The opinion festival called Arvamusfestival about fundamental rights and freedoms awaits for ideas to debate

The eight Arvamusfestival is going to take place in the summer and they are gathering ideas from today until the end of February. On the 100th birthday year of the Estonian constitution, the festival focuses on fundamental rights and freedoms but other topics are also welcome. 

The program welcomes discussions that focus on freedoms, rights and responsibilities, pay attention to different age groups and unravel the pains of ensuring equal rights for all members of society. The idea collection begins today, January 31, and runs until midnight on February 29. The ideas can be submitted on the website of Arvamusfestival.

“The more important ideas that are submitted, the more diverse the program of Arvamusfestival is,” said the festival leader Kaspar Tammist. “We want everyone to find a reason from the festival schedule to come to Paide in August, listen, think along and have their say,” he added. 

The discussions of Arvamusfestival are an opportunity to introduce an unknown topic, identify a problem, seek consensus between known positions, come up with new ideas and solutions, analyze what has been done and share experiences. The festival is also a good place to come up with concrete proposals for further action as a result of the debate. Discussions will be held in Estonian, English and Russian.

Ideas for discussion can be submitted by individuals as well as organizations. The festival expects the submitter to be ready to organize the debate, cooperate with other discussion organizers and to jointly cover the costs of organizing the debate.

Arvamusfestival brings together people from different communities who care about Estonia and the world to develop a better understanding of themselves, each other and the world through a balanced discussion. The eighth festival will take place on August 14 and 15 in Paide and eelarvamusfestival in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice on June 15 in Tallinn. The festival is free for visitors.

The festival is supported by the City of Paide, the Ministry of Justice, the Active Citizens Foundation, the Järva County Municipalities Association, the Civil Society Endowment, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities and by Telia.


Additional information

Kaspar Tammist
the Leader of the festival

Podcast: looking back at the Opinion Festival 2019

This was a memorable Opinion Festival / Arvamusfestival 2019, filled with discussions on every topic under the sun. This podcast captures some of the matters for discussion over the two days of the festival, with recorded highlights from talks given in Paide, exclusive interviews with discussion participants, and with volunteers for the festival team.

Don’t forget that anyone can suggest a discussion, so if you would like your topic to be part of the Opinion Festival 2020, contact us by email, on Twitter, or on our Facebook page, and the same goes for if you would like to join our happy team of volunteers. We’re always looking for enthusiastic people who want to help make the Opinion Festival the best democracy festival it can be, so we’d love you to join us!

ERR News discussion: immigration in Estonia

By Helen Wright

Is immigration to Estonia a benefit, a threat, or neither? The panel for the talk ‘Immigration in Estonia: Benefit, natural necessity or threat?’, which was lead by ERR News’s Andrew Whyte, discussed how and who should control migration, attitudes towards immigrants, and integration of Estonia’s migrant communities.

Foreign Minister and Isamaa Riigikogu member Urmas Reinsalu called immigration a “rising issue” which is increasingly important to people.

CEO of HML Project Management Leo O’Neill said his home country Ireland looked at migration in a different way. It was encouraged; “we needed more people,” he said. He also suggested the issues around migration were “about colour”. This was something Reinsalu denied, arguing it was about the preservation of a small nation. The “core idea is that we ourselves, our elected bodies, will decide,” he said.

O’Neill also said that politicians needed to lead by example and create a good atmosphere around discussions of migration. “At the moment it has that sort of really anti-migrant and negative feel in the public [conversation].” Peep Peterson, Head of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation, agreed and saying people have to work together and that it was “unfortunate that there was a sense of racism” in Estonia. He also said that Ukrainians working in the country could help Estonians to see them as individuals and “normal people”.

Peterson said he supported plans that the government were working on to join up companies and who works for them to get a better picture of the economy.

Riigikogu member for EKRE Anti Poolamets said there were enough people in the European Union and more people did not need to be brought in from third countries. He also said that more people should come home and not work abroad.

Are cities working for us?

When talking about smart cities, there’s a need to focus in on specific problem and solutions, given that it is such a broad subject matter with so many potential tangents. The panel on the talk by the Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences, ‘Rethinking the Smart City’, understood this, and looked at how various technological and non-technological solutions could help society in a city context.

Jacqui Taylor, a UK security expert, said, “only 9% of security professionals in the world have any experience in any business. Deep-dive cyber. No experience in what we’re talking about.” She said that the difficulty for many was putting theory into practice, and that there was a need to phrase and plan technological solutions in terms of the problems they would solve for people living in population centres, and in terms of their value to society, while still not compromising privacy.

Teet Raudsep, Head of Customer Experience at Ülemiste City, the Tallinn business district that he said had been built entirely using private funding, stressed the need for any solutions to have a problem in mind, along with value for all. “It has to take into account what the solution is going to solve. I talked earlier about the parking solution. You can see somewhere here [on show at the festival] a snow robot, that will probably be cleaning our parking lots next winter. This is right now a nice-to-have thing, it doesn’t bring us money back directly, but indirectly people feel better in their environment.”

“The solution has to bring some value to the end user, it has to be sustainable from the perspective of finances. Also we want to bring solutions that are not tech solutions, but help the environment, such as plastic bags. There was an initiative in Ülemiste City to change plastic boxes to reusable boxes, for example. We need to change the mindset of everyone to how it is possible to help the environment with the choices they make. It’s not enough to be tech-savvy, there are thousands of tech solutions we could implement, but it doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t have any value.”

