlet to the West, allowing interaction that gave Estonian residents the highest per capita income in the Soviet Union, a high level of education, and frequent contact with Western institutions. When Estonians regained independence in 1991 they built quickly on these advantages to institute a free-market economy.
As a country with a small population and limited natural resources, Estonia views trade as a key to economic growth. The country’s leadership positioned it as a gateway between the other former Soviet republics (including Russia) and the economies of Western countries. The government adopted business-protection laws, such as those covering bankruptcy, trademarks, and copyrights, to attract foreign investment. The leadership also negotiated trade and investment agreements with Western countries, and the country’s trading system became one of the most barrier-free in the world. The government’s program to put businesses and industry in private ownership also moved quickly, with industrial privatization essentially completed by 1995.
Estonia’s gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all goods and services in the country, was $16.4 billion in 2006. Industry in that year accounted for 29 percent of GDP. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing together produced 3 percent of GDP, and the services sector, which includes trade and financial activities, produced 68 percent.
In the 1990s the large collective farms that dominated Estonian agriculture during the Soviet period were broken up and placed in private hands. Farm production fell during this period of restructuring, but stabilized in the mid-1990s. The principal agricultural activity is raising animals for meat and milk production. Leading crops are potatoes and grains such as barley, rye, oats, and wheat. With 50 percent of the country’s land area covered by forests, the cutting and processing of timber is a significant economic activity. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employ 5 percent of the labor force.
Machine building, electronics manufacturing, and electrical engineering dominate Estonia’s industrial sector. The processing of the country’s fish catch and farm products also adds value, and timber is used to make paper and other wood products. Mining is focused on extracting oil shale and peat. Oil shale deposits, which are processed into shale oil, provide more than 90 percent of the country’s energy. The industrial sector employs 34 percent of workers.
|C||Trade and Currency|
Estonia experienced a rapid reorientation of its trading relationships after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Trade with Western economies, particularly those in Nordic countries, increased substantially while the flow of goods between Estonia and other former Soviet republics dropped precipitously. Estonia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999.
Estonia’s chief exports include food and animal products, textiles, and timber products. Imports include machinery and transportation equipment, mineral products, textiles, and foods. Finland is Estonia’s principal trading partner for both imports and exports. Other leading buyers of Estonian exports are Russia, Sweden, Germany, and Latvia. Chief sources for imports in addition to Finland are Russia, Germany, and Sweden.
In 1992 Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to issue its own currency, the kroon (12.50 kroon equal U.S.$1; 2006 average). In June 2004 Estonia fixed the value of the kroon to the EU’s common currency, the euro, with the goal of adopting the euro in 2007.
The republic of Estonia is a legal successor to the independent republic of the same name that existed from 1918 to 1940. Following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a new constitution was quickly drafted and approved by referendum in 1992. It established a multiparty, parliamentary democracy. All citizens aged 18 and older may vote.
The head of state is the president, who is granted very limited executive authority. The president is elected for a term of five years by secret ballot of the legislature, the Riigikogu. If no presidential candidate wins the votes of two-thirds of the legislature in any of three rounds of voting, the speaker must convene an electoral college to elect a president by simple majority. The president nominates the prime minister, subject to approval by the Riigikogu. The prime minister, who heads the executive branch, selects a cabinet of ministers to carry out the day-to-day operations of government.
The legislative branch consists of a unicameral (single-chamber) national legislative body, the Riigikogu. The 101 members of the Riigikogu are elected by direct popular vote for four-year terms. The Riigikogu elects from its members a chairperson, or speaker, who with two deputies directs the work of the legislature. Political parties must receive at least 5 percent of the total vote to gain representation in the Riigikogu.
Estonia has a three-tiered judicial system with the Supreme Court at the apex. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and also carries out the functions of a constitutional court. Its members are elected by the Riigikogu. District courts act as courts of appeal and may thus overrule city, rural, and administrative courts. All judges other than those of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president of the republic.
