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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 KPV.lv 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.

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: https://www.arvamusfestival.ee/kava/ [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).

Democracy Festivals unite the Nordic and Baltic Sea Region

The Opinion Festival, taking place in Estonia for the sixth year running, is now part of Democracy Festivals, a newly established network of like-minded events. Eight democracy festivals from the Nordic and Baltic regions, from Visby in Sweden to Birštonas in Lithuania, have joined forces in an effort to foster stronger participatory democracy everywhere in the world and offer opportunities to learn from each other’s experience and best practice.

The network was formed as the result of a joint Estonian-Latvian-Danish initiative. It was initially the brainchild of Ieva Morica who heads the conversation festival LAMPA, who had been supported by the Opinion Festival team for putting on the festival. Kristi Liiva, founder of the Opinion Festival, said: “We spoke about the various areas for improvement that can be found in every country’s democratic discussion process as well as communication culture more broadly, and that spurred us on to lean more heavily on each other’s best practice and together start breathing life into the wider mission of ‘democracy festivals’.”

The change agency We Do Democracy, headed by Zakia Elvang, is leading the platform and the project. “It’s fair to say democracy festivals have really gone viral in the Baltic sea region. They are all well known and respected in their countries, they have all become a must attend event for people from all corners of society who are interested in the country’s future. We believe this is open democracy in the making,” says Zakia Elvang.

The ambition of the Democracy Festivals platform

The unique participatory democracy and experience of democracy festivals in the Nordic and Baltic countries deserve wider recognition, and the aim of the Democracy Festivals web platform is to capture and share some of that experience. Here you can find an introduction to eight individual festivals whose aim is to advance democracy, as well as guidance for anyone who would like to kickstart their own festival or promote discursive democracy in some other way. In addition to the Opinion Festival, members of the network include Almedalsveckan (Sweden), SuomiAreena (Finland), LAMPA (Latvia), Fundur Fólksins (from 2018 known as Lysa; Iceland), Arendalsuka (Norway), Taani Folkemødet (Denmark) and Būtent! (Lithuania).

The ambition of the democracy festivals is supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Christer Haglund, Director of the director of the Council’s Office in Estonia, commented: “Today’s democracy is in constant flux, bringing with it challenges as well as new opportunities. We support cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic countries to improve the culture of public debate, inspiring people to take part in social discussion which in turn supports their sense of safety and welfare, their ability and courage to express themselves, and their willingness to listen to others and respect different opinions. We want to help this kind of culture of public debate take off beyond our region.”

The format of the democracy festivals has attracted interest from several countries, including Ukraine, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Belarus, but also places like the Catalonia region.

 

Opinion Festival stands out for extensive volunteer support

The Opinion Festival in Paide is distinct from the other festivals primarily for two reasons. According to Maiu Lauring, head organiser of the Opinion Festival, “unlike the other festivals where the main organiser tends to be the local government and/or local enterprises, in our case the festival comes together as a combined effort of hundreds of volunteers and supporters. Our partner festivals have been amazed by our capacity to involve so many volunteers and especially the local community totogether keep the festival going. Nordic democracy festival organisers have also been impressed by just how well the festival grounds layout, the creation of space and ambience of the Opinion Festival supports discussions, both those organised beforehand as well as spontaneous ones. Within the family of democracy festivals, the Opinion Festival is a community and boutique festival in the best possible sense.”

The Estonian example inspires

The conversation festival LAMPA, which takes place in Latvia, was modelled after the Opinion Festival. Estonians also shared tips and best practice with young people and civic society activists in Belarus, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. On 9 September 2017, Severedonetsk, a small town in Ukraine, played host to the country’s first one-day opinion festival, which brought together experts and locals to raise topics that matter to them. Six other regions are keen to try out the Opinion Festival model, with an aim to establish their own festival within the next two years. From an Estonian perspective, the expansion of the idea and format of the democracy festivals to Europe’s eastern borders is only a positive development and this year an even greater number of steps will be taken to provide active support.

Olof Palme’s legacy and the birth of democracy festivals

The tradition of democracy festivals stretches back to 1968 when Olof Palme, Sweden’s education minister at the time, gave a speech from the back of a pick-up truck. The truck was parked in Almedalen park and several hundred people gathered to listen to him. In all likelihood, none of them had the faintest clue that they had changed history and made a lasting impact on the whole Nordic and Baltic Sea region. Fast forward 50 years later and democracy festivals have made their way into several countries in the Baltic Sea region, becoming seminal events where people from across the social spectrum but who share an interest in the future of their country can come together. In 2017 alone, the eight festivals collectively lasted for 29 days, hosted 8,700 events or discussions, and brought together up to 500,000 participants.

