During recent years, developments in Estonian society have, in general, not been conducive to social cohesion. The state’s relative inability to balance the effects of market mechanisms with social political measures has created wide disparities between social classes and different regions (as witnessed by the yearly published Estonian Human Development Reports). However, the powerful development of the non-profit sector, since the late 1990s, is a sign of change in this respect. In 2014, the number of registered non-profit voluntary associations amounted to around 18 000 – a high figure in relation to the size of the country’s population. Not all of the registered organisations are, however, active and they tend to operate with very few resources. Their average size of membership has diminished during the past five years. Around 31% of the population are members of a sports, leisure, cultural or other association, while 16% are members of a religious organisation, 8% of a political party and 7% of a labour union.
In cultural policies, there is a tendency to present culture as part of a common, “national” cause, which can, in some respects, have the effect of enhancing social cohesion. At the same time, it may have the opposite effect when seen from the point of view of those people who have difficulties in identifying with and seeing themselves as a part of the national “grand narrative”. In explicit terms, social cohesion has become a cultural policy issue in the specific field of integration of national minorities and immigrants.
The Constitution, which was adopted in 1992, recognises the right of national minorities to express their identity and develop their cultural traditions. The state administration is, in principle, mono-lingually Estonian. However, in practice, society has continued to function bilingually in Estonian and Russian, especially in such ethnically mixed localities as Tallinn, the capital and the larger cities in the North East. Even if Tallinn itself does not organise cultural services in Russian, or in other minority languages, it finances the activities of a number of NGOs dealing with minority cultures, and provides them with space in the Russian Cultural Centre and in other cultural and community centres. Similar pragmatism can be seen from the language strategies adopted by larger businesses: even if public advertising in other languages than Estonian is restricted by legislation, clients are offered services in Estonian and Russian (and eventually English or even Finnish) as a matter of daily routine. The same can be said of most public services such as education, health care, police, communications, etc., and also of many types of activities of the non-profit organisations. In its opinion of 2001, the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee monitoring the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities was pleased to note that the use of Russian was widely accepted in contacts with authorities, but deplored the lack of legislation that would guarantee that right. In these respects, the situation has not changed.
The legislative measure most directly concerned with minority cultures is the Law on the Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities, (1993) (see, however, the discussion in chapter 2.6 on the difficulties in implementing it). To a large extent, the Act has remained a dead-letter; minorities continue to organise their cultural life through voluntary associations and non-profit foundations, in accordance to the general legislation on non-profit organisations
Even if the number of different organisations for minority cultures is large, they have remained very small in size, and their ability to reach out to the members of minority groups is limited. On the other hand, there are some events and institutions that are remind Estonians about the existing diversity in the country – the Slavonic Song festival, the Russian Drama Theatre, the Swedish and Armenian churches, or the radio and TV programmes in minority languages. The cultural policies of the state and local governments towards ethnic minorities have mainly consisted of direct and indirect support to the activities of non-profit organisations and amateur cultural groups. However, these organisations and groups cannot, by themselves, have much influence on one of the most acute problems faced by cultural policy today: the minorities’ lower level of cultural participation, consumption and access to pursuing a career in culture.