Roundtable Discussion on Civil Society Issues with the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Image removed.The President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves

A strong democracy requires a vibrant, active civil society, said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia, at the beginning of a roundtable discussion with representatives of Georgian civil society. He offered constructive criticism to the group, which met at the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, in talks co-organized by the Estonian Embassy in Georgia, on 5 July 2011. Ilves highlighted the Estonian case but also urged Georgian NGO leaders to gain a more nuanced view of European values in contrast to the idealized version referenced throughout the discussion. A lively debate ensued between Ilves and the Georgian representatives regarding the level of democracy in Georgia and the approach necessary to address the current situation.

In his opening remarks, President Ilves described the context surrounding Estonia’s robust civil society. The parliamentary system does not grant the president, as the head of state, control of political power. As a result, “national identity is not tied to a political party or a single person.” The diffuse power structure thus provides more opportunities for direct civic engagement in society. Ilves also addressed the legacy of the Soviet occupation as a source for the current strength of Estonian civil society. The regime crushed the elite and any citizen-led organizations. The illegal occupation implied, however, that the Republic of Estonia still existed de jure. Estonians organized elections in the effort to restore their citizenship. The Soviet regime may not have recognized the results, but this “completely civic movement…was enough to give us the understanding of the value of citizenship and civic activity.” As an example, Ilves referenced “Let’s do it,” a movement that began when a group of Estonians organized to clean up part of a near-by forest. This initiative has inspired similar community efforts around the world. (President Ilves urged the discussion participants to google this phrase - .)

The title of this movement encapsulated Ilves’ rather direct message. To promote civil society and the strength of democracy, citizens need to get together and “do something.” Many government and civil society representatives alike highlight the power of Facebook in promoting democracy, but Ilves argued that internet social networks “are not civil society – they create a virtual reality and a virtual civil society.” Authoritarian regimes can also use Twitter with the aim of suffocating civil society movements in these countries. Facebook cannot replace the efforts of concrete citizen engagement necessary to ensure and promote democratic freedoms. With this point, Ilves segued into his discussion of European values. “Europe is not a geographical notion,” he said. Instead, he defined its boundaries around those countries that espouse the values of free and fair elections, rule of law, and support for civil society.

The ensuing discussion largely focused on Georgia’s current position in relation to adopting these values. Key points included the argument that civil society members, and the broader Georgian society, want to be part of Europe, but the country faces challenges in achieving this goal. Moreover, Saakashvili’s administration switches its rhetoric between alternately favoring the European and Singapore models, while the current level of democracy widens the gap between Georgia and Europe. NGO leaders criticized the government’s lack of checks and balances, accountability, and transparency. They also referenced state influence on the media, an increase in the number of political prisoners, and a disregard for the environment as examples of how the state does not uphold European values.

The underlying point of agreement for all of the participants clearly centered on their support for civil society initiatives. A line could be drawn, however, between the Georgian and Estonian views on the extent to which Georgian civil society faces significant barriers to promoting democracy. The discussion raised the question of whether outsiders or insiders can deliver a more accurate assessment of a particular situation, while their differing opinions certainly made for an interesting debate. Ilves countered the NGO representatives’ mainly negative assessment by saying, “It’s not so bad here.” He placed the Georgian situation in a broader context of “European values” being contested in other countries. He also argued that transparent funding is a Nordic value. He told the group, “Don’t compare yourselves to Estonia; we are radical in this regard.”

Ilves concluded that while goals are important, “Georgia is aspiring to a Platonic ideal [of European values] that doesn’t exist in reality.” He cautioned that Georgians should not “fall into the trap” of only seeing the negative aspects in their own country, while comparing themselves to an idealized view of other systems. In promoting action, Ilves’ message emphasized the danger of focusing on problems, as it can risk paralysis of civil society. Estonia provides a model in some regard, but no case is perfect. Ilves encouraged Georgian NGO leaders to travel, gain a more objective viewpoint, and form ties with Estonian NGOs in the effort to promote civil society internationally—in essence, to “do something.”