The Opinion Festival attracts wide selection of discussion ideas

This year’s Opinion Festival received submissions for over 200 discussions, with topics ranging from human capital and medicine to innovation and forestry. Ideas related to values, education and youth issues formed the largest category.

According to the Festival’s head organizer Maiu Lauring, the submissions help map the topics that are currently important to people living in Estonia and point to the questions that call for more social debate. “As with previous years, the Festival will explore a broad array of topics — submissions included ideas for discussions on education, the environment, economy, innovation, medicine, foreign policy as well as culture. Meanwhile, human capital and forests stood out as specific areas of concern,” said Maiu Lauring.

This year, in addition to ideas for individual discussions, the Festival also welcomed submissions for themed discussion areas. “Our aim was to inspire discussion hosts to start thinking about collaboration from the moment they start developing ideas so they’d have more time and energy to get the discussions themselves ready. This approach seems to have worked – there were 15 submissions for themed discussion areas, most of which are likely to end up in the final programme,” explained Lauring.

The idea evaluation team will consider each submission based on four criteria: stated objective for the discussion, clarity of the topic, diversity of participants, and discussion format. This year’s evaluation process will also involve delegates from the Estonia 100 Youth Assembly, which will help to ensure that the festival programme also includes the topics most relevant to young people.

Discussions will be selected at the beginning of March. The final programme will come together as a result of collaboration between a number of organizations acting as discussion hosts, and will be confirmed by early June.

The sixth Opinion Festival will take place on 10-11 August in Paide. Last year’s Festival attracted over 9,000 participants.

Dog reveals what government must do next

We talk a lot at the Opinion Festival about the need to be inclusive and open, and to allow all views from all sides of the debate. But what about dogs?

Pets represent one area of society that frequently goes unheard. Maybe it’s because we don’t speak their language as well as we should, but they demand to be treated as an equal part of discussions.

We have covered in previous years how the pets of the Opinion Festival turn out in style and often look better-dressed than their owners. This time, the stakes got raised. James, you see, is a dalmatian whose reputation goes before him. His story is the stuff of legend. Having escaped the clutches of Cruella de Vil, along with his 100 siblings, James decided to strike out solo, and emigrated to Estonia, where he is owned by Kelly.

Here, it would appear the debonair canine has become something of a celebrity, having, like all the most famous people, his own social media hashtag, #DalmatianJames . It’s for this reason that the Opinion Festival blog decided to catch up with the dog of the moment, to find out what he had enjoyed most about the Opinion Festival, and what could be improved.

“I’d say it’s all been really well organised,” James told us, “especially the street food. I shouldn’t eat hamburgers – they’re bad for my digestive system in big portions – but I took my chance to try a bit from Hungry Karl, and I wasn’t disappointed. I also took the opportunity to let Jevgeni Ossinovski and Hanno Pevkur know my views on the need for the state to subsidise doggy-treats. Ossinovski said it wasn’t part of the present government programme, but both politicians seemed to understand my point of view, which was good.”

James was equally forthright on his favourite festival stand from the Opinion Festival 2017. “I have to give full marks to the designers of the stand made from sustainable mushrooms (below). It was incredibly well-made, and I love hunting for mushrooms, so it felt like I was running round the forest, while watching a debate take place.”

Festival stand made from mushrooms

At the time of writing, James was barking loudly at the sky, seemingly angry that an act of force majeure had caused his favourite part of the Opinion Festival, the party leaders’ debate, to be delayed and then acted out under a thunderstorm. Storms aren’t his thing, frankly. Still, with the profile he is swiftly building, a position in the cabinet after the next reshuffle looks to be a formality.

How diverse is Estonia?

A talk taking place at the Opinion Festival on Saturday, ‘Diversity in the Estonian workplace and society: the good, the bad and the ugly’, examined issues of culture, race, identity, and discussed both what foreigners can do to feel more part of Estonian life, and also what Estonia as a whole can do to be as welcoming as possible.

The Opinion Festival throws up annual surprises, but one regular topic is foreigners and their integration into Estonian life. This is perhaps understandable – with the rapid expansion of Estonia-based companies like Transferwise, along with increased international investment in the country, has come a shift in the population demographic. This has not been without friction, as the discussion, in the shadow of Paide’s Holy Cross Church, showed. Nonetheless, there were anecdotes that showed how much has changed for the better for residents of other nationalities.

