5 - chapter

Freedom of assembly and association

Author: Alari Rammo

Key topics

  • The funding of non-governmental organisations has been made clearer and more objective after dissolution of the Council of the Gambling Tax, but the legal bribe money (“roof money”) remains.
  • Civic participation in expressed more visibly in numerous protests and less in well-thought-out and informed involvement.
  • Funding of NGOs in the field of human rights has come under attack.

Political and institutional developments

There has been little change to promises and activities in Jüri Ratas’ two governments that have been in force in the reporting period, or the promises have not materialised into activities of substantial effect. As in the last 15 years, the institutional development of the civil society has mainly been about sorting out inclusion and funding, as well as increasing capability of NGOs. The next development document for civil society should be prepared in autumn of 2019, which does not seem to contain any substantial innovation in its problem descriptions nor in its goals.[1]

Legislative developments

Most of the proposals discussed in the government at the end of 2017 to bring more private money into civil society were not met with support from the cabinet.[2] Only the amendment to the Income Tax Act has been implemented, allowing to be put on a list of companies that enjoy tax benefits within 30 days instead of the previous 4–11 months.[3] The promise was also made that as of 2020 there would be an opportunity to direct a private person’s tax return directly to donations at the e-Tax Board, and to further analyse the possible testing of social impact units (SIB). The proportion of private donations does continue to grow each year, but it can be explained by economic growth as well as tax incentives.[4]

The Gambling Tax Act, which was amended in October of 2018, is presumably of greater importance, eliminating the supervisory board consisting largely of politicians, which had been making the decisions. This allows ministries to find long-term strategic partners primarily in education and social fields. The Estonian Ministry of Education and Research found its partners in an oblique decision-making process, the Ministry of Social Affairs held two open competitions in 2019. The change has caused confusion in NGOs in the transitional period and has a negative effect on organisations who cannot make it into the circle of partners. The option of project grants has been retained in the social sphere, from now on via the State Shared Service Centre (Riigi Tugiteenuste Keskus).

A development programme for strengthening strategic partnership was launched at the request of the Government Office and the Ministry of the Interior in the summer of 2019, where the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations and the Centre for Applied Anthropology of Estonia must reach a more successful partnership through various activities in at least three ministries and compile a handbook for the future.

For the purpose of clearing up funding the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations submitted a collective address[5] about ending handing out the so-called roof money to the Parliament in December of 2018, which the next Finance Committee of the next composition of Riigikogu discussed half a year later, on the last day before the summer holiday, but the support of (coalition) parties to the proposal could not be detected.[6]

In September of 2018, all legal persons were struck by the requirement under the money laundering regulation to appoint actual beneficiaries in the commercial register, who, in case of NGOs and foundations are nearly always the members of the management body. Due to little benefit, but a lot of administrative burden, the obligation was particularly disliked by the NGOs and religious associations.[7]

However, as of 2018 religious associations were made exempt (in practice this wasn’t required earlier either) from posting the original signature sheet of the general meeting accompanying the declaration to the commercial register, as the Ministry of Justice discovered that this way the State unconstitutionally stores data on people’s religious beliefs. The ministry has not agreed to a similar alleviation to bureaucracy for all NGOs.[8] Some changes can be expected from the outcome of review of NGO law in 2020, as the revision work group supported nearly all of the proposals from NGOs to reduce and harmonise regulation.[9]

Court practice

The first known complaint lodged with the court in 2016 about compulsory termination of NGO Liivimaa Lihaveis, because the company’s main activity is economic activity, received a final solution. However, all of the court instances were progressed through solely on the issue of taking the matter into proceedings and the substantive debate was never reached, as the county court detected on the second round that the private limited company applicant had not submitted annual reports and no longer acted in the same field as the NGO, thereby making use of the opportunity not to review the application. The County Court also failed to find facts about abuse of legal form in order to initiate the compulsory dissolution itself.[10]

The courts reached a more substantive result in the second compulsory dissolution case in October of 2018, which was seemingly about a technical question of consequences of not filing an annual report.[11] A small women’s society Tallinna Vanalinna Soroptimistide Klubi was deleted from commercial register as the last annual report had been filed electronically in 2011 and some parts had been submitted by post. The debate reached the Supreme Court en banc, which reviews just three or four cases a year because the Civil Chamber had questions about constitutionality of the regulation.

