Britta Tarvis

The sixth Opinion Festival brought together 10,000 participants

Over the course of two days, 10,000 people gathered in Paide for the sixth Opinion Festival, taking part in 160 discussions spread across four areas. This year, communication culture and participatory democracy were the key themes running through the whole festival. Participants found that one of the prerequisites for a meaningful discussion is listening to each other and backing up your argument.  Photos from the festival are available here.

According to the head organizer of the festival, Maiu Lauring, the opinion festival format has been well-received in Estonia. “The festival welcomes people who have high hopes for the discussions and who come here to listen to specific topics. As well as inclusive discussion formats, participants rate content that is well-planned and diverse, and this means that discussion hosts, participants and moderators need to constantly up their game when preparing for the festival,” observed Lauring.

The festival covered a wide variety of topics – following a public call for ideas, the programme included topics that matter most to people living in Estonia, from human resources to fundamental values. Special attention was given to discussion culture and how best to participate in a democracy. One of the key thoughts to come out of the various conversations at the festival was that for democracy to be sustainable, laws and regulations need to be accompanied by shared values. Meanwhile, one of the building blocks of a healthy discussion culture is teaching people communication skills. Recordings of some of the discussions are available here, with more being uploaded soon.

The Respectful Discussion Convention is one of the ways in which the Opinion Festival is trying to build public understanding of what it means to hold a meaningful discussion. Participants who took part in a public poll at the festival found that a fruitful discussion has two main prerequisites: listening to each other and being able to back up your point with evidence. “We believe that something akin to the Respectful Discussion Convention should form the basis for any discussion, whether it takes place at the Opinion Festival or elsewhere,” said Maiu Lauring.

The festival is a collaboration between hundreds of volunteers and discussion organizers. The Opinion Festival is supported by Paide Town Government, Swedbank, the National Foundation of Civil Society, the Union of Järva County Municipalities, the European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, Telia, Ergo, Eesti Töötukassa (the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund) and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

The Opinion Festival is deeply grateful to everyone who contributed to the festival! The next festival will take place in Paide on 9 and 10 August 2019.

English-language discussions at the Opinion Festival shine a light on democracy and Baltic future

This year’s Opinion Festival will treat participants to 12 English-language discussions, ranging from topics such as national security to information warfare to the transition away from cowboy capitalism. Special attention will be paid to the nature of democracy and the future of the three Baltic countries who are all celebrating their centenaries in 2018.

Taking place for the sixth consecutive time, this year’s Opinion Festival continues a trend we have been seeing in the last few years: the 12 discussions, out of 160 discussions in total, show a rise in the number and diversity of events at the festival hosted in English and featuring international speakers.

While the English-language discussions are spread across the Festival’s six key themes (values, community, policymaking, security, employment and market, and education), participants looking for topics with an international focus are spoilt for choice in two discussion areas in particular: the Democracy Area and the Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 Area.

While nurturing participatory democracy has been at the heart of the Opinion Festival since inception, this is the first time there will be a discussion area dedicated solely to the concept and practice of democracy. The timing for the Democracy Area, hosted by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia, is not accidental: with recent landshift changes in international politics, there is hardly a better time to take a step back and think about what it means to live in and nurture a democratic society. This deep dive into the meaning of democracy also coincides with the launch of the Democracy Festivals platform earlier this year which brings together different events promoting participatory democracy in Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Latvia and Lithuania.

When on Friday the discussions will be assessing what Estonia could still learn from the Nordics, whether on the more fundamental level of social and foreign policy or when it comes to entrepreneurship, the discussions on Saturday will give participants the opportunity to expand beyond their immediate region of the Nordics and Baltics and instead explore opportunities and challenges for the whole of European civil society through the example of Poland, Hungary and Germany. Activists from these countries will share their experience and know-how. Another area of focus on the second day of the festival will be the European Capital of Culture, with several Estonian cities vying for the title for 2024.

Another area that stands out for its international focus is the Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area. As the name suggests, the area will be tackling questions about the future sustainability of the three Baltic countries. What is the financial portrait of people in the Baltics? How to give young people opportunities to fulfill themselves and in a global world encourage them to contribute to these small societies on the edge of Europe? Led by Swedbank and welcoming speakers from all three Baltic countries, there are just some of the discussions taking over two days.

Beyond these two discussion areas, other English-language events are dotted around the festivals. There will be a human library, organised by the Estonian Refugee Council, where participants can hear and engage with the stories of refugees and immigrants. Another discussion of note takes place in the Foreign Policy Area on Friday, with media and strategic communications experts from Ukraine, Finland and Estonia inviting participants to debate the issue of information warfare which is increasingly rearing its head in Europe and globally.

This year’s programme, as in previous years, has been the grassroots effort of hundreds of organisations and individuals across sectors and creeds. As such, it holds up a mirror to the main areas of interest, concern and hope for local citizens. The diversity of themes and participants in the Festival’s English-language programme is one such reflection.

You can find all the discussions and events in English programme below and here. The full programme is available here, including details of the Festival’s busy culture programme of exhibitions, parties and performances.

10 August

Are the Nordic Countries Still a Role Model for Estonians?
10 August 2018 @ 14:00-15:30
Democracy area (Demokraatia ala)
Participants: Kirsti Narinen (Ambassador, Finnish Embassy in Estonia) Taavi Rõivas (MP, Former Prime Minister of Estonia), Kai Klandorf (Executive Director, Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations)
Moderator: Christer Haglund (Director of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia)
Organizer: Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia (NORDEN)


From Cowboy Capitalism to Value-Based Entrepreneurship
10 August 2018 @ 16:00-17:30
Democracy area (Demokraatia ala)
Participants: Kati Ihamaki (Director, Sustainable Development, Finnair), Maria Wetterstrand (former spokesperson for the Swedish Green Party and parliamentarian), Raul Lättemägi (Owner, AS Advanced Sports Installations Europe)
Moderator: Annika Arras (partner et Miltton Nordics)
Organizer: Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia (NORDEN)


