When voters in the tiny country of Estonia, along the Baltic Sea, elected their local representatives on Sunday they made history in more than one way.
Almost 13 percent of voters – and 35 percent in Tallinn, the capital – cast their vote online this time. That’s more than ever before since the Baltic country pioneered e-voting – and e-government in general, in 2004.
But there was another breakthrough. In Tallinn, residents elected Abdul Turay, a black Briton, to sit on the city council, making him the first black person to hold an important political mandate in Estonia. Mr. Turay, a respected political columnist for Estonia’s bestselling daily, ran on the Social Democratic ticket.
“Something like him we've never had before,“ says Andrei Hvostov, a well-known Estonian novelist. “It's a sign that Estonia is opening itself.“
Estonia, under the iron grip of communism until 1990, is a largely white nation. There are very few black people or non-Christians. There is ethnic tension that comes from the mutual mistrust between ethnic Estonians and the Russian-speaking minority who settled in Estonia after what Estonians regard as a 50-year occupation by the Soviet Union. Russian-speakers make up a third of Estonia’s 1.3 million residents.
Lately signs of what some say is a latent racism have bubbled to the surface. Music groups PWA – Preserve White Aryans – and RMV – Racially Motivated Violence – perform for neo-Nazi skinheads and sympathizers. And there has been the emergence of the far-right Conservative People's Party with its slogan, “If you are black – go back."
During the campaign, Martin Helme of this new party told journalists that Turay was "just another argument against Estonia being a part of the EU, because in my eyes, Estonia is meant for Estonians and decisions about Estonia should be made by Estonians.”
Estonia’s sense of national identity is remarkably strong, linked to the country’s tiny size and its sense of vulnerability, most notably in regard to Russia, the dreaded neighbor. "It's a miracle that we exist at all,“ says Mr. Hvostov. He argues that this sense of nationalism has led to Estonian skepticism toward minorities.
Nevertheless, Turay’s victory holds huge symbolic significance.
"It is a sign of maturity, a sign that people do not accept the type of latent racism [that[ is here,” says Tallinn resident Maris Hellrand.
Ms. Hellrand explains that when Turay started to write as a columnist, people were not sure he actually existed. "When Abdul started writing in the daily and [there was] a picture of a black man, nobody believed that, that a black actually represented them."
Toomas Mattson, who works for Estonia's National Audit Office in Tallinn, gave Turay his vote because “It was very important to show ... that black people can be electable in the eyes of Estonian voters,” he says. “Estonia must be a country where people are regarded by their qualities, not by the color of their skin, or language they speak as a native one.”
Turay says he got involved in politics to help make Tallinn a better place for his son. "Writing about issues for the newspaper was not enough," he says.
Turay feels what he represents is European-ness, not blackness. He embodies the new Europe, an increasingly borderless continent.
"Precisely because there are no blacks here, I have no natural constituency, nobody to speak to as a black person, I cannot have a message that talks about black issues," he says. "So race literally doesn't matter."