Alari Rammo

Freedom of assembly and freedom of association are close concepts that are protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia with the aim to provide everyone the right to assemble peacefully, conduct meetings and gather into associations. In a wider sense these freedoms also allow individuals to stand for their interests and participate in politics, thereby guaranteeing the pluralism necessary for democracy.

2013 was more lively than usual because of local elections, however, this period was rather characterised by ongoing conflicts or debates between parties of the labour market, and even more by debates about democracy, state governance and the roles of citizens and political parties.

Political and institutional developments

The most controversial enterprise of the year was undoubtedly Rahvakogu, born out of Harta 12 and the Jääkeldri process, which focused on finding wide-based solutions to political competition. The topics discussed were: conditions of founding political parties, their funding, the electoral system, inclusion and forced politicization. President Ilves who had supported the undertaking presented Parliament the results of the day of discussion, which were the result a public gathering of ideas and randomly selected more than 300 participants.

The main controversy was raised by the choice of method and the role of Rahvakogu – whether it was an alternative representative organ, a vehicle for a coup, a solution for all, or, as the organisers themselves said, just a representative method of discussion and an interesting experiment to test whether ordinary people are capable of making reasonable decisions.[1]

The worry about stupidity of the people and the expectation of some to overthrow the government faded already on the evening of the discussion when it became apparent that no radical conclusions were reached. The next task was the implementation of the proposals, where the key person for implementation became the most dedicated critic of Rahvakogu. Chairman of Riigikogu’s Constitutional Committee Rait Maruste considered the Rahvakogu opposition a conspiracy even in September, and compared it to the Bronze night,[2] having repeatedly claimed that nothing new came of the discussion day, and only reasonable proposals can be worked on[3] and opposing Rahvakogu and the Parliament even later on.

The organisers of Rahvakogu were also a little disappointed that the Parliament considered so few proposals and that the stance of the politicians in power was generally ridiculing of the more active participation of the citizens.[4]

Legislative developments

The amendment and implementation of Law Enforcement Act that was passed in 2011 reached the legislative proceedings of the Riigikogu once again in 2013.

The act coming into force on 1 July 2014[5] also invalidates the Public Assemblies Act, and provisions directly linked to freedom of assembly can from then on be found from the new extensive act of law. The legislative proceedings of the draft act were passionate and opinion was expressed by all the members of the official circle of co-ordination, the Chancellor of Justice and the non-governmental organisations – the content of discussion varied from maintenance of public order to keeping cats and dogs. The order of meetings was not amended much in the act itself, the requirements for the organiser of meeting did expand a little – not to anyone, but only to adult natural persons with active legal capacity who is a citizen of the European Union or who holds a long-term residence permit or who is an alien staying in Estonia on the basis of a permanent right of residence. The organiser of meetings can also be a legal person; no requirements are set there. A new definition was added to replace the assembly with two-hour notice: a spontaneously assembled meeting, the content of which is to be created by the officials and the court. The 2011 Human Rights report contains a more detailed analysis of this new act of law.

Updating the tax policy which facilitates freedom of assembly did not go so smoothly. The Minister of Finance submitted the appropriate motions to amend in April for the cabinet for forming a wide-based consensus, however, because of the opposition of the Ministry of Culture the matter was never discussed and the topic was removed from the list after criticism from non-governmental organisations.[6]

At the same time arose the debate over who and what for can non-governmental organisations give tax free stipends to. The Estonian Tax and Customs board wrote several tens of thousands of euros worth of notices of assessment when the government did not react to its concern[7] over a four million euro tax gap created by sports associations. This gave politicians incentive to act and the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Finance and sports associations quickly set about looking for solutions. Therefore, the topic of tax incentive once again reached the government’s table, simultaneously to which the associations contested the notices of assessment in court.[8] 2014 should bring clarity on both of these topics: the legality of the practice so far as well as amendments to the Income Tax Act.

There’s hope that several other ambiguities in acts of law, such as taxing expenses related to volunteers or development assistance will also find a solution (which were stated in recommendations of the previous Human Rights report).