Human Library “Immigrants”
10 August 2018 @ 16:30-17:30
Discussion Culture area (Suhtluskultuuri ala)
Participants: Refugees, immigrants, foreigners living in Estonia
Moderator: Polina Polyakoff (NGO Estonian Refugee Council)
Organizer: Estonian Refugee Council


Manipulation and Information Warfare
10 August 2018 @ 18:00-19:30
Foreign Policy area (Välispoliitika ala)
Participants: Oleksii Makuhin (expert of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre), Raul Rebane (strategic communications expert), Anneli Ahonen (team member of EU East StratCom Task Force)
Moderator: Jarmo Mäkela (Finnish analyst with international media experience; columnist at Postimees)
Organizer: Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership


Who is the Richest – Jaan, Janis or Justas? A Financial Portrait of the Baltics
10 August 2018 @ 12.00-13.30
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area (Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038)
Participants: Kristjan Tamla (Director, Investment Funds, Swedbank), Leonore Riitsalu (NGO Rahatarkus), Vaidotas Šumskis (Chief Economist, Bank of Lithuania), Sanita Gertmane (Latvian Consumer Rights Protection Centre)
Moderator: Kati Voomets (Director, Institute for Private Finances, Swedbank)
Organizer: Swedbank Estonia


“Mina jään,” “aš lieku”,” “es palieku !” Baltic countries: A Disappearing Nation?
10 August 2018 @ 14.00-15.30
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area (Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038)
Participants: Mikk Tarros (Vice-Chairman, Estonian National Youth Council), Emīls Anškens (Chairman, Latvian Youth Council), Urtė Petrulytė (Board Member, Lithuanian Youth Council), Juris Vilums (Parliament of Latvia), Rainer Vakra (Parliament of Estonia)
Moderator: Annaliisa Jäme (Consultant, Parliament of Estonia)
Organizer:  Estonian National Youth Council

Career – Choice or Stereotype? Are the Baltics Looking for New People?
10 August 2018 @ 16.30-18.00
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area (Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038)
Participants: Kätlin Kuldmaa (Estonian UN Youth Delegate), Fredrik Nilzen (Head of Sustainability, Swedbank Group), Mari-Ann Lumeste (Counselor to the Estonian Equality Commissioner), Deepak Ahluwalia (Deputy Sales Director, Nordica), Toomas Kruusimägi (Headteacher, Tallinn English College; President, Estonian School Heads Association)
Moderator: Liisa Pakosta (Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner)
Organizer: Liisa Pakosta (Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner)


11 August

Civil Society in Europe: Who, Why and How Should Be Mobilized?
11 August 2018 @ 14:00-15:30
Democracy area (Demokraatia ala)
Participants: Miklos Marschall (founding Executive Director, CIVICUS; former Deputy Managing Director, Transparency International; former Deputy Mayor of Budapest – Hungary), Jakub Wygnański (sociologist, activist and co-founder of a number of NGOs – Poland), André Wilkens (CEO, Offene Gesellschaft; former Director, the Mercator Centre Berlin – Germany)
Moderator: Sigrid Solnik (Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation)
Organizer: Open Estonia Foundation


European Culture Capital 2024: For Whom and Why?
11 August 2018 @ 16:00-17:30
Democracy area (Demokraatia ala)
Participants: Suvi Innilä (Programme Leader, Turu 2011 European Capital of Culture – Finland) Ib Christensen (Head of Municipality Cultural Department, Aarhus 2017 – Denmark), Helen Sildna (Shiftworks; Team Member, Narva 2024 initiative –  Estonia), Berk Vaher (Bidbook Editor, Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture candidate city – Estonia)
Moderator: Laur Kaunissaare (Dramaturg, Theatre NO99; Programme Coordinator, Tallinn 2011 European Capital of Culture)
Organizer: Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia (NORDEN)


Divided We Fall, United We Stand: Is Polarisation of Societies Undermining Security of the Baltic States?
11 August 2018 @ 12.00-13.30
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area (Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038)
Participants: Dr Kęstutis Girnius (Associate Professor, the Institute of International Affairs and Political Science of Vilnius University); Dr Mārtiņš Kaprāns (Researcher, the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Latvia; Advisor, the Latvian Ministry of Culture); Dr Anu Realo (Associate Professor, the Department of Psychology of University of Warwick; Professor of Personality and Social Psychology, University of Tartu); Dr Volodymyr Ishchenko (Lecturer, the Department of Sociology of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute)
Moderator: Tomas Jermalavičius (Head of Studies and Research Fellow, ICDS)
Organizer: International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS)

Building Trends in the Baltics in 2038
11 August 2018 @ 16.00-17.30
Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area (Eesti, Läti, Leedu 2038)
Participants: Raimonds Jansons (Ambassador of Latvia in Estonia), Eneli Liisma (Head of Quality Management Department, AS Merko Ehitus Eesti), Rene Vinkler (Sales manager, Sakret OÜ)
Moderator: Kaspars Pacevics (CEO, Board Member, Sakret OÜ)
Organizer: Sakret OÜ

Learning through Activity
11 August 2018 @ 12:30-13:30
Children’s Discussions (Lastearutelud)
Participants: Lea Tornberg (Finnish teacher and creator of innovative teaching methods)
Moderator: Mario Mäeots
Organizer: Finnish Institute in Estonia

How and why should we sustain democracy for the next one hundred years? #democracyarea

For the first time in the history of the Opinion Festival, one of the discussion areas will be dedicated solely to the nature and future of democracy. The area is the brainchild of the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM)’s office in Estonia, and it is one of the gifts the organization is making for the country’s centenary. The area will be organized together with the Open Estonia Foundation, the Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association, the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and active citizen Karl Toomet.

We spoke to members of NCM Estonian office about why they decided to focus on democracy this year. Thoughts were shared by NCM Estonian office director Christer Haglund, adviser on welfare society Merle Kuusk and communication adviser Ruudu Raudsepp.