Grete Arro, a Research Fellow at Tallinn University and a member of urban community organisation Telliskivi Selts, talked about the factors that can decide whether people are happy or unhappy living in a city, and what can change life for the better. “Researchers in Berlin,” she said, “found that the further from nature people were, the more susceptible to stress they were. When the city is green, it buffers you from being unhealthy if you are poor.”

The audience was keen to get answers to their questions, and in answer to one, Jarek Kurnitski, an academic at Taltech, pointed out the need for change in Tallinn’s public transport infrastructure, and also Estonia’s. “In the Estonian context, 60% of smart city issues are related to transport. It’s really a bottleneck we have now. It’s not just an infrastructure issue, we need to build new roads, new trams tracks, but also it’s the capacity of buses and trams, and it’s about routing.”

“The evidence base is not often used in planning in Tallinn, most routes start off from one side of the city and will go to the city centre, but let’s say from Pirita to Mustamae, one side to the other side, if people lose 15 minutes from one side to the other, changing transport, they won’t bother with that. When I’m driving to Taltech , I take the car and sit in traffic jams, but what would persuade me to take the bus would be if there were a bus connection from Pirita to Mustamae, if capacity were increased by 20-30% to have less people on buses, shorter intervals, and air conditioning. If buses don’t have air conditioning, don’t expect people to switch from their car, which does. Public transport should provide exactly the same or better quality than private transport.”

The Youth of Europe – is what we want, what we get?

By Helen Wright

The panel The Youth of Europe – is what we want, what we get? discussed the expectations and political realities of young Europeans. The topics discussed are some of the biggest faced by young people today.

Political Participation of Young Europeans

Kristen Aigro, Networks Coordinator at the Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation, believes that young people are being left behind when it comes to policy making. This is because there are fewer young people in society. She believes there voting age should be lowered. Gustaf Göthberg, member of the Swedish Moderate Party who joined a political party when he was 12, said that not everyone should follow what he did and that technology has given people more options. Adding that it is possible to change to society for the better “even if you don’t wear a suit”.

Klen Jäärats, Estonia’s Director for EU Affairs, said politics is becoming younger referencing France’s President Macron but said parties are a limiting factor, with an inflexible world view. He suggested that new civic platforms, such as social media, give people more choices and said that young people should be included because they have the best understanding of how technology is changing politics. Luukas Ilves, head of strategy at Guardtime, said there should be many different ways for young people to get into politics.

Liberal Values

Moderator Johannes Tralla said that a poll in Estonia has shown that young people in Estonia showed high support for right-wing party EKRE, which goes against the idea that young people are liberal and progressive. Gustaf Göthberg said that young people did not think in one particular way and should not be thought of as one big homogenous group. He said in Sweden being conservative is trend. Young people claim to be conservative but don’t advocate for conservative policies. Kristen Aigro said one reason for the increase in support for conservative parties is that “politics as usual is not what appeals to people, [they are] looking for an alternative”. Luukas Ilves said you can find both 25 year olds and 65 year olds who are unhappy and worried about the future in the countryside, which is where a large part of disaffected voters are found. Klen Jäärats said diversity is a core European value.

Climate Change

Should the EU reach climate neutrality by 2050? Klen Jäärats said people need to realise what this really means, and how it will affect everything from transport to what we eat. There could also be big opportunities for Estonia especially regarding technology. “Fundamentally it’s a questions about us because we humans are the problem,” he said.

Luukas Ilves said one of the questions for countries like Estonia is what can young people do outside of politics. The questions should not just be left up to politicians but what can companies or NGOs do? Gustaf Göthberg praised 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s activism and making people discuss these issues, but said young people needed to get involved with policy making not just protests. Kristen Aigro said young people had no choice but to get involved and that Thunberg has voiced a lot of young people’s anger at politicians who are not acting quickly enough.


Discussing fake news and technology regulation, Gustaf Göthberg said there should be a European-wide solution to the regulation of technology platforms – such as Facebook – and the resulting legislation. Klen Jäärats agreed that there should be an EU-wide solution and that technology can be good and bad. Luukas Ilves said the approach we’ve taken so far should be evaluated as existing regulations are not working very well. Kristen Aigro working inclusivity with other countries is the way forward and the internet has helped that. Klen Jäärats said the gig-economy may have an effect on how people vote in elections.

The debate at the Estonian Opinion Festival was supported by European Commission Europe for Citizens programme and is part of the EU Solutions Lab project. Similar debates also take place in Latvia, Lithuania and Belgium democracy festivals.

The future of NATO

By Helen Wright

Panellists: Deputy Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of Estonian Parliament
Marko Mihkelson, commanding Officer in the British Army Paul Clayton, CEO of the Estonian Wind Power Association Anu Eslas (who has a background in defence), research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security Kalev Stoicescu, with Taavi Toom acting as moderator.

At 70, NATO is technically a pensioner. But the panel members at The Future of NATO discussion on Friday afternoon agreed that the alliance is in good health. “70 is the new 50 or 30,” joked Marko Mikkhelson.

Subjects covered by the panellists included cooperation, integration, member states’ defence spending, threat assessments, Russia, and the future relationship between NATO and China.

