Opinion: Ignorance, absurdity, and hope at the 2019 Opinion Festival

With 160 panels, 10 of which are in English, the 2019 Opinion Festival in Paide offers a broad choice of different topics. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

What is tangible at the 2019 Opinion Festival in Paide is the new trinity of Estonian public debate that has crystallized in recent years, with a progressive, open-society focus on one end, a very solid technocratic middle, and an almost isolationist, hard-line national conservative focus on the other, writes ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

As EKRE's Jaak Madison, of recently renewed Twitter fame, sits on a panel discussing the supposedly oppressive European Union, another panel assembles an LGBT activist, a scientist, an employer, and two people with disabilities to discuss the prejudices that still need to be overcome for Estonia to really be an open society, while on ERR's own stage, the never-ending debate surrounding the language of science drones on.

At this festival, like no other place or event in Estonia, people tend to fall back on their own labels in society, whether it is that of being Estonian, Russian, a tolerast (the far right's label for open society advocates, derived from pederast), a pehmo (something like a snowflake, only that pehmo is a lot more versatile in its use), a university graduate, a drunk on a bench — or, as in the case of this editor, a foreigner with still limited Estonian skills, not quite arrived enough to partake in the debate, but too involved already to completely stay out of it.

As such, it is hard to ignore the eerie feeling that if the hard-right end of the spectrum suddenly became dominant, quite likely none of all this would be happening. And this, in turn, triggers a whole line of other impressions that come together to form a somewhat worrying, if not entirely hopeless picture.

For instance, the panel on the Postimees stage, titled "Rich but Unhappy," revolves around what is perceived as an inability of Estonians to enjoy the wealth the country has achieved — in essence, whinging at a very high level.

In it, the topic of poverty — with relative poverty still at some 20 percent, and with tens of thousands living in absolute poverty — hardly comes up at all.

At the same time, the British Embassy, in what feels somewhat alien given the spirit of openness of this festival, arranges an invitation-only, Chatham House rules "conversation" and drinks, to be attended by both the British ambassador and Estonia's highest-ranking EU diplomat.

At this point, it is difficult not to think about different bubbles that exist here, and about the yawning chasm between the lives of the people involved. Where this festival aims at stressing what we all have in common, at least this year it also demonstrates with uncomfortable clarity what the differences are, and how the actual everyday behavior of the stakeholders themselves could eventually make it increasingly difficult to find common ground.

Because the fact remains that none of the three parts of the trinity exist independently from each other. EKRE is a byproduct of the sort of social inequality, and to a degree also the ignorance, expressed by the debate surrounding wealth and material abundance. The tolerasts, with their queer activists and spokespeople for those with disabilities, are fighting against the conditions imposed by a society that still tends to reject change, and to feel shame and even hide those who are different. The technocrats, meanwhile, often struggle to grasp where the structural issues they are trying to solve are coming from, and how they could be addressed.

Perhaps the most important role of the Opinion Festival, then, is the practice itself of expressing — and tolerating — vastly different opinions. In just its first two hours, no fewer than 24 panels and debates are already underway, discussing topics as varied as divorce and custody issues, the language of science, prejudice in society, whether or not Brussels is the new Moscow, business as taught to children and youngsters, and how to turn trash into art and dance while you do it.

And why not.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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