Opinion rock to echo from Paide Castle Hill

Anneli Ammas
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Photo: Peeter Langovits

On August 16th to 17th, Estonia gets its initial opinions festival – organised by volunteers, touching upon topics vital for the country.

A young lady, formerly employed by Estonian and Swedish banks and even Stenbock House, has managed to make dozens of people to believe in her dream of organising, in Estonia, a peculiar rock festival – the kind held for decades in Visby, on the Swedish isle of Gotland. Where, instead of music, words and ideas do the rocking.

While working in Stockholm, in 2009–2012, as communications manager for Swedbank’s eastern partners, she once happened upon the Gotland holiday paradise, in the heat of summer, abuzz with an opinion festival. Ms Kristi Liiva was amazed at the seriousness of the topics, peacefully discussed by Swedes on platforms and in cafés alike. A year later, she took along a bunch of colleagues and afterwards started to harbour ideas of getting something of the kind going in Estonia.

And whenever anyone asked Ms Liiva of her most remarkable memories from life/work in Sweden, she never failed to talk about the Almedalsveckan festival in Visby.

«This is a festival, for which hotels on Gotland are booked a year in advance,» says PR consultant Ott Lumi, having seen the festival with his own eyes. Is it possible to organise a festival like this over here?

«I am not naïve, assuming that it would, at first try, turn into something of the Swedish calibre,» said Mr Lumi, carefully. «In Sweden, the context is altogether different, with a democracy developed much longer and deeper. And even in Finland, where they have held a festival like this four-five years, the organisers admit it is far from it could be.»

The difference also being in how the opinion festival bas birthed in Sweden, 45 years ago, and how it is now launched in Estonia. As the legend goes, half a century ago a summer cottage was purchased on Gotland by the then education minister Olaf Palme, inviting folks over to hear his speech. From then on, the soc dems led by Mr Palme started to have their summer get-togethers on the island, followed by other parties. Finally arriving at the idea of taking the time, in a relaxed atmosphere, to discuss the Swedish life and future. Then, all kinds of companies joined in, the festival evolving into a week-long exchange of ideas.

«In Estonia, the festival is summoned by civil society, now inviting the political parties to hop on board – not the other way around as it happened in Sweden,» said Mr Lumi.

So: what will be happening in Paide, on August 16th and 17th?

Fresh ideas born

Onto the Paide Castle Hill, two main platforms will be erected, complemented by a number of smaller platforms for definite topics. There will be cafés, and an open mike platform. The organisers have offered some major topics; however, entrepreneurs, universities, civil societies, think tanks, banks, newspapers etc are raising issues as well. The organisers are hoping that the atmosphere created will provide a kind of an intellectual recreation, with lawns, picnic areas, and even swings available to discuss Estonia’s present and future.

«I like to think that something will be happening – something unforeseeable, in details. Inspiration, lots of good and new ideas,» says Kaarel Oja, former NO99 theatre chief turned Telliskivi Loomelinnak creativity centre content manager. «We have toiled hard to get people to come who, in their everyday lives, are not inclined to share their views publicly – we are after a high level, wise talk is always welcome,» he tells the possible sceptics.

Mr Oja is convinced that the festival’s success is guaranteed, with so many volunteers heartily involved. «I am absolutely convinced that many people will show up, that the discussions will turn out to be interesting, that the atmosphere will be very cool,» enthused Mr Oja.

Kristi Liiva is rather modest, in comparison: «I keep my expectations low. No matter how many will show up the first year, what matters most is that they go home feeling good and wish to came again next year – that, for me, would be success.»

Looking for a location, the organisers were readily welcomed by Paide. «In Paide, both city and county governments were ready to also invest, and not a little,» rejoiced the Paide community centre head Rainer Eidemiller. «People tend to be sceptical, when it comes to Paide… Not knowing what to think of it. Once they get here, they wonder at its beauty,» says Mr Eidemiller, hinting at the main gain for the small town, from organising an all-Estonian festival.

As a local enthusiast, he knows what a difficult job it is to get people involved in public discussions. He now hopes that the festival will help the Paide people realise that open activities and talks are not for «local nuts alone».

«I hope the festival lets everybody know that no one can restrict himself to his garden or apartment association, breaking the mould of public issues being something only the local government will tackle,» said Mr Eidemiller.

Still, he agrees that the first year will not achieve much – influence taking time and traditions to build. «I wish the festival will not turn into elections propaganda; that it would not mainly involve politicians but people who would realise that being active in the public sphere does not necessarily mean becoming a politician,» hopes Mr Eidemiller.

True: political parties are welcome, among others, the final speeches being left for chairmen thereof.

While the festival hopes to raise weighty subjects, no declaration will be issued – nobody, not even politicians, are expected to carry anything out.

As the organisers put it, the festival is Nordic-inspired and will not embody a continuation of Ice Cellar Initiative of People’s Assembly (Rahvakogu). This will simply be a place for people to express their ideas and be heard. «This is what we have sensed in our society, these past year and a half,» said Ms Liiva.

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«I envision the festival, first and foremost, resulting in people gaining new knowledge, hearing what others have to say, gaining a new angle of looking at things important for us, I am quietly hoping that, afterwards, the participants will be encouraged to believe and emboldened to go get something accomplished,» said Ms Liiva.

She added that the festival welcomes all who wish to express their ideas to others – and vice versa, those who desire to hear what others have to say.

«I hope the organisers will be energised to keep setting this up again and again,» said Kaarel Oja.

According to Ms Liiva, the festival will cost €30,000, partly funded by Open Estonia Foundation and entrepreneurs. An internet environment Hoovõtja will be open to receive donations. PA-systems, platforms, lightings, security and order will be secured by Paide town government and Järva county government.

«None of us volunteers do the festival work for money,» added Ms Liiva.

Opinion festival Arvamusfestival 2013

Main topics:

•    What kind of a state are we able and willing to maintain?

•    What is the cost of poverty?

•    Culture and economy – an unhappy couple?

•    Where and who are the people we want to invite to Estonia?

•    Is alcohol addiction rooted in culture?

•    Possibilities of participating in community life outside of political parties

•    Breaking through in this world

•    Hate speech

•    Where lays the balance in tolerance?

•    How to get bullying out of schools?

•    What is the meaning of Estonia?

Postimees platform topics:

•    Privacy vs security today (the NSA case)

•    Issues raised by merger of journalistic genres

•    Current overview of Estonian media landscape

•    Differences not to be addressed? (Opinion fields turned into ghettoes; new taboos in politics, economy etc, role of media as carrier of free speech vs media’s responsibility)

•    Discussion by Postimees opinion desk. Five current editorials