A lot of the discussion revolved around learning the Estonian language; many adult learners say that they find it difficult to pick up. There was also some talk about whether the problem is that, for the majority of incomers, at least those based in Tallinn, there is a lack of immersion culture – in other words, most Estonians in the capital are happy to speak English, and so it is rare for there to be a definite need for the Tallinn-based foreigner to converse in Estonian. For this reason, the idea of making it compulsory for all foreigners living in Estonia to learn the language was raised. However, although there was some support for the idea, in general the audience, which was quite evenly split between Estonians and foreigners, preferred encouragement of language learning to compulsion.

In general the discussion was calm and measured, but there was more passion shown when an African-American audience member brought up a word often used in the Estonian language to describe a person of colour, which sounds very similar to a term which has become known as very abusive and racist in the UK and US. She said that hearing that word used made her feel uncomfortable.

There was then debate over the perceived historical context of the word in the Estonian language, and whether the requirement to change should be upon the individual who heard the word and was offended, or upon Estonian society not to use the word (there being plenty of other, synonymous, terms that could be used that would not offend anyone). Although no definitive decision was reached, there seemed to be a consensus that increased care over not offending people with any language used would make the world of work more comfortable for many.

A Latin American living in Estonia described how he had, initially, greeted his colleagues in the office each day by shaking their hands, and had regularly hugged people who he knew well, until being told it was not a common thing to do in an Estonian workplace. He explained his personal dilemma, before saying that he decided to “embrace” the fact that he did not look, sound or act “like an Estonian”, and that he was proud of his cultural identity. Two young Russian-Estonian siblings also talked about their positive experiences learning Estonian at a Russian school.

From there, the talk moved onto the ways in which foreigners can get to know Estonian culture. The theatre was cited as a great way to learn the language and to gain a greater cultural understanding; many high-profile productions are subtitled in English, while another idea raised was to hold performances written specially in easy-to-understand Estonian, for adult language-learners. The talk was held in the ‘world cafe’ format, meaning that microphones were passed throughout the audience, and participation ‘in the round’ was encouraged, rather than set speakers taking part in a more conventional forum.

This Danish man just came up with an awesome idea to bring people together

Why have festivals like the Opinion Festival become popular with so many people, what can be done to attract more people to take part in the discourse, and what can the festival do better? There was also a great idea on how to get divided people to talk more freely.

A discussion, ‘The power of democracy festivals’, explored these questions on Friday, with a twist on the conventional format of discussion allowing the panel and audience to split into small groups and discuss various questions in circles.

Visitors from Finland, Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania came to Paide to talk about their experiences of organising or taking part in what are known as ‘democracy festivals’ – events encouraging public participation in discussions on a variety of topics. One of the things mentioned, in the debate moderated by journalist Liis Kängsepp, was that there is no one right way of encouraging good discussion and a closer community. Mads Akselbo Holm, the organiser of Folkemodet in Denmark, came up with perhaps the most intriguing idea in terms of getting people from two sides of a divide to come together.

Holm said it could be as simple as getting two opposing politicians, for example, to cook a meal together. Explaining the idea, he said, “maybe they don’t agree on matters of policy, but they can both agree that they like the country they live in, they can both agree they were born in that country, and maybe they both share a favourite dish.” The tantalising prospect of battling members of government and opposition putting down their briefing notes and picking up spatulas and frying pans is certainly unconventional, but could it work?

Mari Haavisto, organiser of SuomiAreena, the Finnish equivalent of the Opinion Festival, felt it was important that the city of Pori, around three hours’ travel from Helsinki, was the host of the event. It comes in the same space of time as the city’s jazz festival, and the two combine to bring a pleasant party atmosphere to an otherwise relatively quiet area every summer, something that might be lost if SuomiAreena were relocated to the Finnish capital. The Opinion Festival has become synonymous with Paide, and it is also true that Järve county, in which Paide is situated, is proud and happy to host the festival. Something of the close community spirit could be lost if it were held in Tallinn or Tartu, contributors felt.

One commenter added that he felt that the Opinion Festival was at least as much about meeting new people, and getting a new perspective on life, as it was about the open discussion that takes place every year. The principle of inviting and accepting all forms of debate, as long as they do not cause violence, was also mentioned, as part of the spirit of a truly open festival of ideas.

Ukraine will hold its first democracy festival this year, and the concept seems to be going viral all around Europe. What is true in every case is that changes can be made, in the interactivity of the events, and how they reach out to people. That’s part of a journey of constant improvement.

Opinion Festival panel debates perfect user experience

How to humanise the user experience, and make the functions of software better reflect users’ needs, was the topic being discussed in English at a lunchtime debate during the Opinion Festival on Friday. Each of the panellists came from a technology-related background, although looking at its use and application in differing ways.

