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