Panellists agreed cooperation between member states has been strengthened after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. They discussed the view that members further west had realised that Russia poses a threat to the alliance, as opposed to this being simply a case of eastern members simply being paranoid. Now, one of the biggest challenges the alliance faces in the future is how all the members cooperate with each other with their equipment and technology.

Looking ahead, the panellists agreed they did not see the threat posed by Russia diminishing anytime soon, and maybe not for the next 50 years. Kalev Stoicescu said Europe will have to be in charge of its own defence, especially if the United States becomes more involved in other regions of the world.

While discussing the role China plays in NATO’s defence, Paul Clayton said it was possible China could place some of its military in Africa to protect its investments. This would put China in direct conflict with some European NATO members interests in the region.

What are the roots of inequality, and how can we deal with it?

‘Diversity – A Tool for Sustainable Success’ was a talk at the Opinion Festival/Arvamusfestival, organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia, along with the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, and the Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation. It looked at the concept and practice of diversity within and outside of Estonia, from the perspective of what moderator Annika Arras termed “the global village”.

The panel’s discussion was directed not only at identifying and offering potential solutions to any perceived problems in Estonia, but also at taking perspectives from people of different ages and backgrounds. Ahmed Abdirahman is a Swedish man of Somali ancestry, who spoke of how New York City was the first place he had visited outside of Sweden, and he could instantly feel as a young man that there was far greater diversity in New York.

While Abdirahman has made a success of his career in Sweden, having returned there to work, he felt there were systemic and unconscious biases that often prevented ethnic-minority applicants from getting jobs. However, as he relayed, the response, rather than stating the rejection was in any way due to race or background, was often for the recruiter to simply say, “thank you for the application.” He suggested that this was often down to bias against wanting to employ members of particular ethnic groups, and pointed this out as one of the key matters for governments to address under the banner of diversity.

Estonian politician Jevgeni Ossinovski of the Social Democrat party (SDE) was another member of the panel. He said, “diversity is a nice word to discuss, but it’s a different side of the same process to discrimination. Diversity gives you a warm feeling, and you don’t [feel as though you] have to talk about discrimination, which is nasty. It’s like how talking about prosperity is good because you [feel you] don’t have to talk about poverty. When you talk about diversity you shouldn’t forget to talk about discrimination. The fight for diversity, or against discrimination, fundamentally, is not about economic gain. It’s about fundamental freedoms, equality, ethics. Even if the economic gains are not there, we should still fight for diversity.”

Some believe that there are generators of inequality in Estonia in the system of applying for jobs. For example, in Estonia it is not required for companies in the private sector to list the recommended salary for vacancies. According to anecdotal evidence, there is a chance this leads to women nominating themselves for a lower salary than men when asked what they expect to earn in an interview. In answer to a question about this, Ossinovski, who prior to his most recent ministerial role as Minister for Health, had been the Minister for Gender Equality, said he had spoken up for this and other measures while in government.

“My ideas were presented to Cabinet, and I remember at the time there was one female minister. A colleague said, ‘what gender pay gap? I don’t see a gender pay gap.’ You get the picture as to why nothing is moving in that direction. It was a big fight, but I fought for half a year with the Ministry of Finance so they include in their Public Service Yearbook a section on gender equality. They measured different professions, age, whatever other characteristics, but they didn’t measure gender, because we ‘didn’t have a problem with gender.’ It’s a very, very conscious bias, they didn’t want to deal with the issue, but in the public sector now things are getting much better, partly because they know they’re going to be monitored.”

“When I tried to touch the private sector just a little bit, the backlash was incredible. In Estonia, when you open CV Keskus [the job-searching platform], you can filter out anybody. You can say, you’re looking for a Russian, young, girl. I wanted to say that you’d disallow these selections in the first round at least. Of course it turned out to be an ‘infringement on the entrepreneurship in this country’, and my fantastic coalition partners at Isamaa didn’t support it. If you think about it further, in terms of social value, the political situation has soured since then, which is why nothing has been done, and probably won’t be for a long time.”

Anu Realo, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, listening to the discussions in the talk, cautioned against use of the term ‘unconscious bias’ to describe ingrained prejudice in individuals or society. “‘Unconscious bias’ has been a buzzword for a few years now. As a psychologist I’m not enthusiastic about [the word], if I may say – I think it’s one of the concepts where, when we talk about it, it allows us to justify discrimination in a way, and think we’re becoming better people by discussing and noticing it.”

“To be honest, research doesn’t really support it, because among individuals it’s not a stable characteristic. I may have biases this afternoon, but then you could test me tomorrow morning and I may not, or I may have different ones. I’m not saying there are not unconscious biases, but it’s not a stable characteristic, and we don’t have enough research to show it exists. It’s only important if it’s going to show something. We should know our biases, and address them, without calling them unconscious.”

The international community can have a say, too!

This is a guest post from Open Estonia Foundation. Mari wants to make sure that as many of Estonia’s international residents as possible come to Paide for the English discussions at the Opinion Festival. Above: photo by the talented Kristin Kalnapenk, taken this May at Club of Different Rooms (Erinevate Tubade Klubi), Tallinn at the debate “What Future for Europe?” by Open Estonia Foundation in cooperation with Estonishing Evenings and Estonian World. There were close to 150 people at the venue from 27 different nations!

For the full English festival programme, check our schedule, unticking the boxes for “Eesti” and “Vene”.

