Not for Free: Challenges to Democracy in Europe
Before our twenty-five participants from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden packed their suitcases and start their trip to Tallinn, we asked them about their expectations. Most of them, like Petra from the Czech Republic, wanted to learn about the political situation of the other European countries and how democratic values are challenged there; others, like Ruth from Germany, wanted to learn about the other participants’ cultures.
Magdalena from the Czech Republic challenged us a bit further: “For a long time I thought about it and I know that I have no exact idea what to expect. Of course, I received a program and a lot of information, but I think that I have never experienced anything like this yet. But that's exactly what I like: getting into new situations, meeting new people, getting new information and sharing opinions with other people and listen to theirs. Sometimes I feel that I need these things to survive another day.“ The pressure is on! Will we match these expectations? I hope that I don't spoil the story by telling you that Magdalena survived.
Putting the participant into new situations - I would say that we succeeded in doing just that: Every day we were working in different cities – Tallinn and Tartu – different kinds of working places: several schools in Tallinn and Tartu, the German Cultural Institute or the Estonian Historical Institute. We were always guided by our Estonian students, who were perfect hosts to our group.
All days were filled with different inputs about populism and democratic values, be it lectures, silent or hot discussions. During one discussion the young Europeans had to physically take the side of disagreeing or agreeing with statements dealing with democratic values; like if there should be a 'test' before citizens would be allowed to vote, or whether it is justified to cut off democratic rights to solve an economical crisis. Bianka from Slovakia: “I really like the moments when we all were together discussing topics, sharing different opinions, when I could see how different everyone is, how people are able to fight for their opinions.”
Simulating a political decision making process was surely one of the most challenging exercises of this week. The participants had to set up a city council meeting to decide whether or not a mosque should be built in the fictitious city of 'Sleepyville'. They were given roles as members of different political parties, NGOs, citizens and journalists and had to prepare their positions for the debate.
Flore from Belgium, one of the journalists, summarized: “Of all the activities, the democratic decision making simulation was my favourite. It really helped me understand how such a process works and how people can be influenced. But I guess I was lucky that the role I had to play had the same vision on things as me. Otherwise it would have been much more difficult to play the role”.
If you want to know how the city council decided and get some insights into the perspective of the 'muslim community' or read the articles of the three journalists attending that session, please have a look here.
But the academy was not only about work! Our group also got the chance for a cultural evening in a students’ association in Tartu, where some members of the fraternity performed Estonian songs for us and two of our participants, Anton and Eva, taught willing group members Russian and Spanish dances.
On the last day the pressure was back on: Some physical results of the week had to be finalized. Some were so physical, that we can't show them here – like a board game. Some, like the fable and plans for school projects, need to be put into a context. But you can have a peak into the newspaper produced in Estonia.
And the other results? Probably less measurable but surely more valuable and very personal. Linda (Latvia): “At the end I was able to put the undefined thoughts about democracy (like: What actually is democracy?, How large of a freedom for each person does democracy allow?, etc.) into logically formed sentences. What I mean is that most people - including me - live in a democratic environment every day and do not even think that there are people in the world who do not have the privilege to live in such a way. We do not actually see the worth of our freedom - the thought that "Yeah, we live in a democratic environment" is always in our heads, but neither usually defines it in clear words and voices the good and the maybe not so good aspects of it out loud.”
And Kätliin (Estonia) shares her most important experience: I liked being challenged and at the same time encouraged and supported, because that way I managed to discover new sides of myself.
For Gregor (Estonia) was the most impressive “that even people from similar places and similar environments could have absolutely different views on democracy or populism.”
Matilda (Sweden) adds: “Among my friends there is no big interest in these kinds of questions and therefore it made me happy to be in an air of people who all shared this interest. And even those who were not really into this topic became more interested during the week, which also made me glad. That's a sign that shows that every youth can be interested in the topic if it is discussed in a way that suits the youths. But most of all I learned a lot about myself and my own reactions to different things.”
And some follow-ups to this academy? Anton from Russia is “planning to make a presentation “Democracy in practice” and will hold several workshops in two schools. It will be supported by the Altai Youth Parliament. I think we will invite experts from different spheres, organize several long acting projects in cooperation with School's Councils”.
I give the last words to Sjur from Norway: “I learned so many different things relating to different places by people who came from different situations. A little bit about the school-system here, the political situation there, and the culture of some other place. It's difficult to point out one or two things that I learned, because I learned so much!”
Text and photos: Tina Gotthardt