The draft act of the Collective Agreement and the Collective Labour Disputes Act, which went to the harmonisation round at the end of the year quickly gained a nickname “the strike act”, as in the opinion of the trade union the act would ban putting pressure on the state and local governments via strikes and would leave only the option of demonstration.[9]

Court practice

There was an aftershock to the teachers’ strike that took place 8 March 2012 all over Estonia, which had a lot of supporters, though employers were not one of them. The dispute between Eesti Energia Narva electrical power plants and the trade union on whether the latter had the right to organise a support strike with political demands if the parties of the dispute themselves had agreed against disruption of work and there was no such right in the collective agreement reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court quashed the cassation decision and sent the case to the circuit court for review, finding that the support strike is illegal if the strike that is being supported is legal and the strike has been preceded by a conciliation.[10] The same issue was also debated by railway workers.[11]

The scandal that ended Kristiina Ojuland’s career in the Reform Party involving falsification of interior election results offered a lesson in democracy and honesty as well as a court precedent on the issue of freedom of assembly. More specifically the question was whether the general meeting of a non-profit organisation can carry out elections electronically or only in the form of the usual meeting. Since the law prescribes only the latter, the experts[12]as well as the Harju County Court at first agreed that the e-elections are not allowed. Tallinn Circuit Court came to the opposite opinion, whose regulation, which came into force in November stated the general principle that which is not forbidden by law is allowed and the interior matter of the association.[13]

As a rare case one non-profit organisation was not registered in 2013 for moral reasons. The Estonian Satanist Congregation, which applied to be registered equally unsuccessfully in 2005, was also given the argument, next to a lack of a few formalities, that according to the Churches and Congregations Act[14] an association will not be registered if its activities harm public order, health, morals, or rights and freedoms of others. This opinion came into force with the judgment of the circuit court.[15]

The material estimation was based on expert opinion and the recommendation from the Ministry of Interior, according to which the founding texts of the congregation entail provocative texts promoting hatred and destruction. The latter is forbidden according to the constitution. The congregation distinguished in their objections between the so-called rational and acid Satanism, claiming that the texts referred to are not basis for their teachings and appealed to the expert assessment by the University of Tartu professor Tarmo Kulmar refuting the former opinion, but the court was not convinced. The fact that Satanist congregations had not been registered elsewhere in Europe was used as one of the arguments.

Statistics and surveys

The number of registered non-governmental organisations showed a decrease trend for the second year running, which is due to inactive associations’ removal from the registry. However, more new organisations are created every month.[16]

Another Flash Eurobarometer was conducted at the beginning of 2013 studying the extent of belief of European citizens in effecting political decisions by themselves or via non-governmental organisations, and in what way they have done it themselves.[17] The survey indicated, first of all, that for nearly all the questions Estonia had the most people without an opinion.

If in Europe an average of 41% agreed with the statement that citizens do not need non-governmental organisations, then Estonia stood out with a fifth of respondents unable to answer the question at all. Again the largest percentage – 26% were unable to answer whether they share the values of a non-governmental organisation and trust them to stand for their interests. 59% of respondents in Europe shared this opinion, whereas Estonia was one of the three states where faith in non-governmental organisations remained below 50%.

Estonia received the lowest score in three categories, all of which had to do with expressing one’s opinion to the elected representatives on local, national as well as EU level. More than half had not used any of the channels, although 22% had expressed their opinions on the internet and in the social media. Estonia also belonged among the three states, where more than 80% of respondents claimed not to belong to any of the non-governmental organisations. Estonia’s participation in trade and professional associations was at a record low among European states.

Good practices

Several novel initiatives were attempted in larger towns in 2013. Urban associations cooperated before the local elections in Tallinn, organising debates on the future of the home locality under the name Linnaidee and writing down a good practice of cooperation with the city government. The question of in what way the city government will get involved with the practice or whether it will approve it did remain unsolved during the year. Local associations and environmental association all over Estonia continued to stand up for public interest in courts, predominantly in planning matters, which indicates a slow rise in capability of the non-governmental sector.

Tartu was the first in Estonia to experiment with the method of inclusive budgeting, which has gathered popularity elsewhere in the world, where residents are given the opportunity to decide over 1% of the investment budget. The participants learned a lot for the next times as the sum was small and the number of voting residents low, but each new method of inclusion is likely to inspire citizens to participate more.[18]

Noteworthy public discussions

A second wind to the public debate was given by a festival of opinions in the format borrowed from several countries, lead by a reputable public relations organiser Kristi Liiva, which was held in Paide in August. It wasn’t as much a debate on a specific topic, but a wide-ranging attempt to promote a cultural exchange of opinions by bringing together political parties, non-governmental organisations, businesses, scholars, creatives and regular citizens.[19] The format, which might have been unclear to many – what is the purpose of all this? – became clear to several thousands of people who were present, who realised in the course of listening and talking that the debate itself can be the purpose and civilised or respectful debating is not that easy.