It was first discussed whether the assistant judge had the right to make the dissolution decision; secondly, whether small clubs can be demanded they submit an annual report or they are deleted from the register; and thirdly, whether it is constitutional to not accept an annual report on paper and then not notify of it without setting a new deadline. Answers to two first questions were “yes”, to third one “no”, and this process was declared unconstitutional.

The dissenting opinions were more interesting than usual, where ten justices of the Supreme Court out of sixteen were discussing the role of administration of justice in matters of the register in five dissenting opinions, but finding that a uniform obligation for filing an annual report can breach the freedom of association. Particularly when it has to do with organisations, the activity or financial matters the public has no interest in. The justices’ opinions were shared by the revision panel of society law, and they offered solutions for establishing exemptions in order to prevent deletion from the register.[12]

The threat made by chain store Prisma with the help of the patent bureau[13] against the Society of Invisible Animals (Nähtamatud Loomad) for the welfare of chickens, which can be regarded as the sometimes occurring “silencing complaint” [14] never made it to court. Six months later, Prisma’s foreign parent company announced that the entire group was withdrawing from the sale of eggs from caged hens.[15]

Another application that had characteristics of a “silencing complaint”, the application of the foundation For the Protection of Family and Traditions (Perekonna ja Traditsiooni Kaitseks) to the Data Protection Inspectorate that the UNI-FORM app for notifying hate speech infringes on the rules of data protection because the haters’ data is being processed behind their backs was also unsuccessful. The misdemeanour procedure was terminated when the Inspectorate could not identify a breach of data processing requirements.[16]

Statistics and surveys

In 2019 two large-scale studies commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior were prepared on the subject of volunteering[17] and the effects of the civil society development plan.[18] No significant or new trends were identified in the last five years in either of the studies, the changes to figures were somewhat explained by a better methodology. There is a continuing trend where the freedom of association is increasingly less institutional, i.e. temporary, one-off or informal activities are preferred instead of joining NGOs or volunteering on a permanent basis.

As a positive trend nearly half of the population takes part in volunteering and there is general satisfaction with the government’s activities in developing the civil society. Capabilities of NGOs have not changed significantly, the landscape is still characterised by significant fragmentation between nearly 23,000 registered societies.[19]

Good practices

While above the government was criticised about the lack of support for including private money in societal matters, in 2018 private entrepreneurs in cooperation with Heateo Sihtasutus created two private equity support funds (discovering, among other things, that their contributions could be taxed due to harsh restrictions). Capacity of the education fund[20] ended up being one million euros, and half a million euros for the impact fund.[21]

Another European Economic Area grant opened for five years in summer of 2019, which, this time under the name of Active Citizens’ Fund, distributes 3.3 million euros to NGOs both for activities as well as for increasing their capacity.[22] The fund offers a temporary relief for the constantly dwindling budget of the National Foundation of Civil Society.

Noteworthy public discussions

Civic activity was still visible in the reporting period, and manifested largely as protests. Rather emotional discussions against the forestry policy, Rail Baltic, Reidi road as well as particularly forcefully planned pulp plant also continued. The latter was even considered a landmark in the history of Estonian civic activism,[23] but similar observations about the year of awakening of the civic society are made now and again: for example, in 2012 in relation to a sequence of events arising from the financing scandal of the Reform Party,[24] or in 2006, which was compared to the singing revolution because Toomas Hendrik Ilves was elected president.[25]

Freedom of assembly continues to be well-protected in Estonia and this right is actively made use of. Several new civil movements such as “Kõigi Eesti”, “Jah vabadusele, ei valedele” or “Stenbock mornings” were created after the 2019 elections, which organised one-off or even weekly protests against the populist government. Due to the international trend more attention was paid to the climate topic, where also here the young people were activated under “Fridays for Future”, organising weekly climate strikes in different cities.[26] For the first time, there were marches in support of women and science.

The Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), which was included in the coalition since the 2019 elections continues to cause anxiety among the human rights NGOs. The civil society began to take the party’s demands to end funding of human rights NGOs, which they have stated earlier as well, a little bit more seriously.[27] However, after the attempt at Rakvere city council[28] (see “Case description”) no further steps have been taken, even though threats have been issued in addition to the head of the party also by the President of the Riigikogu[29] and the deputy head of EKRE faction.[30] The discussion commenced with renewed energy in autumn of 2019, when an obviously coordinated campaign was started, the messages of which were also supported by Pro Patri ministers.[31]


