PAY ATTENTION: President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves says the public needs to take responsibility for civil society.
TARTU - It was exactly seven months ago when Estonian Reform Party member Silver Meikar wrote that he donated money to his party from an unknown source. At that time it was hard to imagine that it all would culminate in protest actions against the government. Even more so in a country where public protests against the government are something extraordinary.
Public outcry grew starting on Nov. 14, when well-known public figures issued a petition that was called Charter 12. It was a direct follow-up to the Reform Party’s money scandal and their reluctance to admit that anything was done wrongly. This Charter states that the governing authority only takes into consideration what the public thinks during elections; after that there is no debate or responsibility for their actions whatsoever. Some of these public figures who issued this Charter included Indrek Tarand, a member of the European Parliament, well-known historian David Vseviov and writer Juhan Kivirahk.
More than 17,500 people have signed the charter on-line so far and after its publication there were three public demonstrations organized in Tallinn, Tartu and Viljandi, where the slogan was “Enough of untruthful politics.” Made Luiga, a civil society activist who was the main organizer for the Tallinn demonstration, stated in the daily Eesti Paevaleht that this will probably not be the endpoint of the demonstrations. “Civic initiatives will continue in society till the changes in society will actually take place.”
Problems with Estonian democracy
The main idea for Charter 12 is simple. The first paragraph states: “Estonia’s democracy is crumbling before our eyes. Democratic legitimacy has ceased – daily feedback between the authorities and the public, which gives those in power the knowledge that they lawfully represent the people, and gives the public reassurance that it is represented by those in power, has ended.” It is a direct response for the failure of the government to take into consideration the opinions of different civil society actors.
However, this Charter wasn’t the common opinion of all intellectuals. It has also caused criticism. One of the most well-known critics is professor and literature researcher Mihhail Lotman, who stated in his blog that he didn’t sign the charter because its goals were too confusing and the formulation of the letter caused him strong reluctance. “It is an ordinary trick for the manipulation of the masses. In the beginning people are charged up with proclamations and slogans, and in the shadow of that their own agenda is being presented,” stated Lotman on his blog.
The secret agenda that he mentioned was to simplify the creation of parties and, with that, a new political force would have the opportunity to run in the elections. Jevgeni Ossinovski, Social Democrat and a member of Parliament who signed the Charter, stated to Estonian Public Broadcasting that the formation of a new party isn’t in their minds. “No-one from the initial signers of the Charter demands a new party. The demand is that the elected representatives would fulfill democratic principal,” he concluded.
In the beginning Charter 12 was even compared with the letter of 40, from 1980, where 40 intellectuals attempted to protect Estonian culture and language against the russification policies. This letter had an important impact on society. Russification policies were softened and this strengthened morality and the solidarity of the Estonian people in their fight against communism. Certainly this comparison isn’t completely valid, but because of the charter some important steps have been made towards improving the situation in Estonia.
Aftermath of Charter 12
The most immediate outcome of Charter 12 came on Nov. 21, when President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves called on politicians and the representatives of different civil society groups to discuss the ongoing problem. Ilves stated that there was recognition that civil society needs to be paid more attention. “We all showed that we found some room behind a mutual table and that we have a mutual concern, a mutual responsibility,” he said to news-portal Delfi.
In these Roundtable Discussions it was agreed that for the spring, there will be proposals made on how to improve the situation in different spheres of life. Certainly the main emphasis is on the way parties are funded, but, for example, also in how to involve citizens into political processes between the elections.
The view from the ruling Reform Party is far from good. Their support among voters is the lowest in three years. An inquiry made by TNS Emor showed that the Reform Party is supported by 26 percent of the voters. It is nearly the same as opposition parties Center Party (23 percent) and the Social Democratic Party (25 percent). It has alarmed the Reform Party into analyzing their efforts and in trying to regain the support of the electors.
Before the Ilves Roundtable Discussions the Reform Party held a board meeting where they discussed the ideas proposed by the president. In addition, on the agenda was the topic of whether the attorney general, Kristen Michael, should resign, though the understanding was that this was unnecessary. In a letter that was sent to all party members, it was stated that Charter 12 and the president’s initiatives are a positive step forward. “Politicians and parties aren’t infallible and the Reform Party has a lot to learn and improve from the activities from the last months,” the letter stated.
Only time will tell; does Charter 12 have a far-reaching impact on Estonian society, and will the Reform Party be able to re-establish its trust among the voters.