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Change of mindset underway as Estonian parliament adopts agreement on civil society

The Estonian Civil Society Development Concept became an international success story. Once a participant at an NGO and public officials meeting in Canada slapped his fist on the table and told Canadian officials: "If you can't do it like Estonians, don't do it at all!"

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The Estonian NGO sector has reason to celebrate a major success. In December 2002, the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu, unanimously adopted a national strategy, the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept (Eesti kodanikuühiskonna arengu kontseptsioon). The concept provides the framework for relations between the country's NGOs and public authorities and states common principles of cooperation. This is reportedly the first such cooperation document approved by a parliament, as similar agreements in effect in other countries have been adopted on the level of national governments.

And this is largely the way the document should be assessed - as a statement of good will and a change in climate, not a specific regulation of relations. It does not yet mean specific changes, but rather creates an open window.

In the speeches delivered at the parliamentary meeting at which the document was adopted, all major political parties emphasized their support for the draft. Representatives of both the coalition and opposition parties hailed the adoption of the document, nobody voted against it or abstained. One after another, politicians stood up and saluted the concept.

Paul-Eerik Rummo of the ruling Reform Party, deputy head of the parliamentary cultural commission, said that NGOs were essential to ensure a democratic process which involved all people. Aimar Altosaar of the opposition Fatherland Alliance said that the message of the document was most essential, because the Riigikogu had thereby officially declared partnership, freedom of conscience and respect as principles to be followed by all. "These are all good principles that may not show up so much in the legislation and work of the parliament on a daily basis. In the ten years that our country has now developed, we have come so far that the civil society is beginning to show itself," Altosaar remarked. And these words were followed by praise from all political powers.

It indeed was good for the NGOs to hear the politicians say these words and not only because it was a well-earned rest from the daily political scuffles in the parliament. It was important to find strong protegés for the concept, because it was the NGOs very own baby.

The writing of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept was originally launched as a project of the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations (NENO) in 1999, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Before the document was handed over to the Estonian parliament in 2001, it was discussed and approved by hundreds of NGOs at regional and national public roundtables in a country of 1.4 million people and 17.000 NGOs. The project managers toured the country, met with NGOs at public roundtables and drew up bulky charts of amendments and proposals from people living in the remotest villages.

It was the truly legitimate voice of the NGOs and not a creation of some umbrella organisation, distant from its members. The "umbrella-version" just would not work, says the Estonian experience.

The final version was completed by three parliamentary commissions: the culture, social and constitutional commissions. But even there, two people from the Estonian NGO community, Kristina Mänd (NENO) and Ülle Lepp (Estonian Foundation for the Visually Impaired), wrote much of it while the politicians concentrated more on splitting hairs and pointing at mistakes.

The process of writing, rewriting and once again rewriting the document also became an international success story. Kristina Mänd, executive director of NENO, recalls how an Indian rose from his seat at a meeting in Canada, which the country's NGOs, politicians and public officials had summoned, slapped his fist on the table and told Canadian officials: "If you can't do it like Estonians, don't do it at all!" Unlike the Estonians, the Canadians felt that they had been pushed too far into the background when the similar Canadian document, the Accord was discussed.

Indeed, even before the concept was adopted by the Riigikogu, Estonian NGOs had talked about the paper in the USA, Canada, Japan, Hungary, Ukraine, Australia, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, South-Africa, Brussels, Strasbourg… Everywhere it became a "best practice" and was cited with excitement.

According to programme manager Daimar Liiv, who coordinated the completion of the document, it is the first cooperation document of its kind approved by a country's parliament. "It demonstrates to the world that a political agreement has been reached in Estonia between the NGO sector and the state over how to enhance cooperation," Liiv says. Writing the document and seeing it adopted by the parliament gave the national NGO community a boost of self-esteem.

But amidst all of this ecstasy, questions rose in critical minds. Was it a war that had been won or just a battle? With the parliamentary elections only a couple of months away, the election campaign had begun and the yelling of slogans about supporting pensioners, children and single mothers had started in full colour. What if the statements the MPs delivered at the famous meeting were part of the disease which has a habit of disappearing overnight by the morning after the elections?

The question of "what next" is, indeed, a tough one. According to the Estonian concept, a joint governmental-NGO committee will be established to determine concrete steps in developing Estonian civil society. "The Government of the Republic of Estonia and representatives of citizens' associations will establish a joint committee for launching a system of elaborating plans of action for implementing the concept, for the fulfilment of these plans and assessing their results," the document reads. It is hoped this body will be a very real channel for cooperation. But this committee is yet to be formed and even so, no real change can yet be anticipated.

However, maybe this document should not be taken in such a black and white manner. Indeed, the breakthrough did not mean N kroons in the NGOs' bank accounts or an amendment to law X. But the adoption of the concept and the process which preceded the Riigikogu decision, made a difference nevertheless.

It is largely a question of public awareness. It meant that the entire political establishment was encouraged to learn the vocabulary of NGOs. And not just the legal terminology, but also all vocabulary concerning values and principles. It is not just for the sake of rhetoric that the concept states the common principles which the NGOs and public authorities will share - respect, cooperation, reliability. "Democracy" becomes just a word for those who have enough oxygen to breathe. Once the gas is let in the living room, anyone would notice that the shared values and accepted rules are the dividing line between the countries that let their citizens breathe freely and those that do not.

The common vocabulary has also been important when NGOs have organised public hearings for the country's political parties both in Tallinn and in local districts, to get an overview of the politicians' views on civil society before the local elections (held on 20 October 2002) and the parliamentary elections (due on 2 March 2003). The last such roundtable took place on 1 February when the Estonian public NGO forum, the NGO Roundtable, held its third annual meeting in Tallinn. The representatives of seven parties sat in a row like good school children and replied to questions "Do you support financing NGOs from the state budget?", "How do you intend to improve the system of financing?", "What are the ways of involving NGOs in legislation?" and "What are the priorities that need to be discussed in the joint commission of NGOs and the government?" Three years ago, before the concept was taken to the MPs to discuss, such a debate would have been unthinkable. This was so simply because there was no shared vocabulary.

True, one cannot quite put his finger on what will change now that the concept has been adopted. But it is the same with spring - a different smell in the air, a tiny bit more light and a couple of birds singing here and there in the yet leafless trees. It is almost unnoticeable, but it is coming. The concept changes the very climate, the mindset of decision makers. And it is only good that the parties who wish to be elected to the parliament need to take pains to tell NGO people why the latter should elect them. Thus, the concept may signify the dawn of new politics where political parties are only the carriers for the ideas of civil society.

But the concept is also for the NGOs and, hence, for many people in Estonia, to think twice about what "citizen involvement" means. Along with several other democratic countries, Estonia suffers from relatively low turnout in elections and a rather deep disillusionment in politics. Kristina Mänd says that the concept did not only give politicians an idea of what NGOs were all about, but also the other way around. "It became clear that neither the NGOs nor the politicians had much knowledge about the working principles of the other party," Mänd notes. Back to politics! rings the call.
"Only a strong parliament and government can sustain a dialogue with NGOs," Agu Laius, chairman of the Estonian NGO Roundtable, noted upon the adoption of the concept. How true. And only a strong NGO can be a partner, while only an active citizen can truly benefit from the opportunities of participation, one could add. It is now largely for the country's NGOs to put this statement of good will into practice.

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