Where do we come from and where are we going?

Christer Haglund: “The recent situation in Europe may appear quite bewildering, but it is helpful to keep in mind the incredible achievements that have taken place over the past decades. Eastern European countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union are integrated into the European Union, we have seen a decrease in inequality, while overall economic and social welfare has grown. Even though Europe faces new challenges such as the rise of nationalism and issues related to migration, unity within the EU remains strong thanks to member countries sharing and following the same regulations.”

If we look back in time then the progress made has been remarkable – we have gone from a one-party state, where all civic organizations were controlled by the government and freedom of expression was restricted by harsh censorship, to a society where every person has the right to express their opinion, establish organizations and run for parliament or the local government under the party of their preference. Ruudu Raudsepp argues: “In addition to the development of representative democracy, it is important for an active civil society to flourish. As citizens there are ways to support the growth of our state beyond casting our vote every few years during elections. Participating in civic organizations, expressing our opinion and organizing events in support of causes that are close to us all play an important part in a functioning democracy.”

In recent years, we have witnessed attempts in several European countries to restrict core democratic values. For example, the ruling party in Poland tried to carry out a reform of its judiciary which would have given the country’s justice ministry the right to appoint judges to the Polish Supreme Court. What followed is testament to the strength of the Polish democratic state – Polish citizens came out en masse in protest, the Polish president vetoed the laws in question, and the European Commission proposed sanctions be placed on Poland if the laws had been implemented. After two years of intense debate, the Polish ruling party has, for the time being, decided not to enforce all of the laws planned. Similarly, Hungarian and Turkish citizens have stood against government attempts to restrict citizen rights. The fight for democracy continues to be a highly relevant topic even today.

We can all contribute to upholding democracy

In the case of Poland, Hungary and Turkey we can see clearly how civil society can contribute to preserving democratic values. However, democracy is not just a value in its own right but a democratic state gives citizens the chance to come up with better solutions together.

Civil society can remain active even in authoritarian countries. For example, the events that lead to Estonia regaining its independence from the Soviet Union (the Phosphorite War, the Baltic Way and other important initiatives) show how citizens can together fight for their rights. Currently, a similar mood surrounds the debate over plans to build a pulp mill near the country’s second largest city Tartu, but while people may have different opinions, they are able to express their feelings and opinion freely. This kind of public debate will help Estonia develop further.

The Nordic Council of Ministers’ office in Estonia organized a discussion about bioeconomy during the 2017 Opinion Festival. (Photo: Priit Jõesaar)

Christer Haglund finds the development of Estonian civil society remarkable: “Today, being an active citizen is part and parcel of belonging to Estonian society — from expressing your opinion via (social) media to setting up new movements and civic society organisations. There are organizations addressing causes from environmental protection to supporting young people with disabilities, campaigns calling for more cycle lanes, and events like the Opinion festival to create more opportunities for civic debate. These are all signs that Estonians care deeply about their society and want to take responsibility for improving and shaping it.”

In a constantly changing world where people are only getting busier, it can sometimes be hard to find time to be an active citizen but this is vital if we want to continue enjoying democratic freedoms in the future. According to one of the founders of the Democracy Festivals network, Mads Randbøll Wolff: “We have been reduced to consumers when we should have remained citizens. We need to work on democracy as a state of mind.”

One essential part of sustaining democracy is open discussion, giving people the space to freely express their thoughts. Merle Kuusk notes: “Hosting the discussions in the Democracy area together with our good partners is our contribution to the development of debate culture, critical thinking and open governance.”

Seven discussions in total will take place in the Democracy area over the two days of this year’s Opinion Festival. Three of these will be held in Estonian and four in English:

On Friday, 10th of August
12:00-13:30 The rise of populism in Europe: A correcting force or an enemy of democracy? [EST]
14:00-15:30 Are the Nordic Countries Still a Role Model for Estonians? [ENG]
16:00-17:30 From Cowboy Capitalism to Value-based Entrepreneurship [ENG]
18:00-19:30 Who is the world’s biggest defender of democracy? [EST]

On Saturday, 11th of August
12:00-13:30 Navigating the post-truth media landscape: how to consume the news discerningly [EST]
14:00-15:30 Civil Society in Europe: Who, Why and How Should Be Mobilized? [ENG]
16:00-17:30 European Culture Capital 2024: For Whom and Why? [ENG]

Follow the Democracy area event on Facebook. See you in Paide on 10th and 11th August!

Text: Opinion Festival volunteer Virve Kass
Photo: Priit Jõesaar

This year’s Opinion Festival focuses on communication culture, Baltic cooperation and the nature of democracy

The programme for the sixth Opinion Festival, taking place in Paide, Estonia, has now been unveiled, following the joint efforts of around a hundred discussion organizers. This summer, the spotlight will be on Estonian communication culture, alongside deepdives into the future of the 100-year-old Baltic countries and the nature of democracy. In total, 160 discussions will take place across 23 themed areas.

The selection of discussion topics is based on the results from the public call for ideas, held in spring. The Opinion Festival offered, in advance, keywords related to Estonia’s centenary, and all of them made it into the programme. The other ideas submitted to the festival inspired themed areas focussing on religion in Estonia, the forest, technology, health and security, and human capital. The schedule for the discussions is available on the Opinion Festival website: [you can view the selection of English-language discussions by selecting “Inglise” in the top right-hand corner].

The Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 2038 area, created at the initiative of Opinion Festival major supporter Swedbank, will be a place to discuss the mutual causes for optimism and concern that the Baltic countries share. One of the questions raised will be “Who is richer – Jaan, Janis or Justas?” , together with discussions on the various demographic and economic challenges across the three countries. Discussions reaching beyond the Estonian border will also be held in the democracy area — set up and supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers — tackling topics such as European citizens, the impact of populism, and informed consumption of the media.

