In July 2019, we interviewed Silver Tambur from Kõigi Eesti, a group of people living in Estonia who successfully mobilised thousands online and offline to send a strong message of tolerance and inclusion in the face of growing hate speech. “Estonia has an open civic space and for years, the country has been a good example of cooperation between CSOs and government and cases of smear campaigns against democratic organisations were isolated episodes. However, the elections in spring 2019 brought to power the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), considered by some a far-right party, in a right-wing conservative government. Major protests were sparked by the decision of the second-biggest party, Centre Party, to turn down the offer by the winning Reform party to form a joint coalition and, instead, opening to EKRE and the conservative party Isamaa.” This interview with Kõigi Eesti belongs to the six stories of Resistance collected in Acitivizenship #4.

How was Kõigi Eesti created, and why did you decide to call it like this (in English, “My Estonia too”)?

I am actually a journalist and an editor. I edit a media outlet called Estonian World, where we write about Estonia in English. I started in 2012 in London, and I came back to Estonia in 2014. Already in 2015 when the refugee crisis happened in Europe, the far-right party called EKRE (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) used that situation to their own advantage. That is when they started to increase their popularity. They set up their own media channel called Uued Uudised which is basically a fake news site. They started printing leaflets, newspapers sent to people’s homes. They basically lied about those immigration numbers. At that time, Estonia agreed to take about 500 refugees. But of course, EKRE started spreading lies that there was mass immigration on its way. A lot of people here in Estonia still have a fear of unknown – hence, they were an easy target; people who have not had experience with people from other countries. EKRE’s popularity got a boost and was rising up until the 2019 election and has been more or less steady (17-20%) since. Throughout these years, I was monitoring or observing the rise of the far-right in Estonia. As a liberal and tolerant person, I think it is important that Estonia remains an open and tolerant country, part of the global world. I was observing with growing worry and concern what was happening in Estonia since 2015. So to me, the situation was not new.

The specific trigger was when, after the parliament election on 3rd of March, the Center Party decided to invite EKRE to coalition talks. On 11 March when they announced they would start coalition talks, I was on social media, and I noticed so many people concerned. I started contacting them, and we immediately started a group – “Democratic Estonia” – a secret Facebook group to gather those people together. In two days, the group gathered a couple of hundreds of people. There were start-up founders, designers, journalists, musicians, actors, civic activists… mostly Tallinn-based urban people. These are people who love Estonia, who are proud of their country but want Estonia to remain an open, free, democratic and tolerant country. Approximately 25 of us met on 13 March, and for the first hour and a half, we expressed our frustration about the situation. We did not come together to be against EKRE per se, or their members or their voters. What specifically concerned and worried us was the EKRE leaders’ xenophobic, isolationist, sexist, intolerant, homophobic and bigoted rhetoric. Since 2013, they have offended so many people over the years: people with different skin colour, foreign students, single mothers, people from sexual minorities, journalists, judges… you name it. We had a real concern of what would happen if EKRE would be invited to be part of the government. That was a very real worry and concern.

After venting our frustration, with half an hour to go until the meeting’s end, we decided to start a social media campaign and launch a Facebook platform: the chosen name was “Kõigi Eesti”. The direct English translation would be “Our Estonia”, but we then decided to use the [English] hashtag “My Estonia too” to say that people who live here and contribute to this country can say “this is my Estonia too”. We set up a launch date – 17 March – and we started contacting a lot of influencers who have a large social media following, both on Facebook and Instagram.

We told them: “We are a group of active folks who are gravely concerned by the current coalition talks between the Centre Party, Isamaa and the far-right EKRE party. The situation is threatening all the values Estonia holds dear.

As we do care about the future of our home, we would like to remind everyone about what is important here, that needs protecting and looking after. This has grown into a social media flash-movement, where everyone can express what is important to them and invite their friends and family along to do the same.

By bringing out the values that are important to us – regardless of gender, race, religion or other identifiers – we want to stress the positive ones that unite us. […]

Let’s do it?

How:

  1. On Sunday at 13:00 (1PM) let’s all upload a photo of ourselves on Instagram and Facebook in a similar style. Include a message according to what you deem relevant.
  2. For Facebook activism, we have created a more convenient way to participate. A white heart symbol that you can add to your profile photo to show unity.

This movement is for everyone – let’s leave party affiliations behind the door and talk about values that are important and in danger.”

And that is what they did: hundreds of influencers at the same time came out with all those messages, on grayscale style images. It was amazing. At the same time, we launched a Facebook page – our first post was our manifesto – and we invited everyone already involved as well as influencers to share that page with everyone else.

Estonian media immediately took notice. Sunday was a very good choice because there is less news on that day. We did not say the action was against EKRE. What we did was to publish a manifesto on our Facebook page about what we stand for. We basically said that we cannot sit by and watch in silence while our country gets derailed. Today’s political situation puts at risk values that are important to Estonia. We lined up what we stand for in terms of values: we want Estonia to be caring, respecting, dignified. An Estonia that is everyone’s Estonia regardless of gender, race, language, religion and any other difference. Our Estonia is democratic, confident, protective, inclusive, caring, forward-looking and European in spirit.

