History and civic culture as factors in the political landscape

The present-day political landscape and civic culture of Estonia have been affected both by the brevity of the democratic culture of the first period of independence and by the "corporativeness", the lack of initiative and the cutting of outside ties inherited from late totalitarianism.

In the first period of the Republic of Estonia several political parties were active, but there was too little time for the development of party political traditions. After the coup of 1934, parties were banned, and the "silent era" began. Civic political activity and open criticism of the government were not in favour. Civic initiatives were directed at non-political activities, as they had been during the period of national awakening in the second half of the 19th century.

A completely different atmosphere in the political culture took shape under the Soviet regime. Membership of the monopoly party in power was a duty for many office-holders; political over-activity was also demanded of the ordinary rank and file in society. Yet participation in political meetings and demonstrations was merely a façade, in the shadow of which there existed a socially critical dissident culture. From the nineteen-eighties onwards a political "salon culture" developed energetically - groups of friends who met in their free time would make fun of the regime and its leaders, without any serious intention of effecting real changes in society.

After the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian regime and in the early years of the transition period (late nineteen-eighties, early nineteen-nineties) the populace became politically active. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of people took part in the peaceful protest campaigns (the so-called "phosphorus war", the Song Festival, the Baltic Chain). Through the grass-roots civic committees, real steps were taken toward restoring a civic society to the Republic of Estonia.

Unfortunately, as in the majority of societies in transition, political activity on a mass scale vanished within a few years. The most enthusiastic people found their places in parties, others took the roles on passive bystanders or simply critics. At the turn of the century in Estonia, political activity is typical of only a few (often groups of friends), while the majority of citizens take a cool view of both elections and civic activities. In recent years civic organisations have become stronger and more active. A part in this has been played by the draft document on the development of Estonian civic society, adopted at the end of 2002 by Parliament; this will create a permanent legislative basis for dialogue between the state and society.

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