According to Maiu Lauring, head organizer of the Opinion Festival, this year’s festival has seen an increase in topics which reach beyond Estonia. “Openness is one of the key values of the Opinion Festival and on that basis we have chosen discussions that would bring together the experience of various countries. There will also be more participants from other countries than in previous years,” noted Lauring. She expressed hope that this would enrich the festival experience for all participants.

This year, special attention will be paid to the discussion and communication culture in Estonia in and of itself. A snapshot of the topics addressed in the communication culture area, led by KiVa school (a school-based anti-bullying program), includes questions such as: how to communicate with each other without bullying, whether and how diversity makes us richer, and how communication culture in Estonia and Finland compare to each other. Another highlight will be a game about Estonian values.  Meanwhile, the Telia digital wisdom area will look at issues surrounding communication in cyberspace.

For the first time in the Festival’s history, the public can vote for the topic of focus for the parliamentary party leaders’ debate, which has quickly become one of the most highly-anticipated events of the Festival in recent years. The poll is available on the Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) website until early July.

The sixth Opinion Festival will take place between August 10th and 11th in Paide. The Festival is supported by the Paide City Government, Swedbank, the National Foundation of Civil Society, the Union of Järva County Municipalities, the European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, Telia, Ergo, and Eesti Töötukassa (the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund).

Motherhood – burden or privilege?

Photo: Kärt Vajakas

There are moments when debate feels like luxury. Nowhere did this seem to be more the case than when sat on a bunch of haystacks-turned-sofas in the afternoon sun in Paide, listening to a discussion on motherhood across the world. Considering that in many countries there is still little choice or discussion about whether to be or not be a mother, the NGO Mondo-organised panel felt almost outer-worldly.

Why is motherhood, experienced by nearly half of the world’s population at some point in their lives, still a contested issue? How do concepts of maternity differ from culture to culture? Could a globally-minded approach to motherhood be key to solving other global development issues?

The debate, entitled “Motherhood: a burden or a privilege?”, saw speakers from Afganistan, Finland, Somalia and Norway try to crack how to make motherhood a more fulfilling experience across cultures.

While there were no Estonian speakers in the panel, it felt highly timely to listen to a debate on motherhood at a time when the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs is proposing an elongated parenthood leave, stretching the current period of 1,5 years to 3 years. This is a world removed from the discussion’s opening remarks by Zahra Akbari, an Afghan midwife now living in Estonia. Akbari, who has delivered 6000 babies into the world, noted that in a country torn by war and conflict, any desire to become a mother is always shaded by the constant fear for safety. In such an unstable environment, questions of family planning simply cannot exist in a way similar to the Nordics or even Estonia.

The above thought was later built upon by Wali Hashi, a Finnish-Somalian journalist, suggesting that differences in political and economic system of a country determine motherhood more than any specific cultural beliefs. Even so, cultural relativity must remain part of the discussion in global development goals around motherhood. As noted by Gro Lindstad, heading the Norway-based FOKUS (Forum for Women and Development), actions to ensure sexual reproduction rights on a global scale are tied up with post-colonialism and can face lash-back if Western values are imposed too rigidly.   

Increasing women’s economic self-sufficiency is at the heart of giving women the choice to become, or not to become, mothers. The panelists scrutinised the Bangladesh micro-loan example which has allowed more women to make their own living. As a result, fertility figures in the country, once among the highest in the world, have dropped rapidly. Could a social innovation scheme across developing economies be part of a solution?

It is easy to invent master plans for world peace and equality, but implementation can be tricky. Tapping into the problematic of global ambitions and local realities, I was struck by one question by an audience member: ”How to develop a global solution rather than localised solutions?”. For Lindstad, this is something addressed in the UN’s seven new sustainable development goals. Rather than placing responsibility on certain developed economies, tainted by the spectre of post-colonialism, Lindstad opined the new goals mean that “all of us are accountable.” As for an integrated solution, comprehensive sexual education across cultures could be the answer.

Yet, as with any debate, and particularly with global development, there are no easy answers. Zainab Homam from the London-based organisation Afghan Action stressed the difficulty of bringing sexual education to her country of origin Afganistan, which could take many years before it is publicly accepted. Instead, she suggested that the emphasis should be on individual parents, rather than state or global organisations, who can teach their children about reproduction in accordance with social mores. 

But there is a global medium already shaping understandings about motherhood: social media. An increasing part of the global population now has access to mobile phones, and this number is only set to rise, particularly across developing economies. Is this what will make motherhood into a more uniform experience globally? While I ultimately remain sceptical on whether social media is the saving grace, it may indeed alleviate some of the issues around cross-cultural sexual education. Thinking about motherhood on a prickly haystack in Paide was great, but we need new versatile mediums to truly make this into a global conversation.

The panel was sponsored by the Nordic Embassies in Estonia.

How to prepare for a robot attack (on work)

Photo: Anna Markova

Robots are advancing and they are hungry for our jobs. While the narrative of man vs. machine is centuries-old, the advent of artificial intelligence has made it trendy to talk about work again and picture how it will look in the future — or if work will exist at all.

Little surprise, then, that one of the first discussions of this year’s Opinion Festival, exploring attitudes towards employment in Estonia, would attract a huge crowd. The discussion, moderated by Urmas Vaino, saw a panel of four explore a wide spectrum of issues related to work now and in the future, youth unemployment, responsibility, automatisation, and rural development as intrinsically tied up with employment.

As much as the daily drudgery (or joy) of work can feel like a constant, the way we work and think about work is ever evolving. This inevitability of change was acknowledged straight away, with the panelists offering their take on the biggest change in employment over the last thirty years. Needless to say, this has been a period of phenomenal change in Estonia as the country went from communism to full-blown capitalism following the restoration of independence. According to Toomas Tansar, head of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation, work used to be perceived as something singular, something everyone had to do no matter what. Attitudes towards work are now far more diverse, with more and more people deciding just how and how much they want to work. But with more flexibility comes more responsibility.

