democracy festival

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.

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.