Democracy Festival

Paide (Estonia)


Photo (cc) Arvamusfestival The Opinion Festival in Estonia is an annual participatory event that began in 2013 as a response to societal challenges and a perceived breakdown of civil society. The festival is organised by the NGO Arvamusfestival that works tirelessly throughout the year to orchestrate this impactful event. This event, by accommodating around 110 to 120 discussions about crucial topics in Estonia, has become a platform for open dialogue and democratic participation, helping to repair civil society and promote a culture of active citizenship.  

The idea for the Opinion Festival was born 11 years ago, however, the genesis of the festival in Estonia can be traced back to the societal challenges faced in 2012. The country experienced significant upheaval, marked by high-profile scandals, including the Harta 12 -Charter 12- and revelations of corruption within a major political party. Culture activists, NGO members, and esteemed individuals, including university professors, collectively addressed the government, highlighting the perceived breakdown of civil society and the urgent need for repair. The other significant event, also in 2012, unfolded when a prominent member of the leading political party openly admitted to illegally financed the party. The shocking revelation included the assertion that laws could be purchased, essentially implying that legislative decisions were negotiable commodities, highlighting the breakdown in the fundamental principles of governance.

During this tumultuous period, Estonian President Thomas Hendrick Ilves convened a meeting known as the ice cellar round table. This meeting aimed to address the low point in Estonia and explore solutions. Kristi Liiva, the individual who introduced the idea of a democracy festivalDemocracy Festivals are the platforms for constructive political dialogue across opinions, age, gender, and hierarchy, where people come together each summer to discuss how to improve their countries. Civil society activists, entrepreneurs, government officials, politicians and people at large sit together and casually talk about how to make their country a better place for everybody. to Estonia, is a management consultant specialised in change management, and she had been inspired after attending the Almedalen Week. Recognising the societal issues in Estonia, she engaged with media organisations, public figures, politicians, and university personnel to gauge support for the concept. While some expressed scepticism, the prevalent societal unrest created a conducive environment for the festival’s inception.

The foundational premise behind the Opinion Festival was the recognition that the societal conditions in Estonia were dire. The willingness of people to come together, openly discuss critical issues, and seek positive change provided the impetus for the festival’s growth and establishment as a platform for civic engagement.

The evaluation of citizen participation in governance is nuanced and depends on the perspective taken. Overall, there are positive aspects, especially in terms of providing opportunities for people to engage in lawmaking. The ability for a percentage of the population to sign documents that the government must consider reflects a commendable democratic process. However, the effectiveness of this system varies at different government levels.

At the national level, where decisions impact the entire country, the system seems functional. Yet, when focusing on local governments, challenges emerge. Local politics often overshadow the genuine concerns of the community, with politicians pursuing personal agendas rather than prioritising the needs of the people. This discrepancy is more pronounced at the local government level, where politicisation hinders effective governance. Despite assertions of financial constraints, local governments seem to allocate resources to endeavours primarily benefiting politicians. This dynamic significantly hampers the ability of regular citizens to have their voices heard. The discrepancy between stated limitations and actual resource allocation creates an environment that falls short of ideal.

While there are positive instances, such as the inclusive Tallin’s Green Capital Citizens Assembly, where 1% of the population participates in decision-making, these examples are not widespread. In essence, the state level demonstrates a more favourable scenario, whereas local governance appears to be in less optimal shape, characterised by political influences that divert attention from the community’s welfare.

Part of the financial dynamics of the festival depend on the organisers of the discussions who cover their costs for the stages. The festival consists of 20 discussion stages, each capable of hosting up to 9 discussions. Organisers pay for their specific area, which may amount to around €2,000 to €5,000, covering expenses such as tents, lighting, screens, decorations, chairs, sound equipment, and other necessities. The organisers bear the financial responsibility for these elements, while the festival provides free power and drinking water.

The festival’s budget for the year 2023 amounts to €320,000, with three significant components: i) fixed costs include salaries, warehouse expenses, and office-related payments; ii) the construction and maintenance of the festival area, excluding stages, constitute another substantial portion; and, iii) a smaller part goes towards program management, volunteer engagement, and pre-event activities conducted throughout the year.