One train of thought running through the whole discussion is the need to prepare society and individuals for the changing landscape of work. Jevgeni Ossinovski, Estonia’s Minister of Health and Labour, argued that change is neither good nor bad, but boils down to society’s level of preparation. The introduction of self-service machines to supermarkets, for example, is part of the process of automatisation, and can ultimately free up citizens to do more creative, more fulfilling jobs. “A person’s work life ought to be fruitful and offer satisfaction to those who work,” suggested Ossinovski.

For Peep Peterson, who represents trade unions, this responsibility to prepare and reconsider is not merely societal but personal. It is “essential to rewire yourself” and be agile. However, Peterson stressed that the choice where and how to work remains a privilege for certain fractions of society. On the flip side of privilege is what Meelis Paavel, manager of Eesti Töötukassa, suggests is a more “fun”-centric approach to work, particularly among younger people entering the workforce. Paavel has increasingly encountered the attitude whereby “work should not interfere with life”, that is, workers desire less dependability on their employers and crave more freedom.

This desire for freedom and flexibility sits uneasily with Estonia’s youth unemployment: currently 39,000 young people neither work nor study. Low-paid jobs remain vacant while, as Ossinovski pointed out, the interest to work even summer jobs is on the wane. If the education system does not ramp up entrepreneurial education or vocational learning that does not ignore the looming spectre of automation, it is not nurturing the employees future economic models will desperately need. This situation intensifies in rural areas where opportunities are more sparse. Toomas Tansar argued that rather than forcing industry and vocations to rural areas, rethinking workforce mobility to urban hubs could be the solution.

Tansar also urged a poignant word of caution when acting on the changing face of work, either as state or employer. The transition to a smart, knowledge-based economic system cannot simply be willed into existence: “Let’s just do away with easy jobs and then somehow, more of those smart jobs will follow. But where will they come from?” This question, in essence global, needs to co-exist with more local and transient considerations, such as battling unemployment in former industrial powerhouses such as Ida-Virumaa or youth demotivation. 

This year’s Opinion Festival in Estonia looks beyond language

This year’s Opinion Festival will host more English-language discussion forums than ever before in the event’s four-year history. This comes part and parcel with the festival’s aim to create an inclusive space for addressing some of society’s biggest issues and welcome multilingual participants and speakers from Estonia and beyond.

Photo: Tauno Tõhk

Out of the eight discussion forums in English, three will take place on Friday, 12th August, and five on Saturday, 13th August. But in the spirit of the whole festival, the English-language offering is not about surpassing previous years at a numbers game. The aim is to offer a rich set of discussions that probe deep into local and global issues.

Topics, all housed under different themed areas, range from the future of education, to the cross-cultural meaning of motherhood, through to national identity on the eve of Estonia’s 100th anniversary.

At first glance, these may sound as different as chalk and cheese, but the common thread running through all discussions is how social progress is inseparable from the way we perceive ourselves and others. How do you create a happy society? What does Estonia mean and feel like for native and non-native residents alike? How can governments and citizens best work together?

Friday’s discussion forums will offer participants a foothold for exploration. The day kicks off with a panel on the Dutch polder model, a consensus method dating back to the medieval times and still widely used in the Netherlands. The highlight of the day is a panel titled “How strong are the Nordic countries? Strong enough to be happy!?”, which explores why there is disparity in happiness between Nordic societies and Estonia. While the discussion may satisfy Estonia’s Nordic aspirations, it promises to ask some difficult questions about tolerance, discontent and disenfranchisement—issues relevant not only in Estonia or Scandinavia but a post-Brexit Europe at large.

Estonia’s national pastime of introspection carries into the second day. On Saturday, four non-native residents in Estonia will discuss Estonia’s upcoming 100th birthday in a panel hosted in association with expat news title Estonian World. Together they will discuss whether they feel at home here and will certainly deliver on their promise to offer a “good, hard second look at the world we live in.” In a similar vein will be another discussion, this time hosted by Estonian National Broadcasting (ERR), where international journalists will be quizzed on their perceptions of Estonia.

Beyond local issues, there will be plenty of global themes for participants to delve into. On Friday, a discussion in the International Development Area asks why women’s rights and motherhood differ by culture. Saturday sees discussions as varied as world peace, building education around happiness, and why business should take corporate social responsibility seriously.

While English may be the working language for all these panels, the wealth of discussions on offer embraces the Opinion Festival’s commitment to diversity and hearty debate. In true festival fashion, they are set to provoke and challenge participants with fresh perspectives on issues near and far.

English-language discussion forums at the Opinion Festival

Friday, 12th August

Europe for Citizens area (Kodanike Euroopa ala)
How to make consensus-based decisions? – Dutch Polder Brunch
Dutch are famous for windmills, tulips, cheese, wooden shoes and…the polder model. The polder model is a process of decision-making by consensus, something that the Dutch are widely-recognized for around the world. The easiest way to describe the polder model is “cooperation despite differences.” Nevertheless, despite its apparent success, polder model includes many challenges. Is the consensus worth the time and effort? Where and how to use it for best results? Is it worth to learn to set aside differences for a greater purpose? The discussion will be translated into sign language.
Moderator: Annika Uudelepp
Participants: Mr Peter “Just ESTonishing” Kentie (Marketing Manager of Eindhoven) and Mr Jos Schellaars (The Netherlands Ambassador to Estonia)

Europe for Citizens area (Kodanike Euroopa ala)
How strong are the Nordic countries? Strong enough to be happy!?
The people and societies of the Nordic countries and Estonia differ greatly in their levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Dissatisfaction and a low level of happiness are dangerous for national security, breeding intolerance, social tensions among the people and against the state. Dissatisfaction makes Estonia smaller despite the success stories. The aim of our discussion is to identify how Estonia could increase its life satisfaction and happiness rating in future surveys. The discussion will have sign language interpretation.
Moderator: Villu Arak
Participants: Helen Russell (journalist from Denmark, author of The Year of Living Danishly), Vittersø Joar (professor of sociology and psychologist from Norway) and Bengt Lindroth (journalist and correspondent from Sweden)

