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Bordered by Latvia and Russia, with coastlines on both the Gulf of Finland the Baltic Sea, Estonia has one of the smallest populations of any European Union Country. After independence from the USSR in 1991, Estonia has made major advances towards a fully functional parliamentary democracy with significant achievements in economic, political and social development. Concerns still remain, however, on issues such as police conduct, the right to a speedy trial, achieving gender equality, child abuse and human trafficking.
Estonia is a Baltic country in Northern Europe. It share land borders with Russia and Lithuania, and maritime borders with Sweden and Finland. The border with Russia is not clearly defined - historically Estonia incorporated a few thousand square kilometers that were annexed by Russia after the Second World War. As a result the exact boundaries of both countries along that border remain unclear.
Estonia consists of a large continental territory and around 1500 islands, the two largest of which are Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Much of the country is forested, along with numerous lakes, the largest of which, lake Peipsi, lies near the eastern frontier.
Population and Language
The population of Estonia is around 1,339800.. The largest single group are ethnic Estonians, at around 68% of the population. The second largest are Russians, around 25% of the population. Historically, this group was much smaller and ethnic Estonians made up a far greater share of the population, but this changed during the period of Soviet rule. The Soviet authorities pursued twin policies of the deportation of Estonians combined with encouraging the immigration of Russians into the country, both for practical reasons and in pursuit of the ideological goal of eroding national differences and identities. Independence and the removal of the Russian military in the country saw some reductions in the Russian population, but they remain a significant proportion of Estonia as a whole and a contentious issue in national politics.
Other significant ethnic groups include Ukrainians, Belorussians and Finns. Historically, Estonian was also home to substantial German, Jewish and Swedish populations, but these were significantly reduced by the events of the twentieth century.
The official language is Estonian, closely related to Finnish but sharing few common elements with any other European languages. Russian is still widely spoken as well, having been previously a mandatory part of schooling and remaining the primary language for many Estonians of Russian origin.
Estonia has no official faith and is in fact one one of the least religious countries in the world, with around 75% or more of the population polling as irreligious. Of those who do profess a faith, the majority are Christian from either Lutheran or Orthodox traditions, along with small numbers of other Christian denominations, practicing jews and neo-pagans.
History and Politics
Historically a strategically and economically significant point in Northern Europe, Estonia has spent much of the Middle Ages and early modern period as part of a succession of broader territories under foreign rule. Intermittently a province of the Holy Roman Empire, a direct subject of the Holy See, a semi-independent territory dominated by various orders of Teutonic Knights, partial integrated into the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and eventually placed under Swedish rule the territories of modern day Estonia finally became part of the Russian Empire in 1721.
During this period of Russian rule, ideas of a distinct Estonian national identity became more prominent, developing into a political and cultural nationalist movement in the nineteenth century. With the collapse of the Russian empire during the First World War, Estonia declared independence and successfully held off both resurgent Russian, now Bolshevik, troops and German or German-Baltic forces. The Republic of Estonia endured for twenty two years. Initially a parliamentary democracy, in 1934 Konstantin Pats, a prominent Estonian politician, launched a coup to pre-empt a takeover by a right wing populist veteran movement. Päts rule included the suspension of elections and elements of the Estonian constitution as well as the serious curtailment of civil liberties and political rights. It was not, however, particularly violent and when the country returned to democracy under a new constitution in 1938 Päts was elected legitimately to the presidency, while nearly all those imprisoned were released. This period is known as the “Era of Silence” both for the suppression of dissent that occurred and for the tacit consent from much of the population to authoritarianism in the name of political stability. After a brief resumption of democracy, Estonia was forced into accepting a Soviet military presence in 1939. By mid 1940, the Soviet Union had achieved domination of the Estonian government, imprisoned or exiled those who resisted their control and declared the creation of a new Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic under a puppet government.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, there were some initial hopes that they might restore Estonian independence. This did not happen, however, and the German occupation proved to as brutal, if not more so, than that which preceded it. With the subsequent military reversals and advance of Soviet forces in 1944, Estonia faced the prospect of being re-absorbed once more into the Soviet Union. Despite hopes that the Red Army might be held off long enough by German forces to allow the Allies to complete their victory in the west - which represented the best chance of guaranteeing post-war independence - Soviet troops broke through and re-captured Estonia in 1944. Ten of thousands of of Estonians, particularly those involved in resistance against Soviet force, were imprisoned or deported en-masse to labour camps.
