After independence from the USSR. was declared in August 1991, Estonia continued to be administered by its president and its elected parliament. Among the many initiatives of the new government were preparation of a constitution, including the protection of minority group rights; proposed negotiations with Russia over territory lost during border adjustments following the Soviet occupation of 1940; and the development of legislation that would assist in the conversion to a market economy.
A new constitution, based largely on the 1938 document that provided the basis for Estonia's pre-Soviet government structure, was approved by voters in a June 1992 referendum and came into effect in early July. Guaranteeing the preservation of the Estonian nation and its culture, this document established a unicameral legislature, the Riigikogu (state assembly), consisting of 101 members who are directly elected through proportional representation to four-year terms. The president, who serves as the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, is elected to not more than two consecutive five-year terms by the Riigikogu. (The first election under the new constitution was to have been an exception to this rule. It was to have been decided by a direct vote, but, when no candidate received the mandated majority of the popular vote, the election was decided by the Riigikogu.) Executive power rests with the prime minister, who is nominated by the president, and the Council of Ministers. The government is responsible for implementing domestic and foreign policies and for coordinating the work of government institutions.
Estonia is divided into 15 counties (maakonnad), which are divided into 255 parishes (vallad). In addition to parish governments, there are administrative bodies for 48 towns and 6 independent municipalities. The parishes are further divided into villages (kulad) and townships (asulad).
Estonia's government approved a multiparty system in 1990 and was no longer under the domination of the Communist Party of Estonia, which previously had controlled all aspects of political life.
At the forefront of the many political groups formed in the postindependence period was the Estonian Popular Front, founded in 1988. under the leadership of Edgar Savisaar and Marju Lauristin and dedicated to a fundamental restructuring of Estonian society. It was soon joined by a wide variety of political parties from across the political spectrum, including a number of single-issue parties. Shifting coalitions of these parties, however, have come to dominate not only the formation of governments in the Riigikogu but also the slates organised to contest elections. Among the most important of these coalitions are the generally conservative Coalition and Rural People's Union, which includes many former Communists; the centre-right Estonian Reform Party; the anticommunist Pro Patria-Estonian National Independence Party Bloc; the Moderates; and Our Home Is Estonia, which represents the interests of ethnic Russians.
The judiciary comprises rural, city, administrative, and criminal courts, regional and appellate courts, and the National Court, which is the court of final appeal. A legal chancellor is appointed by the Riigikogu to provide guidance on constitutional matters.
A law enacted in 1993 restructured education in Estonia and raised the level of compulsory attendance to age 17 or completion of the 9th grade. Education is conducted primarily in Estonian, but Russian continues to be the language of instruction in a number of schools.
Higher education, which under the 1993 law was restructured along Western lines, is both public and private. Notable institutions include Tartu University (founded 1632) and Tallinn Technical University (founded 1918). Scientific research has been centred at the Estonian Academy of Sciences, founded in 1938.
Health and welfare
During the Soviet period health care was available free of charge and was administered by the executive branch of government. After independence a new law on health insurance (1992) established a decentralised system of medical funding under the aegis of the Riigikogu that operated primarily on the county and municipal level.
The economic and social welfare of the population improved following the post-World War II period of reconstruction, largely as a result of substantial Soviet investment in industry and agriculture, comparatively higher levels of labour productivity, and access to undervalued natural resources and industrial raw materials. In addition, very low rates of net natural population increase during the Soviet period suggest a tendency among the population to trade increased family size for material benefits. Thus, on the eve of independence Estonians could boast of having the highest monthly salaries and the highest per capita housing allocation in the Soviet Union.
In the immediate post independence period social welfare and the standard of living declined as a result of the economic upheaval caused by the transition to a market economy.