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Interview: Abdul Turay, the Expat Running for Tallinn City Council

British journalist and political columnist Abdul Turay made headlines in Estonia on Friday when it was announced that he would be running for a seat in the Tallinn City Council. ERR News caught up with him to find out how this unusual turn of events came to pass and what he and the party with which he is running hope to accomplish.

How did you wind up becoming a Social Democratic Party candidate for the Tallinn City Council? Did the party or its mayoral candidate Andres Anvelt tell you what they were hoping to get from having you on their list?

They need high-profile names to get votes, obviously. And [Anvelt] felt I was a very intelligent person who had very strong opinions and was someone who had built up a name for himself independently of any organization.

Also, the party is very interested in developing itself into an international party, and there's talk of developing Tallinn into an international city. So that's part of the agenda, to try to develop Tallinn as an international hub, a city that can compete with Stockholm or with Helsinki.

And of course [Anvelt] has read stuff I've written and he's liked it, and these were all reasons for him to be interested in me as a candidate.

I mentioned to [a colleague of mine] in passing that I might be interested and she got in touch with someone else. Then they got in touch with me and asked me to come and see them. That's how I got involved with the Social Democrats.

Actually, I thought that I had left it too late. I didn't really think it would happen because I thought, well, they must have decided who was on their list already. Until the last minute, until really last week, I hadn't decided if I was going to stand or even which party I was going to stand for.

On that point, Eerik-Niiles Kross, IRL's candidate for Tallinn mayor, had also asked you to run as their man, and people who have read your columns would expect you to be more aligned with that party, as it is right wing. What made you decide to go with the more liberal Social Democrats?

To be honest, I'm not a Social Democrat. My political views are probably to the right of the Social Democrats. When I went to see them I said flat out, I'm not a Social Democrat, if anything I'm a social liberal. [...]

I used to be a trade union representative, and one thing I learned from that was that, when you stand as a candidate or become a councilor, you're not really there to give your own opinion. [...] You're supposed to represent the position of the people who vote for you, or who could potentially vote for you in my case.

There's no getting away from it: I am a foreigner in Estonia so that's my natural constituency. And most of those people will not vote for IRL, they don't share their views. They're never going to vote for Keskerakond [Center Party], they might possibly. vote for the Reform Party, but they're most likely to vote - if they vote at all - for the Social Democratic Party, whose views are left of center. I have to represent my interest group.

Why did you make the decision to run, in the end?

Because of the birth of my son. That is a life-changing experience. It is a game-changer. Now I can say, and no one can deny it, that I have a connection to Estonia that is permanent - it will never go away. I may not be Estonian, but my son is, and because he's too young to speak for himself, I have to speak for him.

And I want him to have a good future. It's obvious to me and to every British person who comes to Estonia that Estonia is a very good place to raise children. I want it to stay that way and it even to improve. I want there to be good schools here, good transport links [...] I want it to be a safe place where children can run around and play, which is impossible in some parts of the UK. I want the schools to be good everywhere, which is not the case at the moment. I want there to be enough kindergarten places.

I also want the international community to develop because my son is mixed-race and obviously I want him to feel at home here. I don't want to have a situation where I have to go back to England in five years' time and say I'm leaving Estonia now because it sucks. And the best way to do that is to get involved in politics directly rather than just writing about it in the newspaper.

The other reason that I'm standing - and I think this is very important - is that there needs to be people who stand for the international community, the expat community, those people who are here who are not Estonian but like and love Estonia. We need to bring more people like that here, people who are going to bring money to the country, who are going to promote the country. It can't be said that those people should be denied representation. They should have representation too.

A good example of that is the bill that was passed last year that made it difficult for foreigners to stay in the country unless they earned above a certain amount of money. And there were expats that suddenly found that they had to pay more tax and it was making it difficult to stay here. If there had been somebody to speak for those people before it happened, it may not have happened in the way it did.

But you're talking about issues at a national level, not just a local one.

You have to start small before you go big. That's a national level [issue] but there are lots of small issues that are going on around the city which effect everybody.

I'm not saying I'm going to stand as a national candidate, because that might mean I would have to become an Estonian citizen, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet [...] But I would like to see someone from the international community or a väliseestlane [foreign-born Estonian] speak for those who are international here. Estonia needs these people. They bring in money and they bring in expertise and they're useful for the country.

As a foreigner though, how can you say that you represent the interests of the general Tallinn electorate?

I've got the same concerns as everybody who lives in Estonia. People are worried about their children, and they're worried about the future of Estonia. And there's no reason why I can't represent them as well.

If I've got children here, I've got the same interests as everybody else in the country [...] The difference is that I have been writing about politics so I know a little bit about it. And because I come from another country I can maybe look at things the way a local candidate couldn't.

In running, is it your aim to energize a wider spectrum of the public, politically?

If you're someone who's outraged at the prospect of a black candidate, or even just Abdul Turay standing as a candidate because he's a foreigner, he doesn't speak Estonian, [...] then you should get involved too.

I want to energize people to get involved, even those people who don't agree with me, and to take an interest. I think it's important that people play a role in their community.

Something like this happening, someone who is an unusual candidate I think would be a motivation for people to take an interest in what actually is going on and what actually happens in local government, how it's run, and what you can do to be involved. I think that's important for democracy.

How do you think the general electorate is going to react to you given that you're not only a foreigner, but you're also a black person running for a council seat a country that has almost no black people?

In a way it helps because I don't have a natural constituency. [...] I don't have to talk about black issues. I don't write about black issues because there just aren't any black people to have issues about. So I can talk about issues that are generic problems that everybody might face. I can talk about things that I really care about.

Whereas if you're a black candidate in the UK or the US, you really have to talk for your community, which means you're excluding everybody else.

As for people accepting me, some people will, some people won't. Some people will be outraged, but if you are outraged, as I said, that's a good thing, because it galvanizes views and gets people involved. And that's how democracy should work.

And I'm quite sure that that will happen - there will be more people who will step into politics- maybe more foreigners, more Russians, more people who are from unusual backgrounds, women, disabled people, who say if he can do it, why can't I?

I know you speak Estonian, but your Estonian is not perfect. Do you think language will be a problem during the candidacy process, and more importantly, if you end up with a council seat?

I don't think it'll be a problem in the council seat because my Estonian is probably a lot better than people give me credit for. I can communicate with it with people who don't speak English, like my mother-in-law.

In public, I'm very nervous to communicate in Estonian because it's not that good. I make a lot of grammatical mistakes. And most people speak English better than I speak Estonian so there's no point anyway.

But people forget that there are already councilors who don't speak Estonian - Russian councilors for Keskerakond [Center Party], a few of them don't speak Estonian.

You can't have a situation where people are excluded from voting, or standing as a candidate, because they don't speak the language. If you say “I don't want to vote for this candidate because he doesn't speak the language,” that's another thing.

How do you rate your chances of actually getting a seat?

I have no idea, absolutely none.

Whether you succeed or fail, is this a one-off foray into the world of Estonian politics for you, or do you see it as a first step to something more?

It's too early too tell and it depends on how things go. Obviously if I'm successful, it's more likely that I would continue. I really couldn't tell you at this stage.

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