For purposes of local government, Estonia is divided into 15 maakonnad (counties). They are Harju in northern Estonia; Ida-Viru in northeastern Estonia; Järva, Lääne-Viru, and Rapla in central Estonia; Hiiu, Lääne, Pärnu, and Saare in western Estonia; and Jõgeva, Põlva, Tartu, Valga, Viljandi, and Võru in southern Estonia.
|E||Social Services and Defense|
The government pays modest pensions and child support, and there is low-cost national medical care. However, life is difficult for young families, who are hit hard by a shortage of housing and lack of childcare support, and for retirees, who lost all their savings when Soviet rubles became worthless.
During the Soviet period, Estonia had no defense forces separate from those of the USSR. Since 1991 the republic has developed its armed forces to include an army of 4,450 troops, a navy of 336, and a small air force. There are also sea-based and land-based border guards. Twelve months of military service is required for males at age 18, with an alternative option of civilian service for 15 months.
Estonia is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe, the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Estonia’s relations with Latvia and Lithuania are loosely coordinated through the Baltic Assembly, which the three states established in 1991 to facilitate political and economic cooperation. Like the other Baltic states—and unlike most of the former Soviet republics—Estonia did not join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after it was established in 1991 as a partial successor to the USSR. Estonia became an associate member of the European Union (EU) in 1995 and a full member in 2004.
The Balto-Finnic ancestors of the Estonians arrived on the shores of the Baltic Sea 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, probably from the middle Volga region of present-day Russia. They had early contacts with Baltic tribes (later the Latvians and Lithuanians) to the south, Scandinavians to the west, and Slavs to the east. Estonian emerged as a separate language around ad 500, and a rudimentary political system developed. The Estonian lands remained independent until the 13th century.
In the early 1200s, southern Estonia came under assault from German crusaders seeking to impose Christianity, and German merchants who sought control over the Baltic trade routes (see Crusades). In the north, meanwhile, the king of Denmark, Waldemar II, built a fortress on the site of Tallinn in 1219 and established the episcopal see (bishop’s diocese) of Reval. After an uprising from 1343 to 1345, the Danish crown sold its territories in northern Estonia to the Livonian Order, which was an integral part of the Teutonic Knights (see Military Religious Orders). At that time, the Knights were the most formidable power in central and eastern Europe and already controlled the southern part of Estonia (then part of a region known as Livonia). The Knights protected the German merchants of the Hanseatic League, a commercial federation of European cities. The league’s coastal trading centers in the Baltic region prospered.
In the 16th century Russia, Poland, and Sweden chipped away at the Knight’s Baltic possessions. In 1561 Tallinn and the nobility of northern Estonia submitted to the protection of the Swedish crown. The Knights were expelled from Livonia, their last remaining territory in the Baltic region, in 1591. Poland temporarily retained the southern part of Estonia, including Tartu, but by 1645 all of Estonia was under Swedish rule. In the 1670s and 1680s Sweden introduced reforms that improved life for the majority of people but embittered the nobility.
Sweden ruled Estonia until 1721, when it was ceded to Russia by the Peace of Nystadt at the end of the Great Northern War between the two countries. Russian emperor Peter the Great restored former privileges of the nobility. Between 1816 and 1819 Russian emperor Alexander I abolished serfdom in Estonia. After the middle of the century peasants were granted the right to purchase land, and the system of forced labor was suppressed. At the same time, Estonian national consciousness was aroused. Vigorous cooperative and educational movements sprang up after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and national feeling in Estonia was further developed by the press and modern literature.
Estonia gained self-government after the Russian monarchy was toppled in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Local leaders proclaimed the independent Republic of Estonia on February 24, 1918. The new government was unable to assume power until the end of World War I in November, when German forces withdrew from Estonia. The Bolsheviks, socialist revolutionaries who had seized power in Russia, subsequently attempted to retake Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, through military force. However, the Red Army was repulsed in Estonia with the intervention of British and Scandinavian forces. Finally, on February 2, 1920, Russia recognized Estonia’s independence and renounced any rights to its territory in the Treaty of Tartu. In 1922 the Bolsheviks (by then renamed Communists) formed a federation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly called the Soviet Union.
In January 1921 legal recognition was accorded the new republic by the major Western powers, and Estonia became a member of the League of Nations. The three Baltic states signed a mutual defense pact, the Baltic Entente, in September 1934. Estonia continued to have a democratic political system until March 1934, when the prime minister, Konstantin Päts, led a bloodless coup and established authoritarian rule. In 1938, however, a new constitution provided for a presidential system of government with a bicameral legislature. In April 1938 Päts was elected president.
