ESTONIA: State financed civil society fund relocates from capital city, attacks on minority rights

The article written by the European Civic Forum and originally published on Civicus Monitor, 19 February 2020 – accessible here



Following the elections in Spring 2019, Riina Solman was appointed as the Minister of Population. This department is responsible for issues related to civil society.

Kai Klandorf, Executive Director of the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations (NENO), Estonia’s largest umbrella organisation, reported that in 2019 the Minister decided that the National Foundation of Civil Society (KÜSK) and the public fund for civil society in Estonia, based in Tallinn, would relocate as part of the government’s wider plan to move public service positions out of the capital. KÜSK is the primary fund for Estonian NGOs and it affects the operational capacity of NGOs acting in the public interest. As a result of the government’s plan, KÜSK is establishing an office in Viljandi, a town in South Estonia. The relocation of the NGO is also in response to the assessment carried out during 2018 and 2019, which led to the approval of the new civil society development strategy which found a gap in resources between NGOs in the capital and those in rural areas.

However, as a result of the office relocating from the capital, the staff will change because the current staff are not willing to move. In December 2019 the board of KÜSK started the process of looking for a new director for NFCS/KÜSK but the Minister postponed the hiring process. In addition, the terms of office of some of the board members came to an end in January 2020. As a result, only one person will continue as a board member, while six positions will be replaced. As of August 2020, KÜSK will have a completely new team and a new board. While Minister Riina Solman gave the assurance that the independence of the organisation will be maintained, some fear this will be a threat to sustainability. Nevertheless, the focus on local communities in the new civil society development strategy is seen as a positive step.

Petition on funding feminist and LGBTQIA+ organisations

In 2019, the conservative media channel Objektiiv started a petition to stop the funding of the Estonian LGBT Association, Estonian Human Rights Centre and Feministeerium. The channel questioned how much money was spent on LGBTQIA+ organisations and went as far as coming up with a breakdown of who funds the organisation. It also turned to the national audit office to question public funding for these organisations. In addition, the Ministry of Social Affairs was also targeted by this smear campaign.


Diversity campaign angers conservative politicians

At the beginning of January 2020, the Ministry of Social Affairs started a campaign called “Everyone is Different But Same…”, which aims to encourage the participation and inclusion of diverse groups in society. The campaign sparked criticism from the conservative members of the government.

report by Civic Space Watch EU in 2019 also highlights that the rise of smear campaigns by members of Parliament and government in relation to funding of minority and human rights organisations has created “concern and tension” in the country.

“We can also see that ministries who fund activities focusing on minority rights also feel the tension. To some extent, we have observed a legitimisation of uncivil society as attacks from the right-wing politicians towards civil society organisations, human rights defenders, minorities, universities etc have been emphasised by the media and granted quite a large audience.”

In addition, the Human Rights Centre released a report on the state of human rights in Estonia between 2018 and 2019. Kari Käsper, former director of the organisation and editor of the report, said that although the human rights situation in Estonia has improved on paper, there is a need to improve the implementation of rights in practice. In addition, earlier achievements should be maintained in order for everyone to feel valued in Estonia.

“Since independence, we have made significant progress, but the spread of intolerant rhetoric and the increasingly prevalent perception that human rights are just the rights of the majority, creates worry for the future”.

In particular the report highlights– as an area of concern – government-led attacks against critical journalists and threats to cut funding to human rights and LGBTQIA+ organisations.


On 14th September 2019 a demonstration took place at a deer park in Tallinn. The peaceful protest was organised by Jah vabadusele, ei valedele (Yes to freedom, no to lies), a grassroots initiative – which seeks to remind the government of its duty to the values of liberty, justice and the rule of law.

The government members intimidate public servants, make fun of people participating in the Singing Revolution, insult and harass doctors, scientists, environmentalists, foreign students and minorities,” said the organisers.

In January 2020, animal rights activists staged a protest against fur farms in Tallinn. They’ve been calling for a ban on fur farms for years and want a fur-free Estonia. A petition with over 6000 signatures was submitted to the speaker of Riigikogu (the parliament) by Nähtamatud Loomad, an animal advocacy group.