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.

World Peace Just Happened

‘What Can We Do For World Peace?’ is possibly the biggest question on the planet, and at the Opinion Festival on Saturday morning, an intrepid group of academics, educators and activists attempted to answer it.

Although it is fair to say that, over the course of 90 minutes, it was not possible to reach a consensus on how to achieve world peace, or even if it is possible, the most interesting part of the discussion was, as is often the case in such theoretical talks, the individual stories of the speakers.

Piet Boerefijn is the Director of the Estonian Food Bank, which has set up food relief in towns and cities all over Estonia to help the people who cannot afford to feed their families. However, at first, this was not a personal mission of his – the Dutchman came to Estonia shortly after the restoration of independence for a totally different reason.

“When I first came, it wasn’t with the idea of helping Estonia. Actually, I read ‘The Czar’s Madman’ by Jaan Kross and wanted to see the house from that book, a manor house close to Põltsamaa. The manor had a big wall around it, and a small fence. I looked through the fence, and it came out that the house had been turned into a home for mentally-disturbed people. It was like a zoo, it was awful inside, it was 1992 or 1993.”

“I thought it would be revolutionary if only someone could bring some new beds, or install some extra toilets. We took some mattresses from hospitals in the Netherlands for free.” Estonia was a far different country to the one that foreigners in 2016 experience, Boerefijn explained. “At that time Estonia was extremely poor. It was still the Soviet Army there. Often they would get their salary in roubles, not the Estonian kroon, and that meant they couldn’t buy anything. So what did they do? They sold their weapons, so you could buy your weapons from the Russian Army in Estonia.”The recollections of Ekke Nõmm, Director of the Estonian School of Diplomacy, were, as you might expect, more moderated and mild. Nõmm, a fuzzy-haired man who seems permanently calm, talked about his experiences running a private university that receives international funding to train global diplomats.

Nõmm believes that accord can be found between people of most nationalities if they can learn to relate to each other on a personal level. “After a year [studying together], they’re friends, they understand each other better.” There are still tensions, mostly due to pressure from the students’ parent countries. “There was one group, with whom we went for a discussion in Kadriorg with the President. We had a photo taken with the him, and I arranged it that on one side were two Armenian women, on the other two Azeri men.”

“We had the photos taken, it all went well, we went back to school, and then after an hour, the Azeris called me and said, ‘please don’t use this photo in a professional capacity,’ because it might mean trouble for them. They were worried about going back to Baku, and their superiors perhaps saying, ‘you’re becoming too friendsly with the Armenians.’ So this shows the divisions that are there, but by bringing these people together I think we can somehow do something for world peace.”

In attempting to explain the still-existent divisions between first-language Estonian- and Russian-speakers in Estonia, Nõmm had a theory. “A lot of this had to do with the fact that the Russians in Estonia had to do a tremendous mental switch, from being masters of the universe, rulers of the empire, and from there, they had to change to a minority in a small country. I agree that Estonians are typically quiet and modest, and Russians are more outgoing. I suppose a Russian by nature would expect a friend to be outgoing, but Estonians aren’t like that in their nature. So when Estonians say, ‘ok, learn the language, do your job, and we’ll all be happy,’ because embracing and hugging is not in their nature, Russians might interpret it as unwelcoming. Also, the fact that the Russians live in their own media-sphere: I would consider that to be the greatest problem.”

Liga Rudzite is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Tallinn School of Economics and Business Administration, Tallinn University of Technology, and media falls into her research. She said it is not only Russian media that is biased. “I think we are biased – even our free media. We speak about Latvia always on Latvian terms, and if I were a Russian of course I wouldn’t use Latvian media because I would use what spoke more personally to me.”

Discussions continued, with world peace still some way off at the time of writing.

Aarhus is a Very Fine House: Why be Nordic?

Why do so many countries want to be like Nordic countries? Are they really as “happy” as they seem? Can Estonia ever be a Nordic country? These were some of the questions considered by the panel at the Opinion Festival’s talk, ‘How Strong Are the Nordic Countries? Strong Enough to Be Happy?!’ (punctuation as written in the brochure) which took place on Friday afternoon and was organised in association with the Norden Nordic Council of Ministers.

