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ESTONIA: Concerns remain over parliamentary discretionary spending of protection money

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European Civic Forum update to CIVICUS Monitor, published on 01/11/2021

Association

Strengthening of strategic partnerships between Estonian ministries and CSOs

According to Kai Klandorf, Executive Director of the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organisations (NENO), a positive development in Estonia in the past few months has been the development and strengthening of strategic partnerships between ministries and CSOs. NENO itself has been a partner to the Ministry of Interior for over a decade. As Klandorf pointed out:

“This means advocacy organisations work together with ministries on policy development and implementation, and instead of short-term project grants, 3-4-year contracts are now becoming more common. This system has much improved in the last couple of years, especially in terms of funding: the government has finally taken our advice on how to develop it.”

This has been the case with the first three-year funding period for strategic partners issued by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (HTM), which ends in 2021. As of 2019, the payment of all state budget operating grants to communities was concentrated under the auspices of the HTM Strategic Partnership. The new system brought greater certainty to the partners, who received funding throughout a longer period. However, a lack of transparency in the choice of partners equally generated a lot of criticism and questions. Therefore, in 2020, the Ministry decided not to start planning a new period without analysing the principles and experience under the current system.

As a result, a completely new concept was developed during 2021, which was discussed with the partners, and new competitions will be organised based on this at the end of the year.

Ministries have not always set the best role model: there had been a lack of transparency and openness to negotiations with partners, and they used to treat partners more like mere service providers. A recent change in ministries’ staff and public servants paid off. The response from CSOs was very positive”, Klandorf said.

CSOs denounce parliamentary discretionary spending of protection money

As an investigation by the weekly news show Aktuaalne Kaamera. Nädal. revealed at the beginning of October 2021, members of the Riigikogu (the Estonian parliament) have been distributing in a discretionary way direct regional investments (so-called roof money or pork barrel) to CSOs for years. This practice in Estonia was also highlighted in a report on parliamentary discretionary spending published by Transparency International at the end of January 2021.

So far, after MPs have decided to whom to allocate the money, ministries have paid it out in their administrative area and exercised supervision. No summary has been provided of the use of these funds. For a very long time there has been discussion of making the umbrella system more transparent, while the system of allocating budget funds raised questions for the beneficiaries themselves.

The money has been offered to us twice and we have given up that money on both occasions. On the one hand because the system is not transparent. On the other, because there is no follow-up, we don’t really know what mechanisms are used to monitor its use. It is also very important that we are not affiliated with any party or political direction”, Kristel Rannaääre, CEO of the Estonian LGBT Association, reported to ERR News.

According to Alari Rammo, Head of Advocacy for NENO, the distribution of the corrupt money should be stopped.

Every ministry is actually struggling with these funds and doesn’t want them for itself. If you look at the latest files on how the budget is made, there are such well-striped Excel spreadsheets where one ministry writes ‘no, it’s not our topic and throws it over the fence, like a dead dog, to another ministry, saying, ‘deal with this mess yourself.’ Then it’s thrown back because most of the allocations don’t fit in with the ministry’s own goals, work plans, the procedures they have for funding, and then they try to accommodate it all.”

In fact, Aktuaalne Kaamera. Nädal. found out that part of the earmarked funds is not even used, either due to the termination of CSOs’ activities, lower-than-expected costs or also due to legal conflicts. In 2021, the Ministry of the Interior has also pointed to contradiction with national strategic goals – which concern, for example, the anti-abortion CSO Life March. The board did not want to comment on the issue in front of the camera, but in the written comment they indicated that the conflict with the national strategic goals was surprising for them.

New good practice for CSOs’ transparent advocacy work

The Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations (NENO), together with Transparency International Estonia, put together a good practice for transparent advocacy work for civil society organisations to follow.

The guidelines contain six principles with examples for the CSOs’ activities, funding and communication with officials, which should be ethical and without hidden influences.

NENO invited CSOs to announce compliance with the practice on their website.

Peaceful Assembly

Easing of COVID-19 restrictions, amid anti-COVID-19 vaccination protests

Throughout 2021, there have been several protests against COVID-19 vaccination in Estonia. The latest was held in Tallinn at the end of July 2021 – the third rally in the capital (the previous ones were held in March and May). The demonstration, titled “For Freedom” (Vabaduse eest), saw people gathering in Tallinn’s Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak) on 24th July 2021.

When it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, though, “the situation in Estonia is quite optimistic”, said Kai Klandorf, Executive Director of NENO. CSOs can organise events and gatherings quite freely: with a COVID-19 certificate, activities can be attended by up to 6,000 people indoors and 12,000 outdoors, and large outdoor unrestricted areas have no limitations to numbers of participants.