For the past few years, Open Estonia Foundation has been reaching out to both Estonians and its international community, setting its goal to offer English-language discussions at the Opinion Festival.

In the times of disinformation and fake news attacks, we believe it best to rely on people who are directly involved – whether it is their struggle for the survival in shrinking civic space in Hungary or Poland (feel free to watch out last year’s debate HERE) or the reasons for people relocating from neighboring Russia to Estonia (discussion in Russian) the year before.

This year, our discussion focuses on the equilibrium between expectation and reality in EU affairs, from the youth point of view. To give it a bit of international flair, we’re glad to introduce Gustaf Göthberg, a 25-year old member of the Swedish Moderate Party, who also ran for a seat in the European Parliament elections and was the first runner-up. A young conservative himself, he will try to make his point in the future decisions the EU has to make in his opinion. He will also tackle the point of why a large number of youngsters are turning to conservative ideas. However, Göthberg presents the so-called “bright side” of conservatism, open to other cultures and ideas and, of course, respecting human rights. He also boasts a wonderful sense of humour and a relaxed presence at stage.

(To follow the discussion live stream when it takes place, use this YouTube link – ed.)

He will be accompanied by Kristen Aigro from the Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation – human rights activist and youth leader within civil society, she has campaigned for lowering the voting age and youth turnout both in her native Estonia and on European level. Luukas Ilves, with his broad expertise on everything digital will comment on the technological challenges we’re going to have to face in the next decades both in Estonia, Europe and on a global level. And Klen Jäärats, the Director for European Union Affairs at Estonian Government Office European Union Secretariat, will offer his insights on what makes sense in the EU, and what doesn’t.

The man in charge of which way the conversation goes will be journalist Johannes Tralla from Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) who spent 6 years as spent six years as Estonian correspondent in the heart of Europe in Brussels. Like Politico magazine stated: “For most Estonians, more than any politician, Johannes Tralla is the face of the EU.”

We’re also going to engage the audience, using Estonian-founded digital platform WorksUp and hoping that the digital nation will actively use it for the Q & A! This enables us to collect questions from viewers online as well.

The debate at the Estonian Opinion Festival is supported by European Commission Europe for Citizens programme and is part of the EU Solutions Lab project. Similar debates take also place in Latvia and Lithuania.

Shortly after the discussion at Eesti 2035 stage, at 18:00 on Eesti Maailmas (Estonia in the World) stage, Executive Director of the Open Estonia Foundation Mall Hellam will moderate a discussion on the European Citizen Initiative as a tool for active citizens to shape policies on EU level. However, the ECI has its weak points, and hasn’t therefore exactly enjoyed real success so far. What should be done about it and what’s going to change in January 2020?

ECI Team Leader from European Commission, Pascal Herry; Marta Pardavi from one of the most prominent human rights organizations Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Estonian civil society activists Pirkko Valge (Good Deed Foundation) and Martin A. Noorkõiv (Domus Dorpatensis, NENO) will discuss.

Open Estonia Foundation has been with the festival since its very first baby steps, offering financial support for a kick-start in the first years and seeing the festival’s independent success over the past few. We are happy that the festival has managed to create a platform where people meet eye-to-eye and contribute to the creation of a healthier and more respectful opinion culture. This year, there are 9 discussions in English – 7 on Friday and only 2 on Saturday. We believe that the more we can engage the people who have voluntarily chosen Estonia as their temporary or permanent home, the better for our society as a whole. Barriers can be broken; friendships (or at least cooperation and respect) could be built.

Hence – we are hoping for an in-depth discussion, in which the Estonian international community could take part, with English as the logical lingua franca. Perhaps a few discussions in the future could also be organised by members of the international community living here? There is plenty of scope for progress.

Why the Opinion Festival matters more than ever

As another Opinion Festival rolls around, it might be tempting to say that it’s served its purpose, and that having been taking place in Paide since 2011, it’s now a reminder of a kinder, gentler, bygone age. Not so.

The Opinion Festival, or Arvamusfestival (either name is okay) continues to bring debates to people who may otherwise not have heard them, to pull people out of their social media bubbles, to change their environments and bring a new understanding of someone else’s ideas. And if it doesn’t do that, it at least means members of the public can ask direct questions of public figures, on any from a raft of issues, rather than sending emails, or having a terse exchange online.

Below is the first Opinion Festival/Arvamusfestival English podcast. It’s a discussion with Riina Sikkut (called Riina Soobik in error in the introduction, sincere apologies), a former Minister for Health and Social Affairs with the Social Democratic Party, and Kertu Birgit Anton, a climate change activist. There will be more podcasts and related content throughout the festival.

“The vision of the Association is to revitalise democracy by strengthening the link between a political system and citizens as well as creating spaces for dialogue and participation,” Zakia Elvang, Chair of the Democracy Festivals Association, said, explaining the mission of the Opinion Festival and others that came before and subsequently. In the political and social climate, not only in Estonia but also around the world, we surely need that more than ever.

On this blog, through the course of the festival weekend, we will be writing about the discussions and debates that are had, and also the chance meetings and moments of clarity that often come at the Opinion Festival. You’re welcome to contact us, through Twitter @arvamusfestival, or on Facebook.

Opinion Festival in English

This year’s Opinion Festival will be taking place on the 9-10th of August in its traditional place right in the heart of Estonia – the lovely town of Paide. The main theme of the Opinion Festival 2019 is FUTURE.

