Last week marked the respectable 20th anniversary of the Jaan Tõnisson Institute, named after the early 20th century Estonian statesmen. The occasion prompted a number of speeches and op-eds in the local media, including a speech by the President of the Republic Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and an op-ed in the news portal Defli by Aimar Altosaar, both expressing concern over the state of Estonian civil society.
Granted, President Ilves also had glowing praise for the rich history of Estonian civic activism. "The song festival, student unions, the Vanemuise Society, the Alexander school chief committee – these examples prove that voluntary community service usually succeeds in achieving its goals. And they can only be stopped by resistance by the state."
Ilves subsequently scolded the tendency of the media to lay unsubstantiated criticism on civic initiatives such as the "Bring the Talents Home", a program designed to help Estonians living abroad return home. He also warned Estonians against astro-turf NGOs. "QUANGO, GONGO – you all know what hides behind these acronyms. Or PANGO or MUNGO, pseudo-nonprofits affiliated with political parties or municipal authorities."
Aimar Altosaar, a member of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, noted that "A sense of cowardice is spreading across Estonia, a willingness to compromise one's beliefs, sacrificing values for short-term pragmatic gains. If we do not put a halt to the loss of courage, our national independence may well be threatened too."
Civil society has not developed as fast as one would have expected, wrote Altosaar, and many NGOs have become addicted to the public teat, creating unhealthy competition for public funds and diverting attention away from their main objective – strengthening civil society.
"Political NGO-s, or in other words, parties, are dissuading civic activism and cooperation with the rest of society," wrote Altosaar. "Parties are becoming soulless hierarchies of power whose only function is to produce risk-free seats in the parliament for its members."
"Courage has been lost elsewhere as well. Workers are afraid to criticize working conditions or salaries, because this may well result in being fired, or, in the best case scenario, laid off. Civic activists are afraid to criticize the public sector, because their next project may end up not receiving funding. Public employees cannot speak up against the stupidities of the government, because doing so may put an end to their career. And the customers of banks should not raise eyebrows over the interest rates of banks and leasing firms, because it may leave them penniless."