Trends in 2013

The trend of demonstrations, which had previously swelled, subsided in 2013, public events were still constantly organised all over Estonia, however, no remarkable demonstrations took place. Some indeed think that a channelling of tensions took place, levelling of the activists, or dampening of “the real citizen’s initiative”,[20] but opinions split among the more notable demonstrators when they faced the crossroads of whether to keep protesting or to move indoors to discuss matters in a calmer fashion.[21]

Forming of new election coalitions before the local elections sparked debates on whether some of them will transform into a new political party for the 2015 general elections. The amendments to the Political Parties Act,[22]which come into force 1 April 2014 lower the number of party members necessary from a thousand to five hundred, which is likely to result in creation of new parties, however, there were no clear signs of this in 2013.

[1] Jakobson, Mari-Liis. ERR. Mari-Liis Jakobson: Rahvakogu riskianalüüs[Risk analysis for Rahvakogu]. 2013.

[2] Maruste, Rait. Delfi. Rait Maruste: Maine rüüste[Ruined reputation]. 2013.

[3] Luts, Priit. ERR. Maruste: mõistlikud ettepanekud rahvakogust võtame arutlusele. [Reasonable proposals from Rahvakogu will be discussed]. 2013.

[4] Kübar, Urmo. Delfi. Urmo Kübar: rääkiv või röökiv rahvas. [Are the people talking or shouting?] 2013.

[6] EMSL peaministrile: otsustage ometi midagi tulumaksusoodustusega ära. [Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations (NENO) to the Prime Minister: make a decision about the income tax incentive!]Letter. 16.09.2013

[7] BNS. Postimees. MTA: MTÜd hiilivad tööjõumaksudest kõrvale.[ Estonian Tax and Customs Board: the NGOs are dodging work force taxes].  2013.

[8] Martinson, Jaan. Postimees. Maksuamet vs Aivar Pilv: kas stipendium on töötasu või varjatud palgamaksmine?.[ Estonian Tax and Customs Board v. Aivar Pilv: does a stipend constitute as wages or a conceiled salary?].  2013.

[9] Seaduseelnõu keelab valitsuse ja Riigikogu survestamise. [The draft act prohibits putting pressure on the government and Riigikogu]. Estonian Trade Union Confederation. 13.12.2013.

[10] Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court judgment no. 3-2-1-159-13.

[11] Tallinn Circuit Court Judgment no. 2-12-9463/37.

[12] Randlaid, Sven. ERR. Juristid: Reformierakonna elektroonilises hääletuses on küsitavusi. [Lawyers: there are issues with electronic voting used in the Reform Party]. 2013.

[13] Tallinn Circuit Court Ruling no. 2-13-34952.

[14] State Gazette I, 18.12.2012, 16.

[15] Tartu Circuit Court Ruling no. 2-13-24298/10.

[16] Statistics on commercial register and the non-profit associations and foundations register.

[17] Europeans‘ engagement in participatory democracy. Flash Eurobarometer 373. TNS Political & Social 2013.

[18] Roon, Maarja. ERR. Tartu esimese kaasava eelarve nõrkusteks olid hääletussüsteem ja teavitus. [The weaknesses of the first inclusive budgeting in Tartu were the voting system and the notification]. 2013.

[19] Liiva, Kristi. EPL. Kristi Liiva: Arvamusfestival Paides paneb mõtestatud sõnad rokkima. [Opinion of festivals in Paide gave power to thoughtful words]. 2013.

[20] Hõbemägi, Priit. Eesti Ekspress. Priit Hõbemägi: Vandenõu Jääkeldris?. [A conspiracy at Jääkelder?]. 2013

[21] Villmann, Anna-Liisa. Delfi. Intervjuu korraldajatega: kuhu kadus kodanikuliikumine „Aitab valelikust poliitikast“?. [An interview with the organisers: where did citizens movement „Enough of deceitful politics“ go?]. 2013.

[22] State Gazette I, 05.02.2014, 5.