The Soviet Union concluded a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany a week before the German invasion of Poland launched World War II in September 1939. By the secret terms of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the USSR claimed the Baltic states as within its sphere of influence. In June 1940 Soviet forces occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In elections held the following month, only Soviet-approved candidates were permitted to participate. On August 6 Estonia was officially incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Despite the nonaggression pact, however, Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, and Nazi troops occupied Estonia in July. An estimated 90,000 Estonians died during the war—about 60,000 during the Soviet occupation and 30,000 during the Nazi occupation. In September 1944, when the Germans retreated from the country and Soviet forces returned, more than 60,000 Estonians fled to Sweden and Germany.
Patriotic groups made a short-lived attempt to reinstate Estonian independence, but the Soviet Army prevailed and Estonia was reincorporated into the USSR. Cultural and political institutions immediately began to be reorganized to conform to Soviet models. Estonian language and culture were suppressed, and all political groups other than the Communist Party were banned. The Estonian national elite was imprisoned, executed, or exiled. Tens of thousands of Estonians suspected of opposing the regime were deported to the Gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia and Central Asia until the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. A group of pro-independence guerrillas known as the Forest Brethren agitated against the Soviet regime until the mid-1950s.
Estonia’s economy underwent rapid change as well. The Soviet government abolished private property and forced privately owned farms to merge into huge state-owned farms. This process, known as the collectivization of agriculture, was nearly complete by the end of 1949. The postwar years also saw the rapid expansion of heavy industries throughout the Soviet Union. Many new factories were built in Estonia, primarily in the northern cities. People from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, especially Russians, immigrated to work in Estonia’s new industries.
After Stalin’s death, a thaw occurred under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The Estonian Communist Party gained some control over its own affairs and over Estonia’s economy. Most importantly, a cultural rebirth took place that restored a measure of confidence and hope to the population. However, Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, reasserted centralized authority and enforced tight controls on public debate and expression of ideas. As a result, political dissent appeared in Estonia, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The goals of the dissent ranged from a demand for the restoration of independence to specific concerns about the declining status of the Estonian language in education and public life.
Given their memory of independence in the 1920s and 1930s, Estonia and its Baltic neighbors were in the best position among the Soviet republics to take advantage of reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. He called for the comprehensive perestroika (rebuilding) of society and economy and declared that glasnost (candor or openness) had to be fostered in the mass media and in governmental and party organizations. In January 1987 Gorbachev came out in favor of demokratizatsiia (democratization) of the Soviet regime, a process that took on an increasingly sweeping character.
In Estonia a grass-roots movement was launched in 1987 to protest an ecologically destructive plan to expand open-pit phosphorite mining. When the protests halted the planned expansion, the Estonian people realized that times really were changing. In 1988 the Estonian Popular Front emerged along with a wide range of other political organizations, including some like the Estonian National Independence Party, which demanded the restoration of full independence. In November 1988 the Supreme Soviet (legislature) of Estonia, led by reformist communists, adopted a declaration of sovereignty—the first in the Soviet Union. In 1989 sentiment for complete independence deepened, as Gorbachev alternately vacillated and threatened the Baltic states. In March 1990 the newly elected Estonian Supreme Soviet declared the start of a transition period to full independence. The Soviet leadership in Moscow still refused to negotiate, however, and ordered harsh military crackdowns in Latvia and Lithuania in January 1991.
Estonia became the first Soviet republic to declare independence, on August 20, 1991. The declaration came amid a political crisis in Moscow as hardline communists attempted a coup against Gorbachev. The attempt failed, and the USSR began to break apart. The Soviet government formally recognized the independence of Estonia (as well as Latvia and Lithuania) in September. The three Baltic states were internationally recognized as independent countries later that month with their admittance to the United Nations (UN). Other Soviet republics followed suit, and the USSR ceased to exist in December.