Genia Trofimova is the Product and Project Manager for Mooncascade, a software development agency with a number of high-profile clients. A story she told illustrated a company working closely with its client for an optimal user experience. “A customer from Wall Street said he wanted ‘Tinder for Wall Street’ and asked if we could make it, and I said ‘sure’, and all of our team installed Tinder – it was fun. We explored what ‘Tinder for Wall Street’ meant, and then, three months into development and design, we went into very intense user testing. We built this trust, and the client in New York, the team in Seattle, everybody listened to what our team has to say; we want to keep our team happy, and people want to participate and show their talents.”

Ede Schank Tamkivi, from the Eesti 2.0 non-governmental organisation, was moderating the discussion, and began a discussion of good and bad user experiences with an awkward encounter with an Estonian state portal. “I had the experience when registering the birth of my child – I went to rik.ee [an Estonian government website], clicked on the drop-down menu, and the first option displayed was stillbirth, which is not a great thing for a new mother to have to see or think about.”

Jaanus Kase, Head of Product Design at Pipedrive, continued the subject of childcare. “When you have a child, there are about seven or eight different kinds of support you can apply for, depending on whether the child is disabled, or you’re a foster parent, or other things. Your day is full of things not related to filling out these forms, then at night you have maybe ten minutes to fill out the forms, and you get this long list of options.”

“Some kind of easy option would be great, but you get a long list. I would diminish the [list of] options, say if it’s my own child or a foster child, then in Estonia the system can tell where you’re living, so it could give me the options related to my local government. More to the point: why do I even have to do any activity myself? Why can it not be done for me?”

Trofimova responded to an audience question about whether users of apps that change their user interface, and are unhappy about this, are somehow too picky. “It’s still information,” Trofimova said, “and it brings a lot of information about comfort zone, and how far we can go with changes. There is no such thing as too picky – we just need to be picky how we take that information into account.”

Markus Villig, CEO of Taxify, an Estonian-founded driver-requesting app that uses both private drivers and licensed taxi companies, found that his product was mentioned by many panellists and audience members over the course of the 90-minute discussion, primarily because the app has become an integral part of the lives of many people in Estonia and other countries in which it has been rolled-out. While several people said they used Taxify every day, and praised its user experience, others pointed out the recent update that took away the user’s choice of specific taxi operator and car. For Villig, this was an example of making the user experience better in the long term by taking away a choice.

“This is a question we debated internally for one to two years. We have power-users who want to see all the information about a car before they pick it, and they run a sort of internal algorithm to decide which one to take. There’s always a question how much information you include. But people get out of the club, and most people in that situation just want the nearest car, as cheap and as fast in arriving as it can be. Those sorts of people are not usually so interested in picking from a long list of cars.”

“Then we started to look at whether we could fundamentally make the service better. If we can make the pickup shorter, drivers can waste less fuel, waste less time and make more pickups per hour. That’s why when you choose a car, which might be the same kind of car at the same price, but might be two kilometres further away, it creates a waste of fuel and mileage. We need to simplify it so that people cannot make sub-optimal choices. Ultimately this means that the driver earns more, it means the whole platform’s quality goes up, and so on.”

Kase added, “it’s about testing and data. There is no good design that can be isolated from the impact it has on its business. There is a difference between what people say they will do and what they do in reality. A great example of that is in politics – a lot of Americans said they would move to Canada after Trump got elected, but how many have done that?”

“If it looks good but doesn’t produce results, it’s not good design. The other thing to think about regarding whether or not people are too picky is to look at where this discussion is happening. It’s happening online, on platforms like Facebook and Twitter; these are not public services, they are commercial enterprises, pushing us around, actively enticing us to have a discussion there, so they can make more money off us. Most people don’t think about that. The noise surrounding the things versus what actually happens are two different things.”

Villig, like many tech CEOs an admirer of Apple legend Steve Jobs, cited a remark he made. “Steve Jobs was right when he said ‘people don’t know what they really want.’ People make a lot of noise, and it’s important to listen to that, but you won’t see how people really react until the product is actually launched.”

Opinion Festival entertainment for all tastes

As if to prove that the Opinion Festival isn’t only about deep, serious discussions, there are many ways to have fun with festival entertainment, if you take a few steps from the main action on Vallimägi. One of these is a beach volleyball court, in the middle of host town Paide, a usually sleepy place that is, the last time anyone checked, landlocked.

Check out the Opinion Festival programme for the full list of entertainment throughout the weekend

The vast expanse of sand, which can be found on the edge of Keskväljak (Central Square), is proof that Pärnu might have the Weekend Festival, and mile upon mile of perfect golden sand, and Haapsalu might have its own blues festival along with some of the best spas in Estonia, but Paide has its fair share of fun in the sun.