Helen Russell is a freelance journalist whose book, Living Danishly, describes the many social and cultural adaptations that have to be made by a British immigrant to the place ranked by the United Nations as the happiest in the world. Moderator Villu Arak asked why there was such an appetite in Denmark for dark, noirish crime fiction. Russell replied that it was possibly because life was comfortable enough to want to read or see a struggle. “There’s definitely something to be said for taking things for granted.” She then turned to the topic of what makes Denmark special to international workers.

“I speak to a lot of businesses who are trying to attract more international talent. The kind of international talent that would be drawn to Scandinavia are the more liberal people on the left, who don’t mind paying such high taxes. What’s special about Scandinavia is this welfare state, is this equality. It’s about recognising that, and preserving it a bit more, and not taking it for granted, whilst also trying to celebrate diversity. In a typically-homogeneous country such as Denmark, and also Norway and Sweden, it’s about trying to welcome in new people, and realising that could be a good thing.”

Joar Vitterso is a Psychology professor from the University of Tromso in Norway. He cautioned against expecting all nations to join a neoliberal consensus based on the European austerity-driven model. What he said could be considered a message to Estonia, seen by some as a kind of test-bed for Friedman School economics. “I’m very sceptical when people say the development forces us to replace something that is working well with something that is working not so well. Why is that? Why should we accept that development means pensions go down, that unhealthy [unwell] people don’t get the treatment they used to get?”

“The next generation is the first for hundreds of years that has fewer prospects than their parents had. Why must we accept that this has to happen because of development? For me, development is something that gets better, and I can’t accept these people who say ‘this can’t go on because so and so.'”

Third panellist Bengt Lindroth, a Swedish author and musician, was concerned that Sweden look now at the kind of society it wants in the future. This is a country whose most famous modern citizen is footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came to the country with his Bosnian/Croatian family as a youngster, and it could be argued ‘Ibra’ has changed forever the perception of a Swede. “Sweden is, I think, the only country with a paragraph in its constitution saying the country should aim to become a multicultural society. We need to think what that means, today, in practice, and what policies should be enacted. That is a very important question for Sweden to handle today.”

Vitterso voiced his hopes for the future of the Nordic nations and their neighbours. “I like utopias, because they’re irresponsible, and just throw out ideas and say, ‘hey, isn’t this a good way of living?’ I hope in ten years we will talk more about things that matter, like good lives and good societies. I hope we will have developed a better way of talking about what we want, and not just measuring it in terms of economies, but what we really want our kids to experience in this society. I hope that governments will take the pursuit of a good life seriously enough to discuss it every day.”

Russell said she was happy to see sustainability taught in Danish schools. “Aarhus is the European Capital of Culture next year, and they’re running a campaign about sustainability in childcare and schools and what a difference that could make. However, she noticed that although Denmark is commonly felt to be such a contented nation, there were many users of antidepressants – Denmark is felt by some measures to be among the highest users of ‘happy pills’ in the world.

“I thought, ‘how can you be the happiest nation, with such high antidepressant use?’ I have spoken to many Danes about this, and I think because they expect Arbejdsglæde, which means happiness at work; if they’re not getting it, they do something about it. There’s a lot of stress leave, and doctors are very receptive, if someone says they’re not feeling great, antidepressants are handed out fairly liberally, from my experience in my research. In the UK and US there’s a culture of soldiering on, for fear that any admission of weakness will impact negatively on your career.”

Although there seems a darkness below the Danish facade of complete contentment, it could be said that the high rates of cancer in the country were, in some way, due to happiness, according to Russell. “Danes are libertarians, they love to eat pork, eat ice cream and smoke – sometimes all at the same time. All around me I see people having a hoot – perhaps not looking so good, but knowing the system is there to help them.”

The last word went to Estonia’s Swedish Ambassador, Anders Ljunggren, who was in the audience. He had an opinion on one of the most popular questions of the day, why some countries are considered ‘Nordic’ and others  are not. His words may not go down well with Estonians. “Being here in Estonia, I should say that Finland was successful, they made very big sacrifices, they kept their freedom during the Second World War, they had the ability to choose to be a Nordic country, and they were welcomed.”

“That’s also the situation today. You have to wish to be a Nordic country, you have to fulfil some criteria, with geography and so on, and you have to be welcomed. The political construction [of Norden] is not forever – it depends on the will of the people in Norden and the neighbouring countries.” It could be said that Estonia has already made more than enough sacrifices. Maybe now is the time for some international recognition of them.

