State of Estonian Civil Society Unclear, but Generates Discussion

laine uudised-laine
28. Apr 2011


Over the past two months, a number of experts and pundits have criticized the state of Estonian civil society, for aspects ranging from a lack of agenda-setting power in the political process to accusations of a general malaise. However, the criticisms have not been left unanswered.


Shortly after the parliamentary elections, a number of critics raised concerns over the lack of real discussion in the electoral campaign. Both Indrek Neivelt, an entrepreneur and investment banker, as well as Marju Lauristin, social scientist, noted that real long-term structural issues threatening the fabric were left unanswered. “This is the place where civil society should speak up, yet over the course of the electoral campaign, they didn’t,” told Lauristin to the evening news program of the Estonian Public Broadcasting, on March 13th.

She elaborated on that topic the following day in an op-ed published in the daily newspaper Postimees. “Civil society is strong, if it participates in the society self-regulation and influences strategic political choices. In this regard, Estonian civil society is far less strong than it is in its everyday practical affairs,” Lauristin wrote.

“Although non-profit organizations may be included in political administration, this does not yet mean that society has broken free of party-political and administrative chains. To do that civil society must amplify the voice of the public and set the agenda for public discussion.”

Similar concerns were echoed by Aimar Altosaar, a Pro Patria and Res Publica Union member, in a speech held on the birthday of the Jaan Tõnisson Institute, a human rights advocacy organization.

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."

Finally, last week, Peeter Helme, an editor in the weekly newspaper “Eesti Ekspress” wrote that Estonia lacks a “truly big initiative” that would energize the whole of civil society, particularly in the fields of research and development, where most initiative seems to come from the public sector.

“People often think that they are not competent enough, that they will be ridiculed or that their initiative will not be serious enough.” Finally, Helme proposed altering the tax code, so that citizens could direct a portion of their taxes directly to charity.

These criticism have met with equally sharp responses however. First, not everyone agreed that the pre-election discussion was stale. As readers of our web site may recall, the think tank Praxis, along with many others, called these past elections “the most substantive in recent history”.

NENOs Urmo Kübar responded to Helme’s criticism as follows: “It is unclear, what Helme means by a ‘truly big initiative’, given the song and dance festival traditions, the “Let’s Do It” campaign which is now expanding to a global scale, not to mention local initiatives such as the Rimi boycott (a Facebook-organized boycott of the supermarket chain Rimi, which at one point decided to stop selling Estonian meat products – ed.), parking in Kalamaja, the well at Tuhala and so on. All is not lost in other fields as well – let’s take, for example, what social service organizations have achieved in their fields, how they have turned civic activism into a popular business model.”