In heated public debate, the Opinion Festival in Paide wants to provide a safe space for open discussion. ERR spoke to chief organizer Kaspar Tammist.
Arvamusfestival – translated as "Opinion festival" – sounds like an intriguing program for nerds. Where did the idea come from?
It is actually a really big thing, mostly in Scandinavia and now here is Estonia as well. The idea dates back to the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Already in the 1960s he started informal speeches in Almedalen Park in the city of Visby during his summer holidays which became a regular event. After Palme's assassination in 1986, it was turned into "Democracy Festival." The idea spread out to Finland, Norway and inspired us to do our own "Arvamusfestival" - which literally translates to "Opinion Festival."
But "Opinion Festival" stands for less than "Democracy Festival," because democracy is much more than just about opinions. It is about manufacturing consent, taking and implementing decisions as well.
Well, I agree on that. But properly discussed opinions in a public debate are the basis of all decisions and therefore the basis of democracy. And a couple of years ago we formed an overarching association called "Democracy Festival Association." We try to inspire people from other countries to have such festivals as well, to promote the principle ideas of democracy. We have members in more problematic countries like Hungary, for example, where public debate is rather dominated by the state. We recently welcomed new members from Turkey. Therefore, we still feel we're part of that. We are "Opinion Festival" within the "Democracy Festival Association."
What was the purpose of Arvamusfestival when it started in 2013?
In 2012 the situation in Estonia was quite weird. Because we just had a big scandal called "Silvergate," after several members of the Reform Party were accused of having taken illegal cash-money from unknown sources to re-distribute it to the party as a "donation." There was a civil society movement called "Charter 12" that highlighted different problems in Estonian civil society, that people, different voices were not heard and that only businessman with big money could afford to be heard in public debate. Kristi Liiva, who founded Arvamusfestival, had visited Almedalen Week before and, facing the scandal, she decided that Estonia was ready: Let's bring the people together and debate about the topics important to them.
You look back on more than a decade of festivals. What's new about this year's festival?
Before the coronavirus years we were growing and growing and growing – we were about to add a third day to the festival and soon also a fourth. But last year we had to close the place down due to Covid restrictions. And it turned out that people liked that smaller scale of the festival. So we decided to put less effort into quantity and more into high-quality debates. But our program this year will contain about 160 discussions on different topics.
Having fewer discussions doesn't necessarily ensure higher quality. How do you make sure?
To achieve it, we train the organizations that come to us with their ideas. Because this is what the festival grows out of. Everyone can hand in their ideas about what topic should be discussed. We have a team of volunteers who help to coordinate, think through all the different aspects of your discussion, help to find the best format so that one could reach the goals. We do that not only to ensure a high-quality discussion, we also hope that the trained organization spreads the word and the knowledge. In this way we hope to impact the whole of Estonia.
An ambitious goal.
Yes. And in this sense you could ask, what have you done the last ten years. Because if you look at the parliament, it's not very good. Or on social media, people sometimes do not act responsibly. If only those who scream louder or are more impolite will get the audience, there's still a lot to do to implement a good discussion-culture in Estonia. But people coming together in Paide, that beautiful site and openly discussing topics that were, are or will be relevant during the year is the biggest impact we can have.
You have an open call for papers. Every person and NGO can hand in topics. Who decides which topics get into the program and on which conditions?
We have a core team of six people who organize Arvamusfestival during the year and some others volunteering here and there. In the end, a group of 15 rates all topics individually and we pool together to figure out which topics make it to the festival and which rather won't. We usually receive about 400 ideas and between 120 and 150 make it to the festival.
In order to make sure that people meet our standards, we ask them to hand in a proper application. So you can't just come up with a random topic you personally would like to talk about. We need a concrete reason why you set up this topic, why it needs to be discussed now, with whom and what specific goal you want to reach with that discussion.
The call is still open (until April 2) and evaluation hasn't started yet. But what are the anticipated highlight topics this year?
Energy will certainly be a topic. Oil shale will always be relevant, because we have so many miners who are working in the east of Estonia. The energy transition and the end of oil shale energy make for a big issue in Estonia – as well as wind turbines and solar panels.
And education. Right now we have the problem that many smaller communities don't have the money to run schools properly because they don't have too many children and schools need to be closed.
National security and the Ukraine war will of course be a topic. But we don't focus too much on one specific topic – all ideas are welcome.
Kaspar Tammist (34), is a civil society activist from Paide. He studies change management in society at the University of Tartu. He was chief-organizer of Arvamusfestival since 2019, in 2024 his 5-year-term will end.
Arvamusfestival was first held in 2013 in Paide (Järva County) and grew. The last year before the corona pandemic, approximately 12,000 people attended the festival. This year it will be held on August 11 - 12.
Editor: Marcus Turovski