Representatives of the member organizations of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum (CSF) came together for its 5th General Assembly in Tallinn on Thursday to discuss current EU-Russia relations and its influence on the civil society sector. The opening speech was given by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
"In the past months, the EU-Russia relations have experienced probably the deepest crisis in history,“ Anna Sevortian, the Executive Director of the EU-Russia CSF, said. "It is a great challenge for non-governmental organizations on both sides to keep their integrity and work for public good. We believe that mutual co-operation and solidarity are crucial for the civil society to take up this challenge," she added.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves stressed that there is a strong relationship between civil society and democracy - democracy develops best in an environment where civil society has been ingrained for centuries.
"Autocratic heads of state who cannot understand that people are capable of doing something themselves, voluntary and without orders, also realize it. They are afraid of free civic initiative and tend to search for some hostile foreign puppeteer behind people's movements," Ilves said.
"For example, all kinds of conspiracy theories about [Ukraine's] Maidan have been proposed. But we remember from the days of the Estonian Singing Revolution that people came together by themselves and spontaneously to demand freedom; nobody ordered us to do it," he added.
Ilves said that Estonia was able to quickly restore democracy and voluntary civil society activity in villages and cities after the restoration of independence in 1991.
"As Estonia has become one of the most developed digital societies in the world, our civil society is also very active virtually," he said, using the example of the People's Assembly, which used collective brainstorming to generate ideas.
The President also spoke about the "Let's do it!" initiative, a massive waste clean-up action in 2008 where 30,000 people across the country helped to collect trash and garbage. The campaign which was started in Estonia, spread around the world, and this year 11 million people in 122 countries participated in the initiative.
Ilves also cited the Estonian Defense League, as an example of a civil society initiative. The Defense League is a volunteer-based military organization that currently has 13,000 members. Together with the Women's Voluntary Defense Organization, Young Eagles and Home Daughters, it has more than 21,000 volunteers.
The assembly will end Saturday.