International Development area (Arengukoostöö ala)
Motherhood Across the World: a Burden or a Privilege?
NGO Mondo invites you to learn and discuss about women’s rights and motherhood across the world. How come some women have the right to decide on if and when to have children and others don’t? Can motherhood sometimes become a burden too heavy to bare? Family planning, pregnancy, child birth and rearing children are viewed and valued differently, and have different political and economic implications from Africa to Afghanistan to Northern Europe. What can we learn from each other and in what ways can we help each other?
Moderator: Gustaf Antell
Participants: Zainab Homam (MD of London-based organization Afghan Action); Zahra Akbari (Afghan midwife living in Estonia), Gro Lindstad (MD of FOKUS – Forum for Women and Development), Wali Hashi- (MD of Wali Media Production Centeri; programme coordinator for the Finnish Foundation for Media and Development

Saturday, 13th August

Estonian National Broadcasting area (ERRi ala)
“What the elephant thinks of me” or “what the others think of us”
There is an old joke that upon seeing an elephant, an Estonian’s greatest concern is what the elephant thinks of the Estonian. There is no cause for alarm and there are no elephants around either, but as Tallinn University happens to host a number of journalists from various countries at the same time as the Opinion Festival is held, we will use the opportunity to ask about their perceptions of Estonia.
Moderator: Andres Jõesaar

Foreign Politics area (Välispoliitika ala)
MORNING COFFEE: What can we do for World Peace?
We are living in turbulent times – but are these really more turbulent than any other time in history? According to the UN and its development goals, humanity is in better shape than ever. Less poverty, better health and less violence than ever before (in relative terms). Is it time for us to set the bar high and aim for World Peace? In the UN´s new set of global development goals, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, peace is not in the list of 169 targets. But none of the targets are possible to achieve without peace.
Moderator: Gustaf Antell
Participants: Urmas Paet, Liene Veide, Liga Rudzite, Piet Boerefijn

Education for the 22nd Century area (22. sajandi hariduse ala)
100 Reasons to Be Happy at School
Why is it that we don’t like school? How to change this? While Estonian children do well in international comparisons, they stand out for their dislike of going to school. What may come as a surprise to many is that this is also true for Finland, a country whose school system is considered the best in the world. Is this inevitable? What are our common concerns? We will brainstorm ways to make school more enjoyable. We will look at how each one of us can contribute.
Moderator: Toomas Kruusimägi
Participants: Olli Vesterinen, Anna-Kaisa Oidermaa, Mario Mäeots, Tuuli Helind

100th Birthday of the Republic of Estonia area (Eesti Vabariik 100 ala)
Estonia 100 celebration – do non-native residents feel as hosts or guests?
Four non-native residents discuss whether they feel at home here and celebrate Estonia’s centenary on the equal grounds with the rest of the Estonian population or do they still feel as guests rather than locals in Estonia? The discussion is held in cooperation with a global independent online magazine Estonian World.
Moderator: Stewart Johnson (co-founder of Comedy Estonia)
Participants: Lili Milani (senior researcher at the Estonian Genome Centre), João Rei (digital innovation at marketing and advertising agency Idea Group),  Nithikul Nimkulrat (textile practitioner and academic, originally from Bangkok, Thailand), Ken Saburi (technical account manager at Playtech)

Social Innovation area (Ühiskondliku innovatsiooni ala)
Whose business is social responsibility?
What is Corporate Social Responsibility? By definition a company’s sense of responsibility towards the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates. Companies express this citizenship through their waste and pollution reduction processes, by contributing to educational and social programs and by earning adequate returns on the employed resources. A broader definition expands from a focus on stakeholders to include philanthropy and volunteering. But who does it and, more importantly, what do they get out of it? What is the role of the government in this? Whose business Corporate Social Responsibility really is?
Moderator: Mart Soonik
Participants: Chris Holtby (Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Estonia since January 2012), Kristiina Esop (CEO of Responsible Business Forum), Liisa Oviir (Minister of Entrepreneurship), Dan Strömberg (Chairman of the Management board of Telia Estonia)

Thoughts from the final moments of the third Arvamusfestival

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We listened and spoke up, we danced and laughed (to the beat of 90s music, no less), we connected… the Arvamusfestival may be over for this year, but it certainly will not rest and keep still, thanks to the sheer enthusiasm, ideas and collaborations it sparked.

The PISI Kärt Vajakas-1508-249third Arvamusfestival ended on a high note on Saturday evening. The final debate of the festival invited all six leaders of the Estonian parties currently in parliament (with Kadri Simson standing in for Edgar Savisaar, leader of the Centre Party) to share their vision and common goals beyond the nitty-gritty and quibbles of everyday politics. Fitting in with the several events at this year’s festival searching for a ‘story of the future’ for Estonia, the party leaders were asked to share their idea about what Estonia could and should stand for and look like by 2040.

To add a light twist to the weightier questions at the debate and the festival at large, stand-up group Fopaa! completed the programme on Vallimägi with astute jokes about whales, the meaning of ‘normal’, and new loanwords for ending a phone conversation. The night, and festival, drifted to a playful and sweaty end on Paide’s central square with the ever-popular Theatre NO99’s ‘Dance Camp’ where participants danced away to moves inspired by music videos from the lycra-loving 80s and 90s.

This year, the Arvamusfestival grew by leaps and bounds in every sense of the expression. It brought together an unprecedented 10,000 people and more over two days; by comparison, last year’s festival welcomed 4,200 people in total. Meanwhile, the programme, comprising an impressive 224 discussions on a vast range of socially relevant topics, was the result of a successful collaboration with various public institutions, NGOs and private enterprises. This was also the first year that Paide’s central square became a festival location, acting, among other things, as a hotspot for home cafés and a graffiti competition.

So, what made this weekend special, and why is the Arvamusfestival a very different and necessary kind of offering amongst the plethora of summer events taking place in Estonia?