Of course, each protest has brought about opposing reactions, mass meetings by opponents, so that there seems to be no end to the so-called war in the trenches. Instead, the battle ground keeps expanding and the public authority and the business sector must find new and inventive ways of having a public discussion in order to build anything anywhere or carry out larger reforms. In addition to the aforementioned pulp plant the communities have been activated by all kinds of new objects, especially locations of the syringe exchange centres or special care homes, the persistent rejection of which stemming apparently from ignorance and fears[32] by neighbours in many Estonian cities may create new problems in society.[33]

Passionate debates over the ideas of the current government to expand the possibilities of direct democracy are likely to be ahead of us: the government’s program of action promises to use more referendums in the future,[34] the worst future scenario of which would be a populist authoritarianism.[35]


  • Implement the project for more efficient legislative drafting developed in the open governance partnership (Avatud Valitsemise Partnerlus) activity plan in order to promote transparency in engagement, participation and policy-making.[36]
  • Analyse the state of democracy in local governments in terms of inclusion as well as funding and offer help where necessary.
  • Make information gathered by the government accessible as open data (including that of Centre of Registers and Information Systems) in order to make government more transparent and create added value for the data.
  • Encourage donation and philanthropy more forcefully with tax policy.

Case description

Two administrative court rulings came into force in summer of 2019, one declaring unlawful the 2018 decision of Rakvere city council to reject the NGO Sevenbow’s request for funds to the extent decided by the Cultural Affairs Committee; and the other annulling the 2019 decision, obliging the city to grant the request.[37] Both disputes were on similar grounds: the Cultural Affairs Committee rated the application of the LBGTI+ film festival highly, but the council reduced the amounts on its own volition, having no authority to do so according to the procedure it had established itself. The city of Rakvere did not appeal the decisions, but the member who had been the most vocal in the council against Festheart vowed to change the proceedings for cultural and sports events in a way which would allow the council to bypass the proposals of the Cultural Affairs Committee in the future.[38] This is probably the first known case where an administrative decision has been influenced by anti-LGBT hatred. The court did not address the violation of the non-discrimination clauses stated in the constitution.

[1] Ministry of the Interior. Kodanikuühiskonna programm 2021-30 [Civil society programme 2021–2030].

[2] Hea Kodanik. Ettepanekud annetustesõbralikuks maksupoliitikaks [Suggestions for a donation friendly tax policy].

[3] Estonian Tax and Customs Board. 2019. Muutub tulumaksusoodustusega ühingute nimekirja koostamise ja sealt kustutamise kord[The process of joining the list of associations with income tax incentive is changing], 18 June 2019.

[4] Kübar, U. 2018. Urmo Kübar: keskmine annetaja kulutab kuus heategevuseks tassi kohvi maksumuse [Urmo Kübar: the average person making donations spends the equivalent of a cup of coffee in a month], Edasi, 13 December 2018.

[5] Rammo, A. 2017. Lõpetada katuseraha jagamine Riigikogus [Stop handing out “roof” money in Riigikogu], 23 October 2017.

[6] Hea Kodanik. 2019. Riigikogu arutas katuseraha rahvaalgatust, jätkab sügisel [Riigikogu discussed the people’s initiative of “roof” money, to be continued in autumn], 10 June 2019.

[7] ERR. 2019. Usuühendused ei saa vabastust tegelike kasusaajate avaldamisest [Religious associations will not be exempt from publishing actual beneficiaries], 20 March 2019.

[8] Hea Kodanik. 2018. Usuühingud pääsesid üldkoosoleku allkirjalehest [Religious associations exempt from signature sheet of general meetings], 12 January 2018.

[9] Ministry of Justice. 2019. Ühinguõiguse revisjon [Review of society law].

[10] Civil Chamber 13 September 2017 Regulation no 2-16-17452.

[11] Supreme Court en banc 2 October 2018 judgment no 2-17-10423.

[12] Ministry of Justice. 2019. Ühinguõiguse revisjon [Review of society law].

[13] Joost, M. 2019. Prisma ähvardab loomakaitseorganisatsiooni Nähtamatud Loomad kohtusse kaevata [Prisma threatens to sue animal protection organisation Nähtamatud Loomad], Postimees Tarbija, 30 January 2019.

[14] Vikipeedia. 2019. Vaigistuskaebus [Strategic lawsuit against public participation].

[15] Prismamarket. 2019. S-Grupp loobub järk-järgult puurikanade munade müümisest [S-Grupp gradually phases out selling eggs of caged hens], 26 July 2019.

[16] Data Protection Inspectorate. 2018. 2.2.-6/17/2378, 18 April 2018.

