Development and Current Situation of Civil Society in Estonia 2008-2009

An essential aspect of securing human rights is the strength of the civil society. Attention needs to be paid to the right to organise and to the freedom of activity – that are the minimum standard for ensuring an environment for civil initiative. It is necessary to investigate what has been done and the progress made in the facilitation of such an environment for activity in states that have long-standing experience in promoting civil society in a more liberal manner. In addition to having the possibilities, it is important to spread the values that promote citizens’ activity – public awareness of  the essence of civil initiative, the various roles, potential and desire to take part in or support such initiatives are crucial. It is equally important that the initiators operate skilfully. Values, opportunities and skills have equal effect on the strength of civil society. Moreover, they are closely interlinked and failure in one department affects the success of the others. A closer look at the developments of all three parts during 2008 and 2009 follows.

The citizens’ associations referred to in the context of Estonia are non-profit organizations and foundations that have been created on private initiative (the public sector also has the right to create them). The third, unofficial form is civil law contract of partnership, which traditionally marks smaller club-like undertakings but they also include various movements or frameworks (including virtual ones), which are not deemed necessary to be officially registered. Sometimes the contract of partnership is the first step in founding an official organization; sometimes it marks an impermanent form of cooperation that is dissolved when the objective has been achieved or when the participants lose interest, some civil law partnerships operate for years.

Any citizens’ initiative is legally regulated by Acts of Non-profit Associations and Foundations, which were last amended in 2009 to give the members of such associations’ greater control over the management boards of the organisations, and also to make annual statements public.[1] Generally the acts are supportive of the associations’ liberty to operate and do not include any undemocratic limitations of operations, management or the freedom of expression of the organisations. It is easy to found an organisation; it can be done on the Internet in a few days. However, the issue of income tax incentive has become a problem in the last few years for organizations operating in the interest of the public. Making it onto this government-approved list[2] gives the organizations the right to income tax incentive on certain expenses and also makes donations in their name tax free for the donators. The condition for making the list is operating for charity and in public interest. But the Estonian Tax and Customs Board is strict in interpreting the first criterion and that makes it difficult for organizations, that make any profit through their activity.[3] The government, as well as various donors, have repeatedly expressed their want for citizens’ associations to become more financially independent, as this would decrease the need for state funding. The limitation upon receiving income tax incentive hinders such development.

The essential principles for the development of associations’ operations environment and for the cooperation between the public and the third sector were laid down in the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept that was drawn up on the initiative of Estonian civil society and passed by the Riigikogu [the Parliament] in 2002. It stated the principles of equal partnership between the public sector and citizens’ initiative and its independence, as well as setting more specific objectives for the following years. Relying on these provisions the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations has worked in areas of inclusion, funding of associations, delegation of public services, citizens’ education, voluntary activity and other similar areas.

The principles of inclusion of citizens and their associations in the development of public policies were set with the Code of Good Practices on Involvement in 2005. Some provisions demanding inclusion can be found in various legal acts, but the Code of Good Practices provides guiding material that cannot be set out in acts, such as who and how to include. This document can be considered one to promote and facilitate the culture of inclusion. One of the more important developments in recent years has been the creation and development of government’s website for inclusion, where the participants can comment on drafts drawn up by ministries as well as put forth ideas of their own and give support to the ideas of others. Training for hundreds of state and local government officials has also taken place and various study materials have been published. Inclusion or lack of inclusion in shaping public policies is also one of the issues constantly discussed in media.

Even though inclusion by the government improves each year, two major problems can be identified. First, issues that governing parties have a clear political preference for and where public discussion is not desired. Second, inclusion in Estonia is usually limited to the consultation stage, where a draft previously put together by officials is presented for public discussion. These texts are difficult to understand for people without a legal background, moreover the discussion is forced to take the shape presented by the draft. Citizens and their associations would be more able to participate in the discussion if their opinion were asked before the draft is put together and if easier forms of participation were used, such as roundtable discussions, polls, open forum, citizens’ forums etc. The same problems exist on a local level, though the situation there varies depending more on the people in charge – some local governments cooperate well with citizens, some do not.