Thoughts from the final moments of the third Arvamusfestival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Designs: Arvamus Festival Best Stand

DSCF1693Some of the stands at the Arvamus festival weren’t just about the speakers taking part in the debate, but were also about great design creating a more effective space in which to have discussions. The best design of any stand at the festival, a space that treated acoustics and sight-lines as far more than afterthoughts, was created by Architecture and Urban Planning students of Eesti Kunstiakadeemia (the Estonian Academy of Arts).




The honeycomb ceiling kept the audience warm and sheltered, and although each piece was made from cardboard boxes, they were reinforced with waterproof, insulating material which is often used for packing computers.

The result was a spot that felt uniquely-attuned to great debate, and was a credit to the ingenious third-year EKA students, who have set down a marker for their successors who will design the stand for next year’s Arvamus Festival.

A short guide to the dogs attending the festival

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

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

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

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

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The Dedicated Fan

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

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The First-Timer

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

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The Chill Dog

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

 Arvamusfestival 2015;

The Adventure Seeker

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

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The Hipster

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

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

Lunch @ Arvamus: Hamburger

The Arvamus Festival food options continue to excite and enthrall. Having been pleasantly-surprised by the flavoursome beetroot-dominated veggie burger on Friday, I decided to go two metres to the right, and try the meat option, the hamburger, to see how it compared.

For €8, it’s a premium price, but the burger, which came to me after only five minutes, was tender, broad and substantial. Served on a plate (rather than horizontally in paper as is usually favoured by Estonian convenience stalls), and with a wooden skewer through the middle in order to hold everything together, it feels like quality when you take it.

The mayonnaise and red onion chutney go well together, and the brown granary flat bun is a nice touch, though I always prefer it when burger places slightly toast them. However, the big X-factor of this burger was the makers’ use of smoked cheese in place of the usual processed strip – a variation on the theme that made the burger taste classy. Sticking with the upmarket theme, this is definitely a meal for picking apart, not picking up, hence why knives and forks are supplied.

If, like me, you craved a meat fix after a long day on the Festival tracks, the hamburger is something you will not be disappointed with. Head down to the food court and see what we mean.


Won’t the Young Estonians Please Stand Up?

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The Arvamus Festival isn’t only about the topics that make us ponder deeply about our existence. It’s also about the things that make us laugh, that make us joyful. On the Ekspress Meedia stage, a group of Estonian performers got together to ask, “Is stand-up the new Estonian theatre?”

There were differing views on the matter, and of course there was mention of the increasing popularity of stand-up comedy, that form of performance where, usually, one person stands on a stage and speaks directly to the audience in an attempt to make them laugh.

After the discussion, we met up with Estonian producer and performer Karl Kermes, who had been one of the panel, to get his view on the topic. He was frank about where Estonian comedy stood at the moment. “I think we don’t have a stand-up culture. It’s coming, but it’s not there yet,” Kermes explained, citing the fact that audience trends are different in Estonia to those traditional hot-spots of stand-up, the UK and USA.

“If we speak about stand-up from different languages [and cultures], I personally think, for an Estonian mainstream theatre audience, that kind of raw stand-up in pubs and clubs is not something they’re taking. It’s a great theatre-loving country. I’m working to build up stand-up shows that last one to two hours, for example like what Eddie Izzard is doing.”

Estonian comedy has always existed, but in different forms, the producer explained. “We have this problem that most of the comedians we put on the stage have graduated from Estonian drama school, then have been working in different theatres, in different roles. Now you’re asking them to come on stage and speak as themselves, with their own ideas, and I’ve found out it’s very difficult to them.” There has, he feels, been a general trend towards Estonian performers preferring to hide behind a role. “Somehow [the show] turns into a play, not a stand-up, in the end. That’s why I’m saying that at the moment, we don’t have Estonian stand-up.”

We asked if the reason for that was because of the way young people were brought up in the school system in Estonia, which has not always encouraged play or creativity in the way other systems have. “It can be;” Kermes said, “if you look at our history, where we are coming from, the time has been very short. I think also the new, young actors that are coming from drama school are thinking differently to the older, well-known comedians. So I think things will change, but it takes time.”

On another topic, Kermes was quick to name his favourite comedian. “Eddie Izzard. The main reason, or let’s say subconscious reason, is he was the first show I looked at on YouTube, and he’s great – he’s doing it so fluently, and I just love him.”