Foodies’ delight

If you’re, like many people, a hit-and-miss beach volleyball player, Keskväljak and the adjoining section of Tallinna mnt (Tallinn street) offer enough street food to keep you going through a long day of walking and talking. Our early tips are Hungry Karl, who offer excellent-quality hamburgers and goat’s cheese burgers, or, for a lower price, you can get a taste of Sri Lanka, with authentic chicken curry that is being made all weekend by expert cooks from the island.

More fun!

Following the discussions on both days, there is a selection of entertainment to take your pick from. Over in the Wittenstein/Järvamaa museum there is a video disco between 9pm and 2am on Friday, and on Keskväljak, Tallinn’s longest-established hipster hangout Must Puudel is taking over, on Friday and Saturday, with banging tunes and DJ sets, along with captivating live performances. Back on Vallimägi from 10pm to midnight on Friday, Tallinn’s coolest coworking space, LIFT99, hosts one of its regular get-togethers.

Perhaps the standout entertainment events take place in the yard of Vabalinna Maja (Free Town House, literally), the festival club. There, between 10pm and 11pm on Friday, the beloved musical innovator, singer-songwriter Vaiko Eplik, will play some of his most popular songs from down the years.

There’s also a series of must-see installations from lighting artist Jari Matsi, who is bringing innovation and beauty to Tallinna mnt 24, 32, and 34. You can see what he’s done with these lovingly-renovated townhouses between midnight and 2am after the festival concludes for the day on both Friday and Saturday.

Opinion Festival: why we’re all here

The Opinion Festival is back, with added vigour, fun, and purpose. What is that purpose, though? We’ve got some thoughts – and in the spirit of the event, we’d love to hear yours too.

The festival has been running since 2013, and each iteration has had its standout moments. There is something in the greenery of the heart of Estonia, Paide, for most tastes and mindsets. Even so, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and asking, ‘what is all this for?’, and why we have this annual gathering.

The genesis of the Opinion Festival was in the events that had been taking place beforehand, on a similar structure, around Northern Europe. It was felt that public debate in Estonia could be bolstered with a festival where discussions, on a variety of pre-agreed topics, could take place in a comfortable environment and an atmosphere of openness.

The festival, at its established home up on Vallimägi in Paide, brings the opportunity to get to the centre of all the discussions affecting everyday life.  Gradually, the debates, forums and talks in the Estonian language were complimented by more and more discussions in English and Russian, showing that the Opinion Festival could include all areas of society within Estonia. While the focus in 2017 is on high-quality conversations, rather than a simple target of being the biggest ever, the breadth of debate still requires visitors to don a pair of quality shoes, and plan carefully where to go and when – or just randomly go from place to place, which can be just as much fun.

People need to know that, though there is political debate, it’s not just about politics. As our earlier blog post illustrates, everything from IT user experience to the pros and cons of veganism will be broached. There are parallels here with music festivals, in that many visitors may come with the aim of hearing one thing, but might go home having derived more enjoyment from surprising sources. It’s never been more important to listen without prejudice, and this is another reason why the Opinion Festival is a necessary part of the Estonian calendar.

There is a strand of discourse, particularly online, that takes the view that not only do actions speak louder than words, but that words no longer matter. Terms such as ‘alt-right’, ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’, and, yes, ‘covfefe’ have elbowed their way into the public eye. The Opinion Festival takes no political standpoint, preferring to let the discussions speak for themselves, but the rapid changes all around us necessitate clarity of thought and of discussion.

We see this when the lies of people in power are spun, or when there is an attempt to move on from promises made by corporations or elected officials. The way to hold people to account is through organised discussion, in an environment where everyone can feel their thoughts are heard and acknowledged. The Opinion Festival offers that, and much more.

Sure, visitors get the chance to (sometimes literally) sit on a picnic blanket next to a Member of the European Parliament and ask about the future of the Single Market, or to quiz the Prime Minister on policy. It’s more than that, though. It’s the best chance of the year to meet people with matching, or contrasting, views to your own.

The Opinion Festival is a social network in the original sense – and you don’t even need a computer to get involved. Half of the fun comes from meeting and talking to new people, both during and also after the debates. You’ll find a discussion topic that interests you from the start – and you’re strongly encouraged to seek them out.

While you do that, it’s also worth looking through the programme for some of the topics you might not have considered checking in on. With talks in Estonia, Russian and English, this festival represents the biggest of tents, and will keep you thinking about any preconceived viewpoints you had on issues, while informing, entertaining and educating on a multitude of subject areas which, who knows, might interest you enough for you to find out more, or get involved, after the festival is over.