On the morning of 17 March, before we launched that Facebook page, one of our team members said: “Okay, we’ll be lucky if we have 3,000 followers by the end of the day.” But by the end of the day, we had 16,000 followers – a rate that is unprecedented in Estonia, especially when it comes to citizen movements. It was like a massive wave. Now we have around 30,000 followers, which is more than any other civil movement and any party in Estonia.

The populists and to an extent, media, was first a bit puzzled as to who was behind the campaign – as we didn’t publish the names of the main organisers (around 50 names) until the next day. There were many, who at first, said that it was “an operation by the parties not invited to the coalition talks” (and the ones ultimately forming the Estonian opposition), the Social Democrats and the Reform Party, both more or less on the liberal side. But this was not true: we were genuinely a citizens’ movement. Among our organising team, there were a handful of people who were members of both parties, but none of them had been a professional politician. What’s more, they all terminated their party membership to focus on Kõigi Eesti movement instead.

After the successful social media campaign, we came together and while realising how big momentum we had created, decided to organise an open-air concert.

Why a concert and not other forms of protest?

We were discussing a few ideas, including a street protest. But in Estonia, you do not get massive amounts of people going to make their voices heard in the streets. There have never been massive protests here. After this coalition was formed, we have had people in the streets now more frequently than ever before – there’s a separate street protest movement called “Yes to freedom, no to lies!” – but still, it is not like in France or the UK, Portugal or Spain where you have millions of people coming in the street if they’re really fed up or unhappy about something. In Estonia, people love music and love singing – the prime historical example of a non-violent protest in an Estonian way is the so-called “singing revolution” – a series of open-air concerts in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of people came together at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to protest against the Soviet rule and demand sovereignty and independence. We sensed that it is easier to get people together with a concert. We set a date – 14 April – and had three weeks to put the line-up together, advertise and organise everything. For three weeks, approximately 40-50 people worked around the clock to organise everything. The line-up – consisting of Estonian and Estonian Russian artists – was very diverse and they all performed for free. The concert was called “Kõigi Eesti Song” and attracted approximately 10,000 people – it was a beautiful and moving day. The concert took place next to the main Song Festival stage – it was very symbolic.

It is also important to emphasise that from the start – including the social media campaign and the concert – we communicated all our main messages and statements in three languages: Estonian, Russian and English. This was unique as well: no other movement or political party has ever done it in Estonia. We immediately sent a signal that we speak to all the people in Estonia, including Estonian Russians. Many of them still feel alienated from the country. Or maybe alienated is too of a strong word, but you know, not fully part of the country. We also involved Estonian Russians in our team, and they were very enthusiastic because again, nothing like that has ever been done.

You said that with this movement you want to represent everybody and it is great that you also tried to integrate Russians. But you also said that behind the movement there is mostly urban people. How do you see this? Are you able to reach outside cities?

This is a good question. This is really our next step. In the beginning, many of our team members that were already active in Tallinn already knew each other because Estonia is small. We also had people from other places as well – like Tartu and Pärnu – but still, they are respectively the second and fourth-largest towns in Estonia. Our next goal is to reach out to other places in Estonia. But for that, we need to really raise some funding because it would cost more to organise events outside Tallinn. We have had a lot of interest from other towns already, so we want to reach out and have local groups of Kõigi Eesti. And talking about what we want to do next, we want to reach schools. One of the ideas is to organise hackathons to get some school children involved. The other idea is to organise some educational lectures because some young people are an easy target for populists, for radicals. EKRE has actually tried to reach out to a lot of young people here.

Why?

This is actually a question for us, as well. We have discussed this, but we need to have proper research here to look into it. One possible reason is that some young people in rural areas, poor areas maybe feel like.. I don’t want to say left out… They are perhaps driven by this sense of belonging and identity. There was a poll that showed about 25% of people between 18 to 24 supported EKRE. So, it is not the majority, but 25% is a big number. And this is what got us concerned. We were not expecting it to be that high. And therefore we want to look more into it.

Also, to put a stop on hatred and division in the society, we have an idea of “Kõigi Eesti table” or “Kõigi Eesti talking circle”: literally putting up a table in big events around the country or big shopping centres – or forming a talking circle. We would invite different people around the table to discuss and talk to each other. On social media, people are angry and divisive, but when you actually let them speak face to face they realize they are all humans, they all live in Estonia. People can communicate more. We want to do this on a large scale. We have tested similar format already twice – at the Tallinn Freedom Square on 9 May, at the event celebrating Europe Day, and at the Estonian Opinion Festival in Paide, a small town in the middle of Estonia. On Europe Day, we simply had a small table and our large heart symbol and passively waited passers-by coming to talk to us – it was a pop-up action. At the Opinion Festival, we had our own tent and organised a “talking circle” with an open mike, which we had also advertised on the social media few days in advance. Very different people – from a 15-year-old schoolgirl to a few retired persons in their 70s, from all across Estonia – came to sit in a circle and expressed their opinion to the open mike. We also live-streamed it on our Facebook page. In both cases, the conversations went well. There was no angry exchange or anything like that, it was all polite and respectful. We realised that there is completely different chemistry when you speak to people or when you actually listen and initiate a dialogue.