As for funding sources, the festival relies on diverse financial support to cover its costs. This includes contributions from the local government, as the festival brings significant economic activity to the area promoting Paide and receiving media coverage; the Ministry of Interior in Estonia, overseeing NGO management, contributes to the festival’s income; private businesses contribute the majority, representing over half of the budget, with companies such as telecommunication, green energy; and the State Forest Management Center supporting the festival due to their commitment to societal well-being rather than solely profit-oriented goals. This diversified funding approach ensures the financial sustainability of the Opinion Festival. The need for significant financial resources is crucial to ensure the accessibility of the festival to the public, aligning with its commitment to providing an inclusive and cost-free experience for all attendees.

The festival’s discussions count for 90% of open call ideas, materialising through a rigorous selection process. The open call for ideas, occurring in mid-March following a preparatory campaign, seeks proposals on discussion topics, angles, novelty, and desired outcomes. Although around 300 ideas are submitted, the program accommodates only 110 to 120, necessitating a meticulous evaluation process. The organisers prioritise readiness and quality, as space limitations require rejecting more than half of the proposals.

The remaining 10% follow distinct channels. One avenue involves youth discussions facilitated through state gymnasiums for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. These public schools hold their own open call, contributing to the festival’s youth stage. Additionally, a political stage is dedicated to Estonian political parties. The festival team, aided by a consultant company, proposes topics for parties to choose from, each sending a representative to participate. The third approach involves topics from supporters who financially back the festival.

Importantly, the organiser team has in their mindset and hearts the desire to have disadvantaged and marginalised groups or NGOs that represent them in the discussions. Although there isn’t a detailed, documented plan outlining how to include them, the team members work diligently to encourage these organisations and groups to join the festival, take part in the open call of ideas, and actively prepare for their involvement.

Regarding festival attendance, there are no tickets or charges; it’s entirely free for everyone. This includes not only access to the festival but also participation in the culture program, workshops, and various side events. The emphasis on free participation necessitates substantial funding to organise the event.

The Opinion Festival in Estonia is an annual event that takes place over the second weekend of August, marking its operational year from August to August. The festival is meticulously organised by a dedicated team of five individuals who work tirelessly throughout the year to orchestrate this impactful event. Their efforts are further complemented by the support of 25 to 30 volunteers committed to year-round activities, with an additional 250 to 300 volunteers joining forces during the actual festival days.

The process kicks off with the selection of participants, explained above, in the month of March, who then undergo comprehensive training from April to June to refine their skills and prepare for the upcoming event. Notably, this training is provided free of charge, thanks to the collaboration of devoted team members who act as discussion mentors, generously offering their expertise on a voluntary basis. Furthermore, two companies play a pivotal role by providing substantial discounts of up to 75% for individuals or organisations organising events within the festival. This includes the opportunity to acquire lectures at a highly affordable rate, making it feasible for even regular NGOs to actively participate. The decision to offer these services at minimal or no cost reflects a deliberate choice to prioritise the broader impact of knowledge sharing and community engagement over profit. In June, participants present their finalised speech and discussion before the event construction commences in July.

Additionally, at the festival there are some sort of guidelines, consisting of nine key points that form the core framework for everything that happens at the festival. Participation in the festival inherently means agreeing to these principles. This is the “Good Discussion Practice”. This agreement underscores crucial aspects such as honouring time and maintaining a commitment to a set of shared values. It’s not overly restrictive; rather, these are reasonable, inclusive principles that anyone genuinely invested in the festival’s ethos can easily follow. When there are indications that someone is not aligning with these principles or is disrupting the discussion culture, a team of “discussion security” representatives intervene.

As said, around 120 discussions in total will be held during the festival’s days, and one of the unique challenges faced by the festival is the concurrent nature of discussions happening across multiple stages. To address this, all discussions are recorded and made available as podcasts. This innovative solution ensures that participants can access and enjoy the content throughout the year, even if they couldn’t attend every discussion during the festival.

Among this rich array of hosted debates, 10 to 15 discussions are conducted in English, contributing significantly to knowledge sharing. The educational impact of the festival extends beyond its immediate duration, as published discussions provide an ongoing platform for continued learning between festivals. This approach aligns with the festival’s commitment to fostering a culture of open dialogue and learning that transcends the confines of the event itself.

