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Implementation of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept and participatory democracy was deliberated as a matter of significant national importance in the Riigikogu today. Reports were by representative of non-profit organizations Tarmo Jüristo, the Minister of Regional Affairs Siim Valmar Kiisler and the Chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu Rait Maruste.

Tarmo Jüristo touched upon the credibility of the institutional politics and the legitimacy and perspectives of today’s political order. When briefing a study on the values and behaviour patterns of the Estonian population regarding civil society, published by the Centre for Civil Society Study and Development of Tallinn University, Jüristo said that the values of the Estonian society today, in 2012, are clearly orientated towards an involving and participating society and politics. According to the study, nearly two thirds of the respondents tended to prefer participatory democracy attitudes and about one fourth of the Estonian population does so consistently which allows to speak of a participatory democracy orientation. As few as 3 per cent of respondents had agreed with different representative democracy attitudes. As with behaviour patterns, the picture is significantly less colourful. In Jüsirto’s opinion, a regrettably narrow understanding of politics is very deeply rooted in Estonia. “This understanding sees politics as a power vertical or pyramid, with citizens at the lower end and the Prime Minister and the President at the upper end. Viewed like that, the non-governmental sector is like a kindergarten of politics which at best serves as an input to the real politics but which is incapable of making and cannot make decisions concerning the whole society,” Jüristo stated. He continued: “Many things are quite well in the relationships between civil society and public authority in Estonia, and not only in international comparison where we are often lauded in this regard. One token of this is, among other things, also the fact that I am standing here and speaking today.” In the opinion of the speaker, the problem with civic activity in today’s Estonia is not that people do not want to have their say in social matters or to participate in them or that they do not care but the problem lies in opportunities – in how many different ways do we have an opportunity to have our say and participate as citizens? At the end of his report, he posed some questions: “Is involving something that only a state can do with the non-governmental sector? Or can it also be the other way round; can the non-governmental sector involve the state? Can the cooperation of public authorities and the non-governmental sector be seen only within the meaning of involvement – we listen and take into account as far as possible? Or would it be possible to open also the decision-making, step-by-step and more widely, so that the voice of the non-governmental sector would be heard throughout the whole political process, starting from setting the goals and defining the problems until choosing the solutions and implementing them?”

Siim Valmar Kiisler recalled that nearly ten years have passed since the adoption of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept and civil society has suddenly become popular and visible since then. “This change in the society could not happen overnight, it was a long work of active people that led to this,” Kiisler stressed. “In my opinion, the non-governmental sector has become much more daring, active, political, and more political in the good sense of the word, in the few recent years. More people are willing to participate in the decisions influencing their life. In my opinion, this is a positive development and I can say that this is the state that I wanted,” Kiisler continued. The Minister of Regional Affairs spoke about the infrastructure supporting civil society, the National Foundation of Civil Society and volunteering projects and the financing thereof on a wider scale, and about the updating of the good involvement practice created by the Government. “Participatory democracy presumes a situation where citizens see themselves in an active role in participation in politics. This means that citizens are willing to participate in the discussion and resolution of the problems of the society and they are willing to cooperate,” the Minister of Regional Affairs said. In his words, the study had revealed that a lack of interest had been the most often indicated reason for not belonging to any organisation. Kiisler also touched upon the involvement of the role of officials and the need to educate the young generation. At the end of his report, Kiisler said: “Citizens want to participate in decisions, however, for politicians, this means giving up some of their power. This is not easy because this is something new. And no new thing takes root easily. However, despite everything, we can say now that we have attitudes favouring participatory democracy.”

Rait Maruste also noted that ten years had passed since the adoption of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept. “During these ten years, we have gone through a great and rapid development both in democracy and technology, and without doubt we need a critical evaluation and consideration of the current development and the setting of new goals,” Maruste said. He stressed that, in order that the society would function normally and democratically and that the members of the society would get along with one another in a satisfactory manner, a capable and efficient public sector, a strong business sector and an active third sector, the so-called non-governmental sector, are needed. One cannot live without the other. “The civil society of Estonia, its organisation has gone through a significant development and deserves recognition,” he added. The Chairman of the Constitutional Committee highlighted three aspects: according to the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept, one aim of civil society is the cooperation of people on their own initiative for pursuing their interests, and non-governmental organisations provide jobs for circa 4-5 per cent of the population who are capable of working, and, last year, they had 7 million euro for direct payments at their disposal, and 67 million euro for applications for realisation of various projects, programmes and activities. “On a very broad picture, all of us – the non-governmental organisations, political parties, public servants and business people – are citizens, members of the society. We all together are civil society, everyone in their segment, and we bear a responsibility before our state and nation and Constitution. Consequently, there is no ground for opposing one sector to another, to be in confrontation or to harbour hostility towards one another. It cannot be overlooked that the authority of the state is credible and has a greater legitimacy, decisions are more deliberated and meet more interests and expectations if it listens to everybody concerned and who have anything to say about a matter,” Maruste admitted. He stated that the right to participate and be heard does not necessarily mean that the wish of one party should dominate. That is, to dictate a decision or to make a different decision. “I believe that good lobbying rules would help us gain a better mutual understanding here,” the Chairman of the Constitutional Committee noted. He found that the umbrella organisations of civil society should assume the role and the responsibility to generalise the opinions of different members within the organisation and to integrate these into a single document, indicating at the same time who expressed their opinions and how the summary was compiled – this would be a way of mutual recognition and consideration in pursuing a common cause. In Maruste’s opinion, speaking about the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept in the Committees and the sitting chamber of the Riigikogu is a treaded path by today and it is time to focus on certain more specific issues, which would mean cooperation with a specific Riigikogu Committee in order to be more content-oriented, efficient and productive.

On behalf of factions, comments were presented by Aadu Must, Priit Sibul, Eiki Nestor and Paul-Eerik Rummo; the Member of the Riigikogu Tõnis Lukas also took the floor.

For more details, read the verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian):

The Riigikogu Press Service