If you are an opinionated, forward-looking, debate-seeking foreigner that does not yet speak the Estonian language, then fear not, we have got you covered. During the two days, there will be plenty of discussions taking place in English at Arvamusfestival to accommodate your need to speak up and think freely. Everything from sustainability to politics, with a side-dish of the economy. Schoolchildren won’t be left out either – there will be a discussion about the youth of Europe, as well as one on the topic of interpersonal skills. Take a look for yourself at the list below. The festival is free for visitors.

Friday, 9th of  August

12.00-13.30 Trash Heroes – an artistic initiative for a better city

Trash Heroes combines art and environmental awareness with having fun together. They bring up values essential to a better future through dance, music, green energy, recycling, and environmentally-friendly vehicles. The plan is simple: 1. cruising around with custom-made cargo bikes, 2. cleaning up areas to make them better for dancing, 3. dancing, 4. moving on to next destination. The cargo bikes have percussions, DJ-sets and sound systems, all powered by solar energy. Ride on! Participants: Antti Lahti (artistic director of Time of Dance Festival in Jyväskylä), Panu Varstala (founding member of Apinatarha dance collective). Moderator Karoliina Korpilahti. 

13.30-14.45 Diversity – a tool for sustainable success

Discussion is about the benefits of diversity for different types of organizations. Diverse workforce brings along open-mindedness and helps to grasp all potential business opportunities. Why diversity brings various benefits? Are Nordic and Baltic companies realizing this competitive edge? Participants: Piia Karhu (Finnair), Anu Realo (Tartu Ülikool), Kaire Tero (Rimi Eesti Food AS). Moderator Annika Arras (Miltton New Nordics). 

14.00-15.30 The Future of Nato

2019 marks the 70th Anniversary of the North Atlantic Alliance and 15 years of Estonia’s membership in NATO. It’s a good moment to look at current and future challenges to the Alliance. What are the key issues, risks and threats the Alliance is facing in the future? How is the nature of threats evolving and what should be our response? The discussion is organised in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Embassy of Germany in Estonia. Participants: Marko Mihkelson (Chairman of the Council of EATA), Colonel Paul Clayton (eFP commander of the British Army in Estonia), Anu Eslas (Member of Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association and long-term representative of Estonia at the NATO Industrial Advisory Group), Kalev Stoicescu (International Centre for Defence and Security). Moderator Taavi Toom.

Video: British Embassy Tallinn

15.00-16.15 What is the future-proof economic model?

Consumption is the fuel for economy – how will the business do in the post-growth economy? Is circular and bioeconomy the right vehicle? Is it possible really to detach growth from resource consumption? Some socio-economic studies refer to new alternatives. These are crucial issues for politicians, social scientists, economists and entrepreneurs. Participants Kristiina Esop (Vastutustundliku Ettevõtluse Foorum), Mika Pantzar (finnish economist), Mikael Malmaeus (economist and an expert of environment politicst) ja Tea Danilov (Arenguseire Keskus). Moderator Kristi Saare. 

16.00-17.30 The Youth of Europe – is what we want, what we get? Expectations and reality

Possible decline of liberal values and blurred landscape of political system, rapid development of technology, consequences of climate change, China as a global player are but a few challenges and questions the millennials have to face. How do they imagine their future and what can actually be done about it in the next 15-20 years time? We’ll ask both young idealists and experienced realists. Participants: Luukas Ilves, expert on technology and cyber issues, former Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at Brussels-based think tank and policy network the Lisbon Council; Klen Jäärats, Director for European Union Affairs at Estonian Government Office; Kristen Aigro from Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation and former board member of European Youth Council and Gustaf Göthberg, Member of the Swedish Moderate Party. Moderator Johannes Tralla. The debate at the Estonian Opinion Festival is supported by European Commission Europe for Citizens programme and is part of the EU Solutions Lab project. Similar debates take also place in Latvia and Lithuania.

18.00-19.30 How to define relationships? 

There are different types of relationships. How do you even know whether monogamy, polygamy, relationship anarchy, polyamory, polyandry or any other type would suit you? In the debate we will discuss different relationship types, hear stories from anonymous authors and discuss about when would it make sense to talk to your partner(s) about your expectations for your roles and goals. Participants: everyone is welcome! Moderator Heli Aomets. 

18.00-19.30 European Citizens’ Initiative: Participatory democracy for citizen-powered Europe

How much power do you have? With the European Citizens’ Initiative, you can shape European policy. Join us to find out more about this unique tool allowing you to suggest concrete legal changes in any field where the European Commission has power to propose legislation. We will discuss the importance of participatory democracy as well as give you valuable information on the European Citizens’ Initiative. Come and take the initiative with us! Participants: Pirkko Valge (Good Deed Foundation), Martin A. Noorkõiv (Domus Dorpatensis, Good Citizen), Pascal Herry (European Commission), Marta Pardavi (Hungarian Helsinki Committee). Moderator Mall Hellam (Open Estonia Foundation).


