Helen Sooväli-Sepping, the editor-in-chief of the Estonian Human Development Report, introduced the Report by saying that it explored the concept of space from a broad perspective by analysing Estonia’s population density, wilderness areas, urban spaces, and the debate space that unites us all. “Space as the umbrella term of this Report denotes a common space that sparks public interest and offers social benefits,” she said.
Sooväli-Sepping highlighted urbanisation as one of the trends in Estonia. “The whole world is urbanising, forming a tightly knit global market economy network,” she explained. She described urbanisation in the Estonian context as people, economy, and services clustering into Tallinn and its environs.
Today, there are 920,000 urban dwellers in Estonia, forming 62% of the country’s population; 40% of them – 550,000 people – live in Tallinn or around it.
The other side of the urbanisation coin is the shrinking of population in Estonian counties. She would not reduce the issue of shrinking to simple work related migration and search for a higher income. “The surplus and ageing of the housing stock both in terms of living conditions and construction technology have tied many Estonian families to their residences because the market value of their home is simply that low,” the editor-in-chief said.
Sooväli-Sepping made three suggestions based on the conclusions in the Estonian Human Development Report. Firstly, she sees the need for two administrative models – one in case of urbanisation, the other for shrinking populations. In case of urbanisation, we need a bolder market intervention. In case of shrinking – adaptation to a smaller, sparser, more vulnerable population that cannot be measured in terms of efficiency.
Secondly, Sooväli-Sepping believes that Estonian cities need urban policies that are founded on the actual urban areas and not the city limits. “A common urban policy would connect public transport and light traffic road networks, allowing residents, particularly the groups that depend on vehicles like children and the elderly, to move independently,” Sooväli-Sepping said.
Thirdly, she sees a need to improve civic competence and debating skills to empower citizens and promote broad-based democracy. Opportunities for this are offered by digital platforms that are currently under development, as well as competent officials and trusted experts. Sooväli-Sepping added that media education programmes in general education schools had already proven their worth, and suggested offering the same programmes to the general public for improving the quality of debate.
Indrek Ibrus, editor of the chapter Discussion Space in Estonia, then talked about the daily exchanges of opinions that together form Estonia’s idea space. Ibrus described Estonia’s discussion space as simultaneously concentrated and fragmented. He pointed out that new digital platforms have created the conditions for discussion spaces to become fragmented, and that Estonians are increasingly holding discussions in different spaces and different ways.
One of the findings of the Report was that public discussions have started to reflect the emotional style of expression used in social media platforms – quick labelling of reported situations, expression of concern or annoyance, prejudice based contemptuous attitudes, often hate speech. “This manner of communicating does not allow a social dialogue that is directed at mutual understanding, and it also supports the spreading of false information,” Ibrus said.
Media executives are very impressed by the media literacy of our youth. “Estonian teenagers know that for truthful information, they have to turn to traditional media channels and recognised institutions. So we can consider the general education curricula that develop the media literacy of our youth quite successful.”
Ibrus stressed how important it was for newspapers, radio programmes and TV-channels, i.e. edited and curated discussion space, to reach the public because the editing filter helps to separate the wheat from the chuff and keep the debate on track.
In addition to national media, we would also need a generous variety of specialised media and communication environments. “We need defined spaces to focus on more specific discussions which would allow new knowledge to develop and sink in,” he said.
Ibrus called attention to the worrying vulnerability of provincial media, which is currently being attacked even more directly than the national media. “We need to start looking for new ways to underpin independent local and regional press. These ways do not always necessarily have to be financial, although Estonia is a country that gives fairly modest support to its press, and new resources for support could be found after the introduction of a digital tax,” Ibrus suggested.
He also recommended seeking out new ways to encourage public and private media, culture and other social institutions towards an increased cooperation in Estonia. For example, Estonian Public Broadcasting could be given additional tasks to support local press.
Deputy Chairman of the Constitutional Committee Lauri Läänemets spoke on behalf of the Committee, which had discussed the Report at its sitting, mainly with a focus on the issue of inequality. More specifically, it concentrated on two messages in the report: Estonia has achieved stable wellbeing, but this has come at the price of inequality, and badly considered spatial processes have exacerbated inequalities both in urban as well as rural areas.
“We cannot have effective regional policy without a redistribution component,” Läänemets said. “Smaller resources of outlying regions weaken their positions when competing with the economic core regions of the country for receiving European Union aid.”
Läänemets feels that Estonia has overlooked the fact that urbanisation has reduced the number of people with expertise and skills in many regions, and this has led to the weakening of the social network in the relevant communities. An example of this is the capability of acquiring EU funds. In the future, this would require a regional policy that includes exceptions and a strong public intervention, which raises the question of ways to compensate for the field of knowledge,” Läänemets said.
Läänemets added that economic reorganisation as well as new lifestyle and commuting patterns feed into the vicious cycle of declining population numbers, leading to the disappearance of crucial public services, such as schools. He would also like the balance of environmental and economic considerations to receive more attention.
Läänemets made a proposal to the Board of the Riigikogu to forward the report to all the Committees for discussion, in order to identify specific steps for improvements and changes that should be set out either in the form of legislative amendments, state budget, or more long-term strategic objectives.
During the debate that followed the presentations and the questions, Yoko Alander (Reform Party), Siret Kotka (Centre Party), Heiki Hepner (Isamaa), Peeter Ernits (Estonian Conservative People’s Part), Raimond Kaljulaid (Social Democratic Party), Andres Metsoja (Isamaa), Hele Everaus (Reform Party) and Leo Kunnas (Estonian Conservative People’s Part) took the floor.
Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)
Photos of the sitting (Author: Erik Peinar, Riigikogu)
The video recording of the sitting can be viewed later on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)