No. 28

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Development of Democracy in Estonia: from Disclosure to the Restoration of Independence (1986–1991)

  • Peet Kask

    Physicist, Senior Researcher, Estonian branch of PerkinElmer

  • Küllo Arjakas

    Historian, Head of the Tallinn City Archives

After a depressing Communist Party dictatorship, otherwise known as the Soviet era, the second national awakening began in Estonia on the second half of 1986. This short period brought along three hugely significant revolutions: restoration of national independence (revolution in statehood), building up of democracy (revolution in social structure) and substitution of planned economy with market economy (revolution in economy). Historians specialising in recent history, and the general public, have largely concentrated their interest in the first of these, i.e. the restoration of national independence. Even this has often been treated one-dimensionally, as a one-day event; in actual fact, the state building went on for years before the events of August 1991.

The article concentrates on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The development of democracy in Estonia since 1986 can be divided into four stages: 1) the era of disclosure – July 1986 until April 1988; 2) the era of political movements – April 1988 until March 1990; 3) the era of the elected Supreme Council until the national independence was achieved – March 1990 until August 1991; and 4) the era of flawed democracy after the declaration of independence, still ongoing. The next era could be – and hopefully will be – the era of consolidated democracy. The experts of The Economist consider 8.0 as the lowest Democracy Index of a consolidated democracy. The article focuses on the first three stages of the transition to democracy. One basis for the analysis is the democracy assessment concept developed by the experts of the magazine The Economist. This has been used for indexing democracy in over 160 countries in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The Democracy Index value is calculated based on answers to 60 questions in five categories. The Economist questionnaire was applied to Estonia retrospectively, since the stagnation era, from 1986.

The Democracy Index in the Estonian SSR in mid-1980s was around 3.0. This is a typical Democracy Index of autocratic regimes; e.g. in 2012, it was 3.0 in China and Belarus, and 3.5 in Cuba. The only category where the Estonian result was paradoxically quite high was democratic political culture. In our assessment, according to answers to eight questions in that category, Estonia’s score was 7.5.

At the height of the disclosure era, we assessed the Democracy Index to have risen from 3.0 to 3.7. The rise occurred by 0.5 score points in 10 questions out of 58, and fell in only one.

By March 1990, the Democracy Index, compared to December 1987, had made an incredible rise from 3.7 to 7.5. In the category of election process and pluralism, the score had risen from 0.7 to 7.1. In the category of the functioning of the government, the rise had been from 0.1 to 4.9. Political participation was at a high point, with the index having risen from 4.4. to 8.3. (We assess the index in this category to have currently fallen to 5.6; to compare: the experts of The Economist have assessed Estonia’s index in this category to have remained steadily at 5.0 from 2006 to 2012.) The index has risen slightly in the civil liberties category, from 6.0 to 8.3. Among the 58 questions of the questionnaire, the score has decreased in only two questions and there has been progress in as many as 37.

On 20 August 1991, the Supreme Council adopted a decision on the national independence of Estonia. The development of democracy in Estonia after the independence took a whole new form. In August 1991, immediately after the independence was achieved, the Democracy Index had risen fantastically in our assessment. We assess it to have been 8.5. With this result, in 2012 we would rank 14th among the fully democratic states in the whole world.

20 years later (in 2012), The Economist assesses Estonia’s democratic index to be 7.6. This score places us among the flawed democracies. (To compare: the authors of this article assess Estonia’s democracy in 2012 to be 7.5 – quite close to the assessment of The Economist). During the six years when The Economist has been publishing the reports (2006–2012), Estonia’s democratic index has dropped very slightly (by 1.3 points).

Full article in Estonian

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