[17] Käger, M and others. 2019. Vabatahtlikus tegevuses osalemise uuring 2018 [Survey on participation in volunteering 2018], Institute of Baltic Studies.

[18] Rikmann, E and others. 2019. Kodanikuühiskonna arengukava mõjude vahehindamine [Interim appraisal of effects of the civic society development plan], Tallinn University, Institute of Baltic Studies, Turu-uuringute AS 2019.

[19] Äriregister ning mittetulundusühingute ja sihtasutuste register tegevusalati seisuga 01.09.2019 [The Commercial register and the Register of NGOs and Foundations as of 1 January 2019 according to areas of activity].

[20] Heateo Haridusfond [education fund].

[21] Heateo Mõjufond [impact fund].

[22] Active Citizens Fund in Estonia.

[23] Kruup, K. 2019. Kodanikuühiskond tselluloosisõjas [Civil society in the pulp war], Müürileht, 11 February 2019.

[24] Rammo, A. Freedom of assembly and association, Human rights in Estonia 2012, Estonian Human Rights Centre.

[25] Delfi. 2006. Laulev revolutsioon Ilvese toetuseks [Singing revolution for supporting Ilves], 12 September 2006.

[26] Parksepp, A. 2019. Kliimastreik jõuab Eestisse. Reedel lähevad noored kooli asemel tänavale [Climate strike reaches Estonia. Young people take to the streets instead of going to school on Friday], Delfi, 12 March 2019.

[27] Olup, N-M. 2019. Mart Helme: feministeerium ja teised valitsusvälised organisatsioonid tegelegu oma rahaasjadega ise [Mart Helme: feministeerium and other non-governmental organisations should look after their own finances], Postimees, 28 March 2019.

[28] Ojaperv, A. 2019. Volikogu täitis kohtu otsuse ja toetab Festhearti rahaliselt [The council complied with the court’s decision and supports Festheart financially], Virumaa Teataja, 30 August 2019.

[29] Postimees. 2019. Riigikogu esimees Henn Põlluaas ründas Postimeest ja inimõiguslast [President of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas attacked Postimees and a human rights activist], editorial, 07 April 2019.

[30] Adamson, S. 2019. Helle-Moonika Helme: LGBT ühingu rahastamine ei ole kindlasti prioriteet [Helle-Moonika Helme: funding of LGBT Association is definitely not a priority], Delfi, 06 September 2019.

[31] Nagel, L. 2019. Rahvastikuminister Riina Solman mõistab Varro Vooglaiu pahameelt LGBT ühingu toetuse osas: riigipoolne rahastus on paigast ära [The Minister for Population understands Varro Vooglaid’s discontent about support for the LGBT Association: the state funding is uneven], Delfi, 11 October 2019.

[32] Väli, K. 2018. Kuidas möödus Sitsi süstlapunkti 365 päeva? Kas sealtkandi elanike hirm oli asjatu? [How were the 365 days at Sitsi needle exchange? Was the fear of people of the neighbourhood in vain?], Õhtuleht, 27 September 2018.

[33] Sepper, M-L. 2019. Kui puudevaenulikkusest saab kuritegu [When hatred against disability becomes a crime], Sirp, 14 June 2019.

[34] Vabariigi Valitsuse tegevusprogramm 2019-23 [Action program of the government 2019–2023].

[35] Saarts, T. 2019. Esindusdemokraatia 21. sajandil – hääbumine või teisenemine? [Representative democracy in the 21st century – fading away or transformation?], Vikerkaar.

[36] Government Office. 2019. Õigusloome tõhustamine [Making legislative drafting more effective], 27 March 2019.

[37] Grossthal, K. 2019. Jõustusid Festheart filmifestivali kohtuotsused [Court judgments regarding Festheart film festival came into force], Estonian Human Rights Centre, 24 July 2019.

[38] Ojaperv, A. 2019. Volikogu täitis kohtu otsuse ja toetab Festhearti rahaliselt [The council complied with the court’s decision and will support Festheart financially], Virumaa Teataja, 30 August 2019.


  • Alari Rammo on lõpetanud Tartu Ülikooli ajakirjanduse ja kommunikatsiooni osakonna ning on omandanud õigusteaduste magistrikraadi Tallinna Tehnikaülikoolist. Ta on töötanud Riigikogu Kantseleis, ärisektoris, ajakirjanikuna, Vabaühenduste Liidu huvikaitsjana, ja praegu on ta ametis Mõttekoja Praxis juhatuse liikmena. Veel on ta abiks Salga ja Kinoteatri tegemistes.