Saturday 10th of August

14.00-15.30 Rethinking the smart city

We all know what a smart home is, but what exactly is a smart city? Is it green, comfortable or something that evokes memories of a happy childhood? What does it offer to its people and businesses? Smart solutions eliminate traffic jams and parking problems, promoting green transport instead. They also offer effective and creative solutions for energy, water and waste disposal. Smart cities attract companies that think alike, creating a synergy of fresh ideas and people, cooperation and competition. Join us and let’s rethink the city! Participants: Teet Raudsep (Ülemiste City), prof. Jarek Kurnitski (TalTechCity), British expert Dr Jacqui Taylor (Smart City Tsar), Grete Arro (Tallinn University research fellow). Moderator: Rode Luhaäär (CEO & Co-founder, Paytailor)

15.00-16.30 Social inclusion as the key to success

For success in life, it is important to have connections. Some people are born into families that already have connections but what about the youth that does not have any to begin with? In this workshop/discussion we will explore the possibilities of those young people and what could be the solutions to the given issue. Participants: Külliki Vainu (AIESEC) and others. Moderator: members of AIESEC.

The festival is supported by the National Foundation of Civil Society, University of Tartu, Estonia 100, Swedbank, Telia, the British Embassy in Estonia, city of Paide, Association of Local Governments in Järva County, European Parliament Information Office, and the office of the European Commission in Estonia. The Opinion Festival is a part of the Nordic network of festivals called Democracy Festivals.

Photos: Opinion Festival

Discussions of the Opinion Festival focus on the future

The seventh annual Opinion Festival taking place in Paide in August focuses on the future, asking questions about how to be prepared for changes as an individual and a society as a whole. The festival focuses on a science-based approach to topics that are important for society, sustainable development and an aware approach to life.

“Every discussion within the Opinion Festival creates a better understanding of what are the important questions for Estonian people today and how we can best deal with coming changes as individuals and as a society,” said Maiu Lauring, the Head Organizer of the festival. “Future is uncertain and conflict doesn’t help, but on the contrary, makes it more difficult to rise to the challenge. The Opinion Festival wishes to bring together people from different communities, create an opportunity for face-to-face interaction and calm and fruitful discussions,” Lauring added.

During this year’s festival there is a stronger focus on the role of scientists in public discussions. Scientist will have the main stage Meie Tulevik (‘Our Future’ in Estonian). There will also be fields of discussions dedicated to science and fresh science. “The foundation of science is a fact- and evidence-based world view. Taking this into consideration, the role of scientists is not only to further their own field of study, but also to create a shared space for communication in society. In order for us to make unanimous and smart decisions for the future we need to first find a common language,” said Kadri Asmer, the Project Manager of Estonia’s National University 100.

From the suggestions sent in, 160 discussions were chosen for the programme of the festival. These discussions handle climate, energy, economy, education, science, Estonian language and culture, health, technology, etc. The festival programme, which is the result of the collaboration of tens of organizations and people, can be viewed here: These discussions either introduce a phenomenon, seek a solution for a problem or take an analytical look at existing knowledge. Several discussions have set a specific goal, such as a compiling list of proposals or suggestions.

The festival also offers a varied cultural programme organized by the Paide Cultural Centre. During the festival you can see performers such as Kaido Kirikmäe, Mari Kalkun, and Robert Jürjendal, and the Weekend Guitar Trio. The festival will be concluded by Lenna’s concert in Paide city centre.

The Opinion Festival takes place on August 9th and 10th in Paide. The festival brings together people from different communities who care about Estonia and the world in order to have balanced discussions and create better understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world. The festival is supported by the National Foundation of Civil Society, University of Tartu, Estonia 100, Swedbank, Telia, the British Embassy in Estonia, city of Paide, Association of Local Governments in Järva County, European Parliament Information Office, and the office of the European Commission in Estonia. The festival is free for visitors.

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.

Opinion Festival day two: 5 things we learned

The second day of the Opinion Festival brought another succession of English-language talks, all of which were insightful in their own way. Here are some things we learned from Saturday’s discussions.

Polarisation is worrying for experts, but Russian minorities are not
The early-afternoon talk ‘Divided we fall, united we stand: is polarisation of societies undermining the security of the Baltic States?’ featured a panel of university academics with an interest in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. They discussed how the liberal world order seems, according to some people, to be collapsing, and what might replace it.

Dr. Martins Kaprans, from the University of Latvia, who is also an Adviser to the Latvian Ministry of Culture, said of his own country and its large Russian-speaking community, “The Russophone community in Latvia is becoming more differentiated… There is a clear generation gap in the Russian-speaking community, but also socio-economic. Pro-Kremlin views are still heard very strongly, but there is no truly organised group, so the Kremlin itself finds it very hard to [get traction] among them. The idea of being Latvian is also very strong among the Russian-speakers, and this is one reason why the Russian-speaking community does not pose a threat. Support for some geopolitical claims is still a problem, the in terms of polarisation, it doesn’t have the potential to be antagonistic.” He added that the increased popularity of the party, who have had a late run in the polls as we approach the parliamentary elections, is surprising people.

Dr. Anu Realo, from the University of Warwick and Tartu University, who has been studying social change in Estonia, added, “Estonians and Russian-speakers seem to live in parallel worlds, We don’t seem to have problems, but we don’t really see each other, and that is an issue.”

Continuing, she said, “we don’t like to think of ourselves as a class-based society, but you can see a divide in terms of education and other areas. Maybe it’s not a threat, but I don’t really want to live in a country that allows that [kind of social divide] to develop [without addressing it].”

