Volume 34, No. 1 - Spring 1988
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.




Estonia was an independent state between the two World Wars, but was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a constituent republic of the U.S.S.R. The United States does not recognize the forcible incorporation of Estonia into the U.S.S.R.

Like the other Baltic states, Estonia is subjected to the same centralized rule, the same Constitution and judicial system, and the same restrictions on civil and political liberties as the republics of the Soviet Union. As implemented in other republics, Soviet policy stresses gradual Russification and a concomitant erosion of native Estonian culture and values. Because of a low birthrate and an official settlement policy that has resulted in an influx of Slavic, primarily Russian, settlers in the recent past, Estonians make up only 63 percent of the total population as compared to 92 percent in 1939.

The standard of living in Estonia is higher than the Soviet average, but the margin is shrinking. Estonians maintain that too much of the national income they generate is transferred to other republics, and they complain of the declining quantity and quality of food supplies and consumer goods.

Expressions of Estonian nationalist and religious sentiment are harshly repressed by the Soviet authorities. During 1986, this repression led to serious human rights violations, including harassment of those who attempted to publicize those violations. All activists are under the threat of punishment by incarceration for their activities.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political Killing

Although Estonian activists have on occasion died in Soviet custody, it is difficult to prove direct official responsibility for the deaths of persons involved in political dissent.

b. Disappearance

There are no known instances of permanent or prolonged disappearance.

c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Punishment

In Estonia, as throughout the Soviet Union, cruel and inhuman treatment of political prisoners occurs during both interrogations and confinement in labor camps, prisons, or psychiatric hospitals. Physical and psychological abuse of prisoners is common, as is detention under extremely unhealthy conditions. Estonian religious activist Allan Alajaan was freed in 1985 after spending 2 1/2 years in a psychiatric hospital as punishment for attempting to flee the Soviet Union.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Soviet laws are written and interpreted in so broad a manner that persons may be arrested and convicted for trying to exercise their basic human rights. On July 19,1985, Estonian human rights activist Robert Vaitmaa was sentenced to three years in a labor camp on charges of "resisting the authorities." Vaitmaa had been arrested on May 7 after being forcibly removed from an airplane while on his way to visit exiled activist Tiit Madison.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Despite guarantees of judicial objectivity in both the Estonian and Soviet Constitutions, the State completely controls the judicial process and, in political cases, arbitrarily decides the outcome of all trials to suit its requirements. No rights of a defendant override the compelling "interests of the State."

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Government interference in personal life is pervasive through the use of informers, mail censorship and confiscation, electronic monitoring of telephones, and other means. Contacts between Estonians and visitors from foreign countries are strongly discouraged, and those who indulge in such contacts are subject to harassment by the authorities.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for most internationally accepted political liberties provided that their exercise does not threaten the security of the Socialist system. In practice, the authorities do not tolerate dissident behavior of any kind. Lutheran pastor Harri Motsnik was arrested on April 13, 1985, and convicted on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda," apparently on the basis of his outspoken sermons. Motsnik was unexpectedly released on March 28, 1986, (Good Friday) after a "renunciation" of his "subversive views" was published in the Soviet press.

During the Estonian Writers' Union Congress in April, several novelists and poets complained about extensive literary censorship which made it difficult to write about "the crimes of the past" and "the era of repression." They called for more openness, less bureaucratic interference in literature, and less censorship.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right to associate in public organizations, but the authorities subject all organizations to their strict control. According to local sources, the traditional torchlight march that marks the beginning and end of the school year at the university in Tartu was canceled, effective June 1986, because authorities perceived the march as a potential forum for the expression of anti-Soviet sentiment.

Soviet labor law and practice are enforced in Estonia. Although the Constitution guarantees all Soviet citizens the right to form trade unions, any efforts by workers to exercise this right, independently of state-controlled unions, are repressed brutally. Soviet authorities remain concerned that the ideas of the Polish Solidarity trade union movement might spread, and they apply particular scrutiny to the Baltic states. In Estonia the party leadership has denounced local efforts to call strikes at state enterprises.

c. Freedom of Religion

Although the Soviet Constitution guarantees the right to profess, or not to profess, any religion, both the party and Government promote atheism while at best barely tolerating organized religion. As part of an apparently official campaign to reduce the authority and activities of the Lutheran church, many Lutheran pastors have been called in for questioning. Some have had their professional licenses revoked.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Freedom of movement is neither guaranteed by law nor respected in practice. The right to leave the Soviet Union and to return is not respected. Over the past few years, several Estonians have been imprisoned for allegedly "attempting to leave the Soviet Union," including Enn Veerpalu in 1985. The right to emigrate is also severely restricted. Many Soviet Jews, for example, repeatedly have been denied permission to emigrate, and the vast majority of Estonians are not even allowed to apply. Nonetheless, in 1986 two Estonian families with relatives in the United States were allowed to emigrate after waiting many years, and on November 19, the Soviet press agency TASS announced that Kaisa Randpere, the three-year-old daughter of Estonian defectors Valdo Randpere and Leila Miller, and her mother's parents would be allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union after a two-year wait.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Soviet authorities strictly forbid all political activity outside the framework of the Communist Party.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Soviet Government rejects any foreign criticism of its human rights record, maintaining that all internationally recognized human rights are fully protected. The Government's attitude toward investigation of the human rights situation in Estonia is uncompromisingly negative and is reflected in the harassment, and occasional expulsion, of foreigners who try to cover human rights in the Soviet Union.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Language, or Social Status

Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or other grounds is prohibited in the Constitution.

Tensions between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians are always near the surface in Estonia, and they appear to be increasing as the proportion of the Russian-speaking population grows. One manifestation of this is the reluctance of Estonians to learn or use the Russian language. In 1979 only 24 percent of Estonians said they spoke Russian well, a decline of 5 percent from 1970. Furthermore, Russian speakers are often greeted with hostile glares. Both of these developments run counter to efforts by the authorities to promote the use of the Russian language. Many Estonians report that Russians, both living in and visiting Estonia, suffer frequent harassment, such as vandalism and physical and verbal abuse. Tensions between ethnic Estonians and Russians in Tartu reportedly erupted into street fighting lasting several days in October 1985.

The language problem was a significant topic at the Estonian Writers' Union Congress in April. One writer, stating that the right to use one's mother tongue in one's homeland is "the inalienable right of every people," criticized organizations and institutions in which the Estonian language was avoided. Another writer noted that the teaching of Estonian in Russian-language schools was not regarded as important. A Russian writer stated that Russian-language schools have no textbook for Estonian literature.

Women nominally enjoy the same legal rights as men. An extensive system of day-care service and maternity benefits enable women to obtain and retain employment outside the home. However, women generally hold less remunerative positions in the professions than men.


The statutory minimum age for the employment of children in 1986 was 16, and the standard workweek was 40 hours. The minimum wage was set as $112 per month at the official rate of exchange. According to the latest official data, the average wage is about $272 per month. Soviet law requires, in general terms, healthy and safe working conditions, but they usually fall short of Western standards.


* Given Soviet control over all aspects of life in Estonia, the systemic human rights abuses described in the report on the U.S.S.R. apply also to Estonia. This report discusses only instances of repression specific to Estonia.