PISI 14-08_Anna_Markova (17)-17As a first-time participant of the festival myself, I felt at complete ease from the second I visited Paide Vallimägi and witnessed the festival area for the first time. While, truth be told, that was partly to do with my love for eco-centric design, hammocks and all things cosy, I was also struck by how the divers discussion areas, all shaped differently and hosting often very different discussions, all came together in the spirit of the festival’s belief in discussing and sharing opinions.

To give you a sense of the mind-boggling number of topics just one participant can encounter in two days, here is a short list of the discussions I managed to attend, in no particular order: refugee policy in Estonia and Europe, the utility of start-ups for Estonia, urban space and new urban landmarks, ‘a year after Crimea’ and the state of European defense policy, the oft-mythical and harmful connection between alcohol and culture, apps and Estonian small businesses, animal rights in a human-centred society, the debate between party leaders. This did not even scratch the surface of the discussions taking place nor does it include the cafés visited, the people and dogs spoken to, the cultural events attended. With so much going on from Friday morning onwards, it felt like I had always been a part of the festival, and this feeling only grew as the Arvamusfestival went on.

PISI 1508_Anna_Markova (23)But mostly, I was inspired by the people at the Arvamusfestival. The seven hundred participants in the discussion panels, the thousands of participants in the audience, and the three hundred festival volunteers. The Arvamusfestival involves everyone in discussing, questioning and acting on topics close to Estonia and Europe – and the thoughtful way the discussions were run, the abundance of constructive questions and the lack of any awkward silences (…and this in a country that often feels like the birthplace of the awkward silence) showed that a place for healthy discussion matters, and that active citizenship is no longer a thing of dreams, but alive and rather well in Estonia.

Thank you, and see you again (or for the first time) next August!

A short guide to the dogs attending the festival

When the Arvamusfestival says it is open to everyone in Estonia and beyond, one’s first thought usually would not to extend beyond the human species. But when we say inclusive, we mean inclusive: the festival was one of the first in Estonia to allow dogs to attend. You can set your eyes on a dashing dog at almost every discussion and around every corner. 

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Note: this is not Muki who preferred to remain unphotographed. Photo: Kärt Vajakas

When I set foot in the official ‘pooch park’ of the festival, I found two festival volunteers ready to attend to dogs wanting to rest from the hustle and bustle of the festival… but no dogs. Where were all the dogs? At the festival, of course! I spoke to Muki (or well, his owner), a charismatic but camera-shy creature attending both days of the festival. As Muki prefers the company of people to other dogs, he chose to experience the festival proper all through the two days. Muki is not the only one too excited about the festival to take a breather – the dogs participating in the festival are often present at the discussions themselves or strolling around the tiny lanes and paths around Vallimägi and town centre.

What kinds of dogs have found their way to the festival, and what are they looking for?*

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The Dedicated Fan

 If you can’t already tell by the stern look, this dog means serious business, and is here to soak up on all the discussions have to offer. I spotted their motley fluffy coat at several discussions about start-ups. While thinking big thoughts, is sure to impress everyone around – but they are too focused to notice that they are making a fuss.

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The First-Timer

The First-Timer is very excited to be at the Arvamusfestival, and though it is their first time here, they are certain to return again next year… and the one after the next, and the one after that. In fact, they are so excited about everything happening that they hardly make it to any discussions. Because there is so much to explore, so much to grasp, so many friends to see, to even think about standing still! And they love every bit of it.

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The Chill Dog

They love the ambience in Paide and make good use of the hammocks dotted around the festival area. This is also a great way to mingle with friends old and new, and soak up the discussions from a reclined position and with a relaxed mind. Let ideas drift through you and truly feel the festival.

 Arvamusfestival 2015;

The Adventure Seeker

Although there are well over 200 discussions taking place at the festival, they seem to have attended a good quarter of them. And the morning yoga. And the Black Poodle party last night (but that one mainly to see why it was named after poodles when smaller dogs are obviously the better breed). There is no way to explain it: some dogs simply manage to do everything.

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The Hipster

Alright, this goat is technically not a dog, but they like to be the face of ‘different’, even among the fourlegged kind attending the festival. They represent the new directions the festival is taking. Just like the festival welcomes a true mix of people, the animal scene shows just how colourful and vibrant the Arvamusfestival 2015 is.

*Please note that these are the mere speculations of the author of the piece, and do not represent the personalities of the individual dogs depicted .

Three reasons to wake up at the Arvamusfestival instead of your home

AF_threereasons_Anna_MarkovaIf your feet have recovered from all the retro dancing at the Must Puudel (Black Poodle) party last night or your ears have stopped humming from the mellow sounds of Vaiko Eplik and Eliit, then welcome – you have woken up to enjoy the sundrenched second day of the Arvamusfestival.

To make it, and you, feel even more glorious, here are three reasons why Paide is the place to be this morning:

1. Chance to take a moment.

This is a festival that is in constant movement as new areas and home cafés spring up while old areas feel transformed with every new discussion. To allow for peaceful thoughts to happen, yoga at 7:30 in the Mäeala (or the Hill Area) offered participants a chance to wake up with the Sun Salutation and slowly stretch their body into high spirits. For those of us who were not such early birds, the Festival offered Minutes of Silence, a trip into your body and breathing through exercises at mindfulness. Keeping that feeling of calm with us as we entered another day of exciting thoughts, we followed the mantra from one participant: ‘I am going to have a brilliant day’.

2. New friends from unexpected places.

Although there are no inhabitable houses on the Paide Vallimägi, that does not mean there is a shortage of residents eager to meet you here from the moment you found yourself at the festival area this morning. There is a family of storks keeping an eager lookout atop some old ruins just next to the café area. Do not fear their watchful gaze and take pleasure in their comforting local presence. You can also make new (human) friends from 11:00 to 13:00 at the Mäeala (Hill Area) which transforms into the ‘Meeting Place.’