Kaprans, talking about the potential fortunes in the upcoming elections of Latvia’s Russian Union (now rebranded as simply Union) Party, said, “The political landscape is changing. They have historically been seen as pro-Russian, but they’re doing their best to remodel themselves as social-democratic. How successfully? Not very, according to the polls so far.”

Progressive politics are hard to adopt, and harder to stick to, in the Baltic region
In the same discussion, Dr. Kestutis Girnius, of Vilnius University, had scathing words for his country’s politicians. “It’s not a big stretch to say that government in Lithuania has been incredibly selfish. Lithuania has been run by Social Democrats for 12 years. In that time, not a single progressive thing has been done. They are saving the salaries of the rich and having less to distribute. Whatever the IMF says, Lithuania does, unless the IMF asks for a real-estate or automobile tax, in which case they are just those strangers from Geneva.” Realo added, on Estonia, “there’s still this idea that is you work hard, then you can be successful and look after your family, and what happens in the wider society is not really your concern.”

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s going
The discussion ‘Civil society in Europe: why, who, and how should they be mobilised?’ looked at the question of how important civic activism is in shaping a country’s politics, particularly focusing on the swing towards authoritarianism of countries such as Hungary and Poland, and the general rise of political strongmen around the world. “Democracy has suicidal tendencies,” said Jakub Wygnansky, a Polish sociologist and activist. “Maybe history is moving in circles. Madeleine Albright [the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of State] wrote recently, ‘every century needs its fascism.’ To know the value of democacy, sometimes you need the risk of losing it. We see that politics is cyclical. We thought that institutions would be enough to ensure democracy flourished, but now we see that we need actions too.” He later gave the talk a slogan, “remember nothing depends on you, but act like everything does.”

Andre Wilkens, the German CEO of Offene Gesellschaft, cited the example of his late friend Martin Roth, who announced he would quit “the best job in the world,” as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, at the end of 2017, due to the changes after Brexit. Wilkens told the audience Roth had said, “if something happens to change the world for the worse, what will I tell people in the future that I did?” “He said, ‘what should I tell my children? That while all this was happening, I put on some exhibitions?'” In answer to the question of what ordinary people can do if they want to hold off the tide of authoritarianism, Wilkens told us, “hold a meeting, to promote an open society. We all have a table and chairs. Then, if you start with something small, you might find that things go to the next level, and you might find yourself doing things you’ve never done before.”

Sometimes, the simple things are all that matters
Local politics can, on occasion, seem concerned about comparative trifles, but one issue that angered a sizeable group of people was the raising of alcohol taxes by the current government in 2017. The result was the ‘Your taxes are driving to Latvia’ campaign, begun, according to Sigrid Solnik of the Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation, as a campaign on Facebook between friends, that became a trip to Latvia for 500 people, on their day off on Estonian Independence Day 2018, to demonstrate on social media their distaste for the policy.

Narva is next!
In a discussion about the importance of the European Capital of Culture title, for which Estonian cities and towns Narva, Tartu, and Kuressaare are bidding, the co-ordinator of the Narva campaign, Helen Sildna, as this link shows, gave a compelling case for the city in east Estonia, which has a majority population of Russian-speakers.


Opinion Festival day one talks: 5 things we learned

The first day of the Opinion Festival 2018 saw stimulating debates on a number of enlightening topics. Here are some of the things we learned from listening to the diverse discussions.

In the Baltic region, people save rather than spend
The discussion ‘Who is richest? The financial portrait of the Baltics’ focused on the ways that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians bank, and the nations’ view of money. The panel felt, anecdotally, that Baltic people as a whole were more likely to save for a long period of time than were, for example, Swedes, and the reason is partly due to the difference in the financial circumstances of the average working person in the Baltic and Nordic regions. Some people, panel members said, have even commented that Estonians deposit too much in the bank without using it.

“If you lose a job in Estonia, the social security system is not overly generous, so people need a big deposit for that reason. It’s the opposite in Sweden, where social security is more generous,” explained Kristjan Taimla, Director, Investment Funds at Swedbank. Perhaps another contributor to this is the relatively laissez-faire approach to employment law in Estonia, with job security lower than in Sweden, and protections so much less.

In any case, added Taimla, “the issue is not too much deposit, it’s that people start to save too late.” Pointing again to Sweden, he said that in his opinion it was normal for Swedish citizens to begin saving money for the future, in a deposit account, in their thirties. In Estonia, he said, “it’s more like [aged] 50 when they start doing that.” This, he continued, was because of the far lower average salary in Estonia.

Lack of capital might be stunting companies’ growth
On the topic of whether Baltic companies will ever have the wherewithal to expand and take over companies based in other countries, Vaidotas Sumskis, of the Bank of Lithuania, pointed out that the Lithuanian-owned Maxima group had already taken over a Swedish company. Taimla contended that the largest company on the Baltic Stock Exchange was Tallink, the Estonian ferry, taxi, and hotel company, but said more generally that the relative lack of equity capital available to Baltic companies meant that “in Estonia we’re pretty good at doing the opposite – selling our companies to foreigners!”

Questions over Estonian immigration laws
Riigikogu member Rainer Vakra took part in a debate with Latvian politician Juris Vilums, and three panellists who are active in youth politics in the Baltic region, ‘Baltic Countries: A disappearing nation?’ They were mulling over the hot-button issue of why people born in the Baltic region were choosing to leave for other countries such as Australia, the United States, and (at least until Brexit) the United Kingdom, while also taking advantage of their free movement rights within the European Union.

