TALLINN, Estonia - (AP) -- Estonia's Parliament on Thursday narrowly passed legislation to legalize gay partnerships, the first such decision by a former Soviet republic.
In a 40-38 vote, lawmakers approved a partnership act that recognizes the civil unions of all couples regardless of gender. Twenty-three lawmakers were absent or abstained in the third and final reading of the bill.
The new law will give those in civil unions -- heterosexual or gay -- almost the same rights as married couples, including financial, social and health benefits provided by the government and legal protection for children. It does not give full adoption rights for couples in such unions but does allow one partner to adopt the biological child of the other.
The law comes into force in January 2016, after it has been signed by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who has supported the bill.
The Estonian Human Rights Center hailed the vote as "historic," saying it would send a strong message to neighboring Russia, which passed what it called "a draconian anti-gay law" last year.
"Estonia (has) made a leap toward a society that is freer, more equal and values human rights for all," the group's director, Kari Kasper, said.
Estonia, which like Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union for almost five decades, is considered the most Western-oriented of the former republics, with a long history of cooperation with its liberal-minded Nordic neighbors.
However, there has been little tolerance of gays in the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million, particularly among the sizeable ethnic-Russian minority and in rural areas where traditional family values prevail.
The law has been under preparation for years and stirred one of the fiercest public debates since the country regained independence in 1991.