3. Awesome talks straight from the morning.

As the festival means business (that is, opinion business), we were off to a passionate and thoughtful start with the MEP discussion about the European Union’s policy towards Russia, contemplating the possibility of co-operation with Russia. Other discussions welcomed eager participants from 10:00 onwards, to think about topics of all shapes and sizes, from measuring the pulse and blood pressure of active citizenship in the Voluntary Sector Growth area to contemplating the meaning and level of digital poisoning in the Digital Education area.

Start-ups in Estonia: should society fear or embrace them?

Estonia has long dedicated itself to building a reputation as a haven for all things tech, encapsulated by the witty if tongue-twisting label ‘e-Estonia.’ But have we become slightly too bewitched by flashy interfaces and uber-cool brands to think critically about the exact effects of start-ups disrupting entire industries before governments can even react? Two discussions at this year’s festival asked just that.

The Festival of Opinion Culture has dedicated several themes and discussion areas to technological innovation, with several of these taking a long hard look at the wider socioeconomic effects of start-ups on other industries, jobs and regulations. The phrasing of two such discussions, ‘What’s the Use of Start-Ups to Estonia? in the Enterprise Area and ‘Are Apps Devouring Estonian Small Businesses?’ in the Postimees Area, both bring negative, or at least sceptical, viewpoints to the spotlight. For a country that promotes itself with a photo of a young woman surfing the internet while sitting on a haystack, this could be a healthy signal that we are getting away from a blind admiration of tech specs and savvy marketing slogans to actually engaging with the close connection between our tech scene and society.

Kärt Vajakas-1408-110In the Enterprise Area, the focus was on the viability of start-ups for Estonian enterprise culture at large. What is a start-up – and why does it need or want to be called one? Are start-ups solving problems that call for urgent attention, or are they too infatuated by their own ideas and make up problems to suit their needs, as suggested by one of the participants, Margus Uudam? Scepticism aside, one take-away from the discussion was that start-ups are delicate creatures, masterminded and developed by ambitious people, but they do not necessarily need to make a profit to be useful for Estonian economy.

Although named even more provocatively than the previous offering, the overall consensus at the discussion in the Postimees Area was equally positive, bringing the discussion back again and again to ‘customer experience.’ This seemed to be less from a love of marketing jargon than a genuine belief that apps have revolutionised traditional industries such as transport and hospitality in the name of consumer comfort and availability. As Kadri Hansalu from Postimees noted, ‘But at the end of the day, someone must bring about such change in any case.’

However, the newly adopted creed of start-ups, that ‘customer is king’, was not given such an easy pass by all involved. Are start-ups like Uber and middlemen that take income and control away from actual service providers, increasingly reliant on customer ratings rather than accredited regulators? Do they merely make service less controlled and safe? Then there is the issue of market specificity – Verni Loodma, representing Hotell London in Tartu, suggested that ever-powerful apps such as are often far removed from the many markets they operate in, particularly in the case of small countries like Estonia. Not knowing the market context can in turn lead to factual errors in the app’s descriptions and comparative methods that may harm the popularity of a given hotel. Service providers are left stranded as the process of getting things fixed is often unacceptably slow.

Having said that, the pressure to get better reviews can be conducive to becoming better at what you do, raising the bar for the industry in general. One thought that echoed throughout the discussion was that a ratings culture works to empower ordinary customers, an update perhaps long overdue.

Enn Metsar from Uber emphasised how important scale is for start-ups: to create a great app, one needs resources and a global market to support further development. In a similar vein, Tõnu Runnel from summed this up with a jocoserious statement: ‘You can’t make an app in the same way as a chicken hatches an egg.’ And if innovation wants to happen and customers support it, society will need to follow and regulate it in hindsight.

This realisation guided the discussion as Kadri Hansalu emphasised that ‘innovation is in our blood.’ Generation Y is more attuned to the necessity and reality of change, which makes the streamlined but often more personalised customer experience offered by apps appear as a natural and positive development. While Verni Loodma remained convinced that certain customers will always prefer the comforts of a hotel to new app-enabled services such as Airbnb, the effect of a generational difference on how we like – and more importantly, will like – certain services remained largely unexplored.

Are innovation and their stronghold of supporters simply waiting for all the nay-sayers to catch up? As Tõnu Runnel strikingly put it, while certain popular start-ups may feel like the future now, they will inevitably change and fade with time: ‘Monopolies spring up, grow, and die.’ So, even as we think if we should embrace or fear the start-ups of today, whether as individuals or governments, innovation and change are ongoing and will all the same take us to unexpected places.


The Festival of Opinion Culture off to a spirited start

The third Festival of Opinion Culture has been spreading its wings on Paide Vallimägi since early this week, and is now fully flight-ready.

The festival has been bustling since the early hours of the morning, when the finishing touches were put to the 40 themed discussion areas to make them as colourful and conducive to great thoughts and discussions as possible. By now, the hills of Vallimägi have become alive with participants, big and small, local and from other parts of Estonia, human and four-legged. Thoughts have been echoing in the valleys of Paide since the first, packed discussion at the Oru area began at 11:00 which discussed the ‘state of the country’ and broadcast live on Radio 2. A full day of discussions, from the morals of AI to immigration in Estonia, has commenced.

The Festival of Opinion Culture is also a place where the appearance of the festival follows from the innovative and creative spirit of the discussions themselves. You can ponder about education while sitting on haystack seats at the Village of Community Schools area, or let yourself be enveloped under the cool shade of the honey-comb roof at the Urban Space area, made completely out of fully recycled cardboard boxes. Or, if you need to take a moment to let the thoughts from your latest discussion whirl around in your mind, there are crazy quilts and hammocks dotted around the festival, always ready to welcome you. As the best thoughts come with good food, the festival’s café area is full of delicious smells and flavours, from gourmet burgers to rhubarb ice cream and lemonade.

Let thoughts, opinions and ideas fly for the next two days in all possible directions, into your minds, hearts and future ventures. Let the festival begin!

Photo credit: Sven Tupits (