Restored Soviet rule in Estonia saw further deportations, although these slowed with the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and by the 1960s some of the surviving deportees were permitted to return. The country was extensively militarised, acting as a vital base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Additionally, immigration of Russians was actively encouraged, both to service the demands of the Soviet system and as part of the campaign to fragment and dissolve national identities within the USSR. Development under the Soviet Union was significantly stunted, leaving Estonia behind many of its neighbouring countries economically.
With the weakening of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demands for independence grew. These found a particular outlet in the musical festivals and cultural events, something which resonated not just in Estonia but across other Baltic states under Soviet occupation as well. Most famously, this growing national consciousness was expressed through the events of August 23rd 1989, when Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians formed a human chain connecting their three capitals and demanding independence. Estonia’s parliament had already issued a declaration of sovereignty in 1988 - though it would take until 1991 and the turmoil of a coup attempt in Moscow for independence to be fully achieved.
Since independence, Estonia has made significant progress. Having been economically extremely weak after the Soviet era, Estonia has developed rapidly, with very low levels of government debt and major increases in GDP. A succession of democratic elections have also brought significant political reform alongside greater integration with international bodies, most notably joining the European Union in 2003 and the Eurozone in 2011.
Estonia’s current political system is that of a parliamentary democratic republic, with a multi-party system, but one dominated by two or three established parties. The parliament, known as the Riigikogu, has 101 members elected for four years terms by proportional representation, and is primarily concerned with approving taxation and national budgets, as well as electing the President and approving other key appointments. The President, in addition to serving as largely symbolic head of state, also appoints the Prime minister - usually the head of the largest political party - though this can be overturned by parliament. The Prime Minister in turn plays a key part in putting together the cabinet and selecting ministers, as well as acting as head of government for day to day affairs.
The Estonian economy has enjoyed remarkable growth post-independence, with current GDP per capita standing around $15830. What is more remarkable is that it has done so even during periods of relative economic turmoil, even moving against prevailing trends such as with its relatively successful 2011 entry into the Eurozone. While not the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 did have a serious effect on the economy, Estonia endured less damage than its Baltic neighbours and recovered faster. Now it has one of the highest rates of growth, the fastest rates of cutting unemployment and lowest government debt in the European Union.. Poverty and inequality, while not entirely resolved, have been significantly reduced since independence, as Estonia made the transition from a less-developed to developed country far quicker than expected.
Much of the growth Estonia has enjoyed has been the result of embracing technology and the digital economy. In part inspired by the need for high productivity from a small population, post-independence Estonia focussed on providing technical expertise through education and proved to be a fertile environment for technology startups - most famously, the internet communications platform Skype.. Agriculture, once a major part of the economy, has declined as both a share of GDP and as an employer, while the service sector has become central. Estonia exports primarily to other EU nations, including significant trade with its neighbour, Latvia. .
Media and Civil Society
Estonia enjoys very good levels of press freedoms as well as civil and political rights. In 2013, it ranked 11th worldwide on Reporters without borders press freedom index - a worse ranking than in previous years, but still amongst the best in the world.. Estonia scores very highly for both civil rights and political freedoms, scoring a 1 in both from Freedom House. The country enjoys an active civil society, who are consulted extensively in the formation of government policy.  Estonia has pioneered internet voting, having used it successfully in its last two elections. To ensure confidence and transparency in this system, they took the unprecedented step of releasing the source code for the voting software for public scrutiny in 2013.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
Human rights in Estonia are largely well respected and protected by the government. Some areas of concern do still exist, however - most notably around the treatment of non-Estonian minorities, particularly ethnic Russians and Roma people. This includes the very low rate of registration for those born post-independence to non-Estonian citizens, the perceived lack of inconclusiveness under Estonian nationality laws and concerns of public hostility towards minority groups. Several high profile incidents involving civil unrest and clashes between the police and Russian protestors have raised international attention - one high profile case, around the removal of a Soviet war memorial, led to significant violence. A 2009 EU survery of Russian’s living in Estonia suggested that the primary area they felt discriminated against is when seeking work, with just under 40% having had this experience in the past five years. The Estonian education system currently makes provision for Russian speakers, including Russian language schools with a distinct curriculum - although the government has announced plans to introduce more Estonian elements into these. The situation of Roma children in education is problematic, with late entry, high dropouts and reports of Roma children being segregated from the rest of the system by being placed in disability specialist schools despite not having any disability.
Estonian Institute for Human Rights Estonian Human Rights Report 2012
Amnesty International Open Letter: Estonia's Candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council