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