The enormous popularity of Irish comedian Dylan Moran, who sold out his November stand-up show in Tallinn within hours of tickets being released online, is heartening for those who loved him as an actor in the sitcoms ‘Black Books’ and ‘How Do You Want Me?’. Moran appears to share a special bond with Estonian audiences, and there is evidence the feeling is reciprocal. “The first time Dylan came to Estonia, it was surprising how quickly he sold out [of tickets], and it was so good, and I think it’s great to see, but I can’t put my finger on the reasons,” Kermes concluded.

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

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

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

1. Chance to take a moment.

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

2. New friends from unexpected places.

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

3. Awesome talks straight from the morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Five Reasons Why the Arvamus Festival is Awesome

1. Diversity of Debate

With a speaking area for every taste, the Arvamus Festival has thrown up some interesting debates, on every part of Estonian public (and private) life. The discussion on the need for a Russian-language TV channel in Estonia continues to be heard, and I attended the debate run by Keskerakond (the Centre Party), which held a discussion of its representatives’ views on the matter.

With questions often heated, as they regularly are when it comes to Estonian politics, it was interesting to see the public being given an open forum on which to question elected politicians, and even more interesting to see how they responded. Other political parties have been holding parallel debates, including the Reform Party, the IRL and the Social Democrats, making this a fully-rounded political debate.

2. A Chance for a Charm Offensive


Estonia’s first dedicated public Russian-language television channel, begins full service in September with 20 hours a week of factual and entertainment programming. Its representatives, such as channel head Darja Saar, were answering questions from all-comers about what it meant for Estonia, and why the station had been set up.

The positive PR campaign for the service, which will produce original programming in Estonia bringing news content, along with items such as a drama series, was led by Saar and Communications Manager Anastasia Dratsova. As the Arvamus Festival is a meeting-point for all those who like to consider issues, regardless of their background or interest, it makes it the perfect place for such a charm offensive.


3. Connecting with the Heart

“It’s the heart of Estonia.” I was told this about ten times by people I questioned about what was so special about Paide. The town, which hosts the Arvamus Festival up on Vallimägi, is loved by all visitors, especially on a blazing-hot summer’s day. There seems to be a special atmosphere of togetherness hereDSCF1669, which makes it so much easier to relax, unwind and enjoy calm deliberation of the issues not just of the mind, but also of the heart.


It’s also a place where the best of Estonian culture comes to play. Tallinn’s best jazz club, Philly Joe’s, which often hosts artists of the calibre of Liisi Koikson, Holger Marjamaa and Laura and Joel Remmel, has brought a selection of great musicians to the festival. They lit up lunchtime with their smooth brand of virtuoso playing.



4. Connecting with the Stomach


While listening to the music from Philly Joe’s, I sampled some of the excellent food on offer around the central courtyard of the Arvamus Festival grounds. Tallinn’s Kohvik Inspiratsioon, a vegetarian cafe of some repute, brought its cooks and service staff to Arvamus, and I ordered the veggie burger, purely for reasons of taste-testing, you understand.

The wholemeal bread used to wrap the burger was crusty and sturdy, even with a sizeable cut of cucumber and tomato inside. The burger was of course healthy, especially as it did not contain any dressing – the burger being made from a very tangy beetroot mix that more than provided enough flavour.

Inspiratsioon did indeed provide inspiration to continue my hunting of great events, though it still left an old-fashioned carnivore like me craving a juicy hamburger. It must be said, though, that the veggie burger, made with love, represents great value at €4.

5. Much More than Just Politics

Someone said before the festival, explaining why he would not be attending, “it’s just politics, though, isn’t it?” Er, no. The hundreds of events and talks cover everything from Estonian food, to why Estonia does not yet have an internationally-recognised crime novelist.

The search for the Estonian export star who could be a new Steig Larsson continues, but at the stage sponsored by Rahva Raamat, keen readers were given the chance to recline in the most comfortable bean-bags you can imagine, and listen to talented authors such as Indrek Hargla discuss their work, and the future of Estonian literature.


Meanwhile, students from Estonian high schools all over the country taking part in the Our New Media Generation project in association with the Ministry of Education and the website were given the chance to go out, gain some experience and confidence, and do some reporting from the festival.

The Festival of Opinion Culture off to a spirited start

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Sven Tupits (