Arvamus Festival forces its way into Estonian national consciousness

  • 2016-08-24
  • Stuart Garlick

Paide, a small and sleepy town in the agricultural heart of Estonia, reckoned to be the most central point in the country, is usually the sort of place where it’s possible to enjoy the quiet. This all changes each year for a mid-August weekend. The fourth annual Arvamus (Opinion) Festival brought crowds from all over Estonia to the Vallimagi site which was once used for defence, to listen to, reflect on, and discuss some of the most important topics in public life, politics, and business.

With topics submitted to the Arvamus Festival team in the early part of 2016 and decided many months in advance of the festival, there was an aspect of some discussion topics that felt as though they came from a time before fears over Brexit, Russia, and NATO. However even utopian or theoretical topics brought interesting takeout points for the audience.
One such example was “How to Make Consensus-Based Decisions,” a forum that examined how the Polder model of Dutch-style consensus building could be used to forge a form of Estonian politics that encouraged more people to get involved in the decision-making process. Peter Kentie, a Dutch entrepreneur based in Estonia, argued that it was important for stakeholders at all levels to have a more direct relationship. “If the person giving the brief is sitting next to you, rather than just being the one who gives the money, that makes the difference. It’s better to have that discussion in the room, than in a newspaper.”

Increased civic activism over such developments as proposed building work in Tallinn’s Kalarand area, and a planned highway that some believe will make public access to the sea more difficult, was brought up. The panellists agreed that there was a disconnect between decision-makers and those who the decision would affect.

Disability or reduced-ability issues are moving into the mainstream in Estonia, with the government having announced policies to assist the introduction of more disabled people into the workforce. One discussion, held by Eesti Tootukassa (the Estonian Employment Agency), discussed the reforms directly, with the Minister of Social Protection, Margus Tsahkna, on the panel. Anyone who wanted Tsahkna to make definitive commitments was to be disappointed.
The minister said, “I think by 2019, 2020, or 2021, we will see some of the changes within the reform bearing fruit. That works with multiple participants, beginning with services and finishing with support of companies and their ability to employ disabled people. My dream is that our social system would represent one door, which you enter, allowing you to get your health problems sorted out, your real living environment recorded, and to get the support and services you really need. In this situation, one would not need to know or think whether it was the government, the local government, or some other company giving the support.”

People who have a disability have been hearing about vague aspirations and dreams for long enough without significant assistance in the workplace, that it was something of a relief to know that those affected by the policy would be able to take part in another, more personal, Tootukassa-organised talk.
There was ample discussion of perhaps the hottest topic in Estonian news and on social media in the past two years: the migration crisis. With the war in Syria having continued to worsen the fortunes of that country’s citizens, the fallout has led to divisions in Estonia over whether or not to accommodate refugees, and in what number. The issue is felt by many to have contributed to increased approval ratings for the far-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and neoliberal Free Party (Vabaerakond), while also leading to a spike in reported racist incidents in Estonia.

It was in this light that Estonian World, in association with the Estonia 100 Celebration team, held a talk entitled ”Do Non-Native Residents Feel Like Hosts or Guests?” in which moderator Stewart Johnson asked his panel of international residents how they felt about their present home. There was ample discussion of occurrences of racism. There was also a discussion of what needs to be done to make foreigners feel more welcome in the cities in which they have settled, with Joao Rey, a Portuguese living in Tallinn, making the point that there appear to be far fewer negative incidents related to a person’s race or nationality in the capital than in a city like Tartu, for example.

The discussion wasn’t all about matters of national character. There were also practically-minded discussion topics related to education, with Estonian schools suffering from a shortage of new science teachers.
“Playful learning” was touched-upon as a concept that could improve the curriculum, with Tallinn secondary-school teacher Martin Saar saying playful learning was “the best thing since sliced bread,” but “should not be a goal in itself, but a means to explain abstract topics.” Centre Party Member of Parliament and presidential candidate Mailis Reps said that she felt discipline and order should be paramount in schools. In parallel, telecommunications company Telia organised a debate on what boundaries should be put in place regarding children’s internet use, and to what extent web access through mobile devices was a positive or negative element in young people’s development.

Reps was involved again for the debate of presidential candidates, with matters such as security, defence, and trust in the executive brought up as major issues with which a future leader would have to cope.
The parliamentary leaders’ debate on Saturday afternoon was widely thought to have been a more productive discussion, with subjects including the changing nature of the workforce, Estonia’s gender pay gap, and the problem of drug dependency among some sections of the population. The debate was a success even in spite of the absence of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, who was on holiday at the time.

Although the Arvamus Festival has some way to go before it is seen as an essential and iconic part of the calendar, the 2016 iteration featured 230 discussions on a wide spectrum of topics, with panels taking place in English and Russian alongside the Estonian-language meetings throughout both days.