We recalled the days of the founding of the foundation with Andra Veidemann, who, as the Minister of Population, proposed forming the Integration Foundation to the government and was the chairman of its first supervisory board.
What were the circumstances under which the idea to create the foundation we know as the Integration Foundation was born?
Theory is one thing, practice another. The small office of the Minister of Population with its members and an essentially non-existent line in the national budget could not have been physically able to even start with all the activities listed in the document ‘Starting points of the Estonian national integration policy for integrating non-Estonians into the Estonian society’, which was passed with some cuts by the Riigikogu on 10 June 1998.
Integration into a free market economy also needed investments, which did not start earning huge profits immediately. But still, based on the document regarding the starting points of integration, the Government of the Republic passed the state programme Integration in the Estonian Society 2000–2007 on 14 March 2000. Carrying out the programme required not only cooperation between the government, its institutions, and NGOs, but also money.
Through their diplomatic representations, many European countries had sent the message that they would gladly support the integration of non-Estonians into the Estonian society primarily because it was not an easy task and the country did not have money for making changes in several areas of life. This was the reason for establishing the Foundation for the Integration of Non-Estonians by an order of the government of 31 March 1998 and assigning the Government Office to execute its founder rights on behalf of the state. Pursuant to the laws valid in the country at that time, a minister without a portfolio did not have such an authority.
The same regulation of the government tasked the Ministry of the Interior with transferring 100,000 kroons to the Foundation for the Integration of Non-Estonians as founding expenses. Olari Taal, who was the Minister of the Interior back then, was the one to sign the documents for establishing the foundation, which were also quickly notarised. The Minister of Population was designated as the chairman of the supervisory board of the Foundation. In addition, the Government Office was tasked with transferring the 6,000,000 kroons allocated for the operational expenses of the Integration Foundation by article 91 of chapter 12 of part 21 of the State Budget for 1998 on the account of the Foundation for the Integration of Non-Estonians. This fulfilled the own funding requirement of the foundation and foreign countries were able to begin transferring their funding to the account of the foundation.
The main work in creating the Integration Foundation was done by the office of the Minister of Population, and they also helped the new head of the foundation to begin and organise the work of the foundation.
Therefore, creating this foundation was a prerequisite for beginning to substantially organise integration in Estonia.
How was such a proposal received?
Many of us occasionally have difficulties seeing the forest through the trees. There certainly were many Estonians and also people of other nationalities who were – and some who continue to be – of the opinion that working on integration is a distraction and a waste of time and money. This attitude was particularly exacerbated by the transition period and the heinous, often seemingly unsolvable problems among Estonians themselves: the beginning of financial inequality, which brings along inequality in many areas and also poverty and the related shame.
However, it was obvious that as long as we are unable to start functioning in a more or less unified society and people do not understand that this would benefit almost everyone, we need to continue informing and emphasise solving problems as a result of common action.
How did you imagine the foundation?
As said before, we were aware that it is not possible to adapt any of the integration models applied in other countries to Estonia without making changes. This meant that when the priorities and goals set are deemed to comply with actual needs, it was necessary to move along step by step, combining the possibilities, political attitudes of governments, and unforeseen circumstances, but also and primarily, the political will of the parties.
However, political will changes and we have seen and experienced plenty of this in 25 years. The position of the Ministry of Population has been included in the government and then removed again, but the Integration Foundation celebrates 25 years since the passing of its establishment, which serves to prove that there continues to be a need for such an institution.
What seems to be different now, 25 years later?
Considering that in our rapidly changing times and circumstances, 25 years is a very long time and the Integration Foundation continues to function as an institution, there is reason to think that the path is right in principle. Already when preparing the document regarding the basics of integration and the related discussions, we agreed that there is no magic fix, no single measure to significantly speed up the integration process and take it across the finish line victoriously. Changing people’s attitudes and ways of thinking takes time, positive experiences, and tangible results.
The war of conquest unleashed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine in February 2022 is certainly a catastrophe of such significance as to affect all integration not only in Estonia, but in all of Europe and the world. In such conditions, it is important for us to continue carrying out the democratic goals we have set for our country even if we may be tempted to give up at times.
In conclusion, I wish to thank everyone who has been involved in this multidisciplinary area throughout the years, experienced both victories and occasional losses, but have still remained true to the values and principles characteristic of a democratic and cohesive society. In my opinion, there is no alternative. Congratulations! May you have strength to move through hardships towards the stars!