Following independence, the continued presence of former Soviet troops (under Russia’s jurisdiction) on Estonian territory was a point of contention. In July 1994 Russia agreed to remove remaining troops by the end of August, and in return Estonia agreed to guarantee the civil rights of all retired Russian military personnel living in Estonia. All of the troops departed as scheduled. Estonian-Russian relations remained strained over a border dispute in which Estonia demanded the return of a segment of Estonian territory that the Soviet government had transferred to Russia in 1944. In 1996, however, Estonia dropped the demand, and in 1999 the two countries initialed a border treaty.
In other foreign relations, the Estonian government sought to strengthen political and economic ties with its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. In September 1993 the countries signed a free-trade agreement that removes duties on imports and standardizes visa and customs regulations. However, in early 1995 Estonia’s relations with Latvia became heated over the demarcation of their maritime border. After extensive negotiations, the two countries reached a final sea border agreement in 1997. Also that year, a Baltic free-trade area was established.
Estonia also sought closer ties with the Western powers. In 1994 the country joined the Partnership for Peace program, which allowed for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In November 2002 Estonia was invited to become a full member of NATO, along with Latvia and Lithuania and four other nations. The three Baltic states were the first former Soviet republics invited to join NATO. Estonia became a full member of NATO in 2004. Meanwhile, in 1995 Estonia became an associate member of the European Union (EU), the world’s largest trading bloc, with the goal of eventually attaining full membership. To realize this goal, Estonia implemented comprehensive economic reforms to establish a functioning market economy. Estonia’s gross domestic product (GDP) consistently increased beginning in 1995 as inefficient state enterprises were privatized, with only a minor decline in 1999 due to an economic crisis in Russia. The reforms helped secure Estonia’s entry to the EU as a full member in 2004.
In domestic affairs, Estonia adopted a new constitution in July 1992 and held its first legislative elections the following September. Mart Laar became prime minister, leading a coalition government that included his reform-minded Pro Patria (Fatherland) Union. In September 1994 the Riigikogu (legislature) passed a vote of no confidence in Laar’s government, and Laar stepped down.
In the 1995 parliamentary elections, the reform parties were ousted and replaced by a coalition of left-centrist parties. The vote was seen as a protest against the fast pace of reform, which sharply reduced the living standards of retirees and rural people in particular. Tiit Vähi, head of the Estonian Coalition Party, was named prime minister. In 1996 Vähi’s governing coalition collapsed, leaving him with less than a majority in the legislature. In early 1997 Vähi resigned under a cloud of corruption charges. He was replaced by Mart Siimann, who took power within the same shaky minority government.
Mart Laar returned as prime minister following the 1999 parliamentary elections. He formed a coalition government that included the Pro Patria Union, the Estonian Reform Party, and the Moderates’ Party. Due to tensions in the governing coalition, however, Laar resigned in January 2002. Siim Kallas of the pro-business Estonian Reform Party replaced Laar, forming a tenuous coalition government with his party’s ideological opposite, the populist Estonian Center Party.
The parliamentary elections of March 2003 resulted in a tie between the Estonian Center Party and the center-right Union for the Republic-Res Publica (commonly known as Res Publica). Both parties won 28 seats in the 101-seat Riigikogu, and four other parties won the remainder, including the Estonian Reform Party. After nearly a month of negotiations, Res Publica formed a coalition government with the center-right Estonian Reform Party and the center-left Estonian People’s Union, giving the governing coalition a 60-seat majority in the Riigikogu. Res Publica leader Juhan Parts, formerly Estonia’s chief state auditor and an outspoken critic of the financial management of the previous government, was named prime minister.
Parts resigned in March 2005, following a vote of no confidence against the minister of justice, and his coalition government was dissolved. Andrus Ansip, leader of the Estonian Reform Party, was named prime minister. In parliamentary elections held in March 2007, the Estonian Reform Party won 31 of 101 seats—more than any other single party. Ansip became the first incumbent prime minister to win reelection in Estonia since 1991. He formed a coalition government with his Reform Party, the Estonian Center Party (which won 29 seats), and the Estonian People’s Union (6 seats).
The 2007 parliamentary elections were notable as the first in the world to include voting over the Internet. The electronic voting (“e-voting”) system allowed voters to access and cast online ballots using any computer with an electronic card reader, a national identity card equipped with a computer-readable microchip, and a personal identification number (PIN) for the card.