What was the reaction of the authorities?

They were quite cool, they did not say much. But EKRE and its media outlets and social media channels, of course, started a certain fake news campaign against us: [they said] that we are for mass immigration, we are a tool of globalists, [linked with] Soros, and the usual lies. But governmental authorities were very calm about us. It is fine. But some people were cautious – or even afraid – to become publicly involved or support us because they saw us as too political. When I say afraid, I mean they did not want to sign up or support us publicly when we published a list of who initiated Kõigi Eesti.

You mentioned some of the challenges you face as a young movement, like raising funding and move outside the city… Do you face other challenges as a grassroots movement and do you plan to establish an official NGO?

We are actually already an official NGO. We registered as NGO immediately because the donations – by several Estonian entrepreneurs and private individuals – needed to be registered and transferred to an official bank account. The next phase is to set up a back-office: we need at least one or two people working full time to communicate and coordinate our activities. Money and time are the two big challenges: in the last five months, I have put a lot of my time into coordinating Kõigi Eesti, and at the same time, I still have my media outlet to run. Everyone else is the same. For a month or two, many people put a lot of their time in Kõigi Eesti. In summer, we slowed down our activities because people needed to have a rest and catch up with their own work. The third challenge is being aware all the time and being a watchdog of what government is doing. One of the dangers is what happened in Poland and Hungary – people get used to that new normal. Just last week the leader of EKRE attacked Tallinn University – the third largest and third best university in Estonia – in very nasty terms saying that the university’s output is not scientific and it has been producing “horse thieves”. We reacted immediately on our Facebook page, releasing a statement in defence of the university (which is fact-based). But this is one of the examples of how you always have to be alert. A lot of people in society seem to get used to it. People just need to go on with their normal lives. They do not have time and energy to fight. We need to mobilise also within ourselves to be constantly alert.

Tacking the opportunity that you are also a journalist… What are the challenges that journalists face?

With three Estonians, we founded a private independent outlet, Estonian World, and we have managed to survive thanks to private support. We are proud that we are independent, especially in a situation like this, where the democratic institutions and the foundations of liberal democracy are being tested. No one can tell us what to write, and we have been vocal about these issues. But, as an independent outlet, it is very difficult to survive and be sustainable. We need more support for that.

EKRE’s MP and deputy chair Martin Helme also attacked our public broadcaster ERR while they were still negotiating to form the government (he became Finance Minister). When he attacked ERR and said that some journalists there are not impartial or neutral and should be “held accountable”, he was publicly supported by at least one politician of Isamaa party (in English, Fatherland) which is a traditionally conservative party, not far-right. One of their politicians, a former journalist, published an opinion article in which he supported the criticism against our public broadcaster. Furthermore, he listed several names of journalists at ERR whose integrity should be questioned. That was the big red flag for many journalists, including me. Luckily, there was a big storm after that; people started defending ERR and their integrity. ERR’s chairman was forced to make a statement – though there was a lot of criticism about ERR chairman because he was quiet for a while instead of defending his journalists. Eventually, he issued a statement saying that ERR is impartial, no one can tell them what to do.

There’s been an issue with Postimees, the oldest and largest daily newspaper in Estonia. Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation that conducts political advocacy on issues related to freedom of information and freedom of the press, has expressed concern about Postimees and has called the newspaper’s owner, Margus Linnamäe, to respect the editorial independence of the daily. The editors of five section of Postimees have resigned or have been forced to resign in the past year. The editors of the news, business, investigations, sports and op-ed sections have left because of Linnamäe’s attempts to turn Postimees into a propaganda mouthpiece for his conservative and nationalist opinions, Reporters Without Borders said. According to Reporters Without Borders, Linnamäe has told his staff that “not all opinions are worth repeating, only the good ones”.

Until now in Estonia we have had complete press freedom: we were 11 in last year’s Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. It is a good number, but it could go down after what happened here.

Do you think that the European Union could be an ally in your fight and, more broadly, for the fight of the movements fighting against the far-right all across Europe? How?

I think it would [help] if there was a pan-European collaboration between civil society and movements. When you say that something is supported by the European Union, immediately it would be resented by the far-right and some others like radicals and populists. “Brussels is saying what to do in Estonia”, this is the weapon they use. But I think that the European Union should definitely encourage this sort of cooperation between citizens’ movements and find ways to support that. As for journalists, I think it would [also] be good if there were some pan-European cooperation between independent journalists and media: that would help with the know-how and with funding. All those things are happening across Europe, we are all in it together, so there is definitely a need for more collaboration and [exchange of] know-how among us.

Read the full report here.