The most remarkable changes in funding in the previous years is the establishment of two new funds in the beginning of 2008 –  The Civil Society Foundation is funded from the state budget, Norway-and the European Economic Area Non-governmental Organizations Fund (which will cease to exist in 2010 and its possible continuation is uncertain). These funds have distributed about 70 million kroons (4.5 million euros) to benefit the development of civil society within two years. It is important to point out that this money has not been distributed just for carrying out projects in the area, but also to activities that should facilitate the organisational ability of associations’ environment. One of the basic hindrances in the development of associations is the dominance of project-based funding. Even though it is justified as a method of funding for several activities, it means that in the case of scarcity of support for  activity opportunities (applied to few areas and relatively few organisations at the moment), the majority of citizens’ associations plan their activities around project competitions and therefore do not evolve enough as organisations. The problem with several of the funding opportunities (most of all from EU sources, but also from several national ones) is the time spent on administration – it is likely that this is the reason some organisations refrain from applying, which in turn weakens the competition or they spend an inordinate amount of time on bureaucracy, which means the work itself suffers.

The government itself lacks a clear overview of figures and the outcomes of funding – since various ministries have different practices, the whole picture can only be seen as a result of research conducted every now and again. The government is preparing a conception of state funding for associations, which is expected to solve this problem; however, it is evolving very slowly.

The same could be said, to a large extent, about the most essential point of cooperation between the public sector and citizens’ associations – delegation of public services. Like funding, delegation of services is not a rare or a new occurrence – according to a survey presented in 2009 the services are delegated by 60% of local governments that comprise of 87% of Estonian citizens. The problem is the lack of a common system and the different understandings of potential that goes along with delegation between the parties. The public sector sees it as a favour to citizens’ associations and an opportunity to cut costs. The third sector emphasises its role as providing a better quality service. For various reasons the service contracts are often project based – short term and meant to cover direct costs, which give the service provider no certainty or opportunity for development. The result here, as with funding, is that a great deal of potential is not being put to use.

There is a rather good framework of umbrella organizations for various areas and the associations work together to achieve common goals. There is a development centre in every county, that provides free consultation and training, but many associations are not aware of this. A large portion of the activity of development centres is aimed at the needs of associations that are starting out, leaving the tackling of problems at further stages to the associations.

Opportunities to act are closely tied in with values, or the desire to act as active citizens as well as the skills to do it. The spread of values is mostly connected to increase in standard of living and good existing examples. The great citizens’ activity of the end of 1980s was followed by a low, which has been replaced by a clear increase in the last decade. The economic recession of the last two years has not had a negative impact. The survey presented in 2009 showed that most citizens’ associations’ sources of income originating from other organisations such as the state, local governments and enterprises had decreased, but not that from private persons. The number of volunteers had decreased in just 4% of the associations, but increased in a third of associations. The “Teeme ära” (Let’s do it) initiatives probably had a significant effect: a rubbish clearing initiative with 50,000 participants in 2008 and the ideas’ initiative with 12,000 participants in 2009. In addition to a firsthand positive experience for the participants, the initiatives also received wide media coverage, being probably the most talked about citizens’ initiatives over those years. Increase in professionalism of the organisations brings about increased ability in “public visibility” and public inclusion.

Yet, it is the organisation’s operative ability and most of all the level of professionalism of the management that is probably the most crucial point that needs to be improved on in Estonia’s third sector. It is partially caused by the environment described, yet the ability of citizens’ associations to participate in developing public policies, providing services, developing independent financial modes and including people in their activities also leaves for a lot to desire within the limits of this environment. Even though there are more well-managed and operative citizens’ associations each year, whose activities are influential, who find media coverage and who are held as examples, most associations are still operating in a rather haphazard fashion, setting out from existing possibilities, not considering their needs and actively working on creating the possibilities for carrying them out.

Therefore, the development of citizens’ education in Estonia is also crucial, in addition to solving the aforementioned practical questions: in contributing to people’s desire to act as good, active and caring citizens irrespective of their place of work and in making  talented and capable people see self-realisation in the third sector as a viable possibility.


[1] Mittetulundusühingute seadus [Non-profit Associations Act] (RT [State Gazette] I 1996, 42, 811; RT I 2009, 54, 363); Sihtasutuste seadus [Foundations Act] (RT I 1995, 92, 1604; RT I 2009, 54, 363).

[2] Government Regulation no 279 of 22 December 2006 “Tulumaksusoodustusega mittetulundusühingute ja sihtasutuste nimekirja koostamise kord ning asjatundjate komisjoni moodustamise kord ja töökorraldus” [Order of compilation of Non-profit Associations and Funds eligible for tax incentives and creation and working order of committee of experts] (RT I, 61, 464). From 1 January 2010 the list confirmed by Government Order no 94 of 8.02.2000 (RT Appendix 2000, 21, 298) is applicable.

[3] Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations has made such an observation on consultation of organizations.