The primary and impactful outcome of the Opinion Festival is the gathering of 10,000 individuals who engage in discussions about crucial topics in Estonia. This collective dialogue extends beyond the festival grounds, influencing participants in their workplaces, among friends, and even during casual gatherings like sauna nights. While the festival recognises the significant value in people taking these ideas into their lives, there is also an understanding that attendees may wonder if the discussions lead to tangible actions and long-term impact of discussions. This is not explicitly tracked or inquired by the organiser.

However, this year saw a pilot project where five discussions were dedicated to collecting ideas for Estonia’s 2035 strategy, a comprehensive plan for the country. The government monitors and implements this strategy, and the discussions aim to contribute valuable insights. A feedback meeting with the participants of this pilot project is scheduled for the following week (September 2023), and if successful, the festival organisers may consider expanding this approach for the next year.

Though feedback meetings with organisers after each festival provide insights into how they perceived the event and suggestions for improvement.

In this regard, inclusion of individuals to the submissions of discussion is no longer active due to their often non-substantive nature. The shift aimed at ensuring a more purposeful and organised participation, recognising that individuals could align with an NGO or another entity to contribute meaningfully.

In addition, the number of stages at the Opinion Festival depends on various factors, including subscriptions and the preferences of those wanting to organise discussions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival experienced significant growth, featuring 35 stages and hosting around 400 discussions over two days. However, during the COVID-affected years of 2020 and 2021, with restrictions in place, the festival scaled down to nine stages. Feedback from festival visitors during the COVID years indicated a positive response to the smaller scale, leading the organisers to reconsider the ideal number of stages. As a result, the decision was made to limit the number of stages to 20, allowing for 20 simultaneous discussions.

In one occasion, the involvement of a far-right organisation misrepresented the “Good Discussion Practice” guidelines, therefore misrepresented the festival values. After that, organisers added specific points to ensure a more secure and aligned collaboration with participating entities.

Despite this fact, in general, the debates at the Opinion Festival are well-organised, and most organisers aim to foster discussions on important topics. The primary goal is to engage in meaningful conversations and see where the discourse leads. Overall, instances where discussions don’t yield productive outcomes are rare, and the majority of organisers find success in fostering constructive dialogues.

The key is to focus on quality over quantity, offering well-prepared events rather than overwhelming attendees with an abundance of options. The program is the heart of the festival and should be meticulously planned and well-executed. A thoughtfully curated program not only attracts visitors and encourages participation but also entices businesses to contribute financially. It creates an environment where diverse individuals come together, fostering meaningful discussions and interactions. Therefore, investing time and effort into developing a high-quality program is crucial for the overall success of the opinion festival.

This approach allows people to engage more deeply with the content and derive greater value from the festival experience.

Crucially, the involvement of decision-makers, particularly politicians, is paramount. Their presence at the festival is essential for creating a meaningful dialogue between the public and policymakers. This direct interaction provides attendees with a unique opportunity to express their views and concerns, making it a vital aspect of the festival’s success.

Moreover, the festival should be rooted in the principles of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) project. Building a dedicated team of volunteers who share a passion for the festival’s mission is crucial. These individuals, driven by a common belief in the festival’s objectives, can contribute significantly to its success. Some of the team members work tirelessly during the summer months, volunteering full-time for the Opinion Festival because they believe in the impact of the event.

Lastly, the Democracy Festivals Association was founded in 2017. This comprises approximately 9 to 11 festivals from Scandinavia, the Baltics, Turkey, Hungary, and Northern Ireland. The association’s primary objective is collaborative learning, providing a platform for member festivals to share experiences, both successes and mistakes, fostering collective development.

The Opinion Festival in Estonia is a unique and innovative approach to participatory democracy that has gained international recognition. The festival’s rigorous selection process and focus on quality ensure that the discussions and activities are meaningful and impactful and it became a platform for open dialogue and democratic participation, promoting a culture of active citizenship and helping to repair civil society.

However, while the festival provides a platform for discussion and debate, it may not necessarily lead to concrete policy changes or improvements in governance. The effectiveness of the festival’s participatory democracy approach may also vary at different government levels, as local politics may overshadow the genuine concerns of the community.

Based on an interview conducted with Kaspar Tammist (, leader of the Opinion Festival on 18 September 2023.  

Here you can listen to the discussions from your podcast app: