Consultative process for civil society strategy welcomed but process remains ambiguous


According to CIVICUS Monitor research partners, the Estonian government has started a consultation process on the new civil society strategy expected to be in place by 2020. Between April and May 2018, experts and stakeholders from the civil society sector, academia, and policymakers gathered to discuss what kind of civil society they envision for the future. 

While the government attempted to make the process as inclusive as possible and while it was widely-welcomed, participants reportedly found it confusing, unclear and lacking in some aspects. Some important stakeholders did not take part in the meetings because invitations were sent with short notice. Also, participants who were new to the process felt that instructions ahead of and during the meetings were too limited, leaving them unsure of next steps, procedures, expected outcomes, and their role in the process. 

It is still unclear what resources will be available for the implementation of this strategy. An assessment of the results of the current civil society strategy has been missing from the discussions, impeding the development of an evidence-based strategy. In addition, because the Minister of Interior, who is responsible for the civil society strategy, is also responsible for the new strategy on national security, the consultations for the two were combined. 

In a separate development, on 26th April the Cabinet approved proposals regarding the gambling tax fund, something which civil society had called for. According to the NGO platform Hea Kodanik, if the parliament votes in favour of the amendments, the money will be directly managed by each ministry and funds will be distributed to relevant civil society organisations that fall under that particular ministry's purview. Additionally, the Estonian Red Cross will no longer automatically receive 3.9 percent of tax revenues (approximately one million EUR) but will instead compete with others on an equal basis. It is hoped that the changes will allow for more sustainable funding sources for the sector and the establishment of strategic partnerships between CSOs and relevant ministries.

Government floats idea of foreign agents law

In March, Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) indicated that the government could draft a Foreign Agents Act in the upcoming months. He said

"authoritarian states want to prohibit or restrict them in the face of external influences, as Russia does with its law of influence agents. The logic of a democratic state is reversal, the weapon of a democratic state is transparency. Therefore, it would be wise to foresee a certain degree of transparency and disclosure in the intensive information warfare we are in. [...] If different associations or persons dealing with third-country affairs take part in various actions in our territory, then it would be wise for society to set certain conditions for informing the public about the functions, roles, resources and what they are doing in the third country influenced (translated from Estonian)”. 

Such a proposal would require civil society organisations in Estonia which are "influenced" by foreign countries to be registered as such or dismantled. The Minister's statement has not raised serious alarm among Estonian NGOs, with most believing the government would not  support such a measure in the end. No further action has been taken since March when the idea was first proposed. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd March, mothers gathered in a local hospital in Valga to protest against plans to close the maternity and delivery wards. The protest was reportedly peaceful and was not disrupted in any way.