The debate, in some ways, was a contrast with the earlier one, in which budding entrepreneurs were being encouraged to think and act globally. Here, the onus was more on making sure the Baltics can develop and keep its own home-grown talent in the future. One of the other difficulties facing businesses, as articulated by Vakra, was the immigration quota set by the Estonian government, which some business leaders view as draconian.

“The migration quota was filled at the start of March [fact-check – according to ERR News it was April when the quota was filled]. What’s changed? Nothing, except now the workers in the construction industry are working here illegally. We’re lucky that, at least, the startup visa programme is happening,” Vakra said, referring to the programme that enables tech companies to recruit specialists from outside the EU for areas with an identified need.

Foreign investment not as easy as it could be
Vakra also pointed to what he felt was an unfriendly Estonian government attitude towards foreign investment when it came to small businesses started by non-EU citizens, which had led to a climate of what he felt was suspicion and conservatism in the banking sector. “Some people are now blaming e-Residents for the banks being too conservative,” he said.

This feeling has grown of late because banks are purportedly apprehensive about granting accounts to some users of the Estonian e-Residency programme, amid some account closures for entrepreneurs who fail to prove their link with Estonia to the liking of the bank. This thorny issue is explained further by ERR News, and the response from the e-Residency team was published in March.

Nor is returning to Estonia
Vakra linked this issue back to the core topic of the discussion. “Why should those people who have left come back if nobody’s welcome? It’s the mentality [that is the issue]. They [emigrants] went to those countries because they were welcome there.”

Mikk Tarros, Vice-Chairman of the Estonian National Youth Council, added a personal perspective, about his own family. “My mother lives in Switzerland. Perhaps we should try to entice her back to Estonia? She actually tried to come back a few years ago, but she couldn’t get any interviews because it was assumed that her salary expectations would be too high, even before she could state them.”

4 reasons the Opinion Festival brings you joy

Why do some people get so energised by the Opinion Festival? Maybe it’s the summer air, or the awayday atmosphere that comes from being together in the grounds of a medieval castle in leafy central Estonia, or maybe it’s the enthusiastic contributors to all of the discussions taking place around the ground, but there’s something in the air.

Below are some reasons why we care about the Opinion Festival, and why you might just find unexpected joy in it too.

It’s not all about politics…
The Opinion Festival always covers the full breadth of topics within public life. Although it is thought by some that a few people on a committee come up with the topics for discussions, in actual fact, anyone can, and does, submit discussion topics.

There are only limited restrictions, mostly concerning the wish to have constructive and multi-sided debates that are conducted in an orderly fashion, but otherwise, organisations can submit any topic they like, as long as they take responsibility for organising the whole discussion, and for the composition of the panel.

In previous years, this led to enlightening talks that may have opened some attendees’ minds, such as a debate on the health benefits and drawbacks of vegan food, in 2017. Also that year was a panel discussion on how to design a great user experience on mobile apps, which not only got the Estonian tech startup crowd out of the city, but also brought a spontaneous opportunity to quiz one of the founders of taxi-ordering app Taxify about changes to his own product’s user experience.

It is often after the main discussion has concluded, when it goes to questions and answers, that the debate really heats up, and where discussions can often take intriguing routes.

…but you can get close to the decision-makers
The Opinion Festival isn’t unique in this regard, but if you have something to say to someone in power, this weekend is one of the best opportunities to do so. While in the United States, for example, politicians are largely shielded from direct conversation with the public, in Estonia that is considered unthinkable.

Politicians and thought leaders are on Vallimägi for both days of the festival, and while they’re ostensibly here to take part in discussions organised by their party or connected organisations, there’s nothing stopping anyone from talking to them about the issues of the moment.

It’s one of the great things about democracy festivals in general, and with Estonian politicians, in some (but not all) cases, appearing aloof rather than engaged with the struggles of ordinary voters and taxpayers, this is a unique opportunity to ask the questions you want to know the answers to. You don’t have to win an election, or donate money, to hold representatives to account, and democracy festivals like this one are a reminder of that.

Historic location
The Opinion Festival is in Paide to stay. The small town, often called the Heart of Estonia as it is the closest large population centre to the mid-point of the country, has hosted every festival since the concept came to Estonia. The festival has a very special feeling partly because of its surroundings; the kind of inspiration that is often sparked at the Opinion Festival in Paide might not come if it were staged in a big city.

Just as people sometimes have their most inventive ideas while on holiday, so too debates and discussions that might seem everyday when taking place in the capital become more nuanced and take different directions when conducted outdoors in the countryside. If you’re not sure what we mean, take in a few talks and see for yourself.

You’ll take new ideas home
Every year the Opinion Festival convinces people of new things they need to do with their lives, whether that is writing to their Riigikogu member about an issue that affects them or their friends, taking better care of their personal finances, checking out an author’s new book that was being discussed, trying the vegan diet, campaigning for a fairer deal in some respect, or just exercising mindfulness in some way. All of these topics have been, or will be, covered at the Opinion Festival, and all offer you the chance to open your mind to something.

Being able to change your view is a great thing, so our advice is to be open to discussions on topics outside your comfort zone, but also to listen to viewpoints different to your own. You might find your own feelings change.