Cities Asked to Suspend Ties with Russian Counterparts
American cities that have relationships with Russian cities are being asked to suspend those ties due to recently adopted anti-gay propaganda laws signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While calls to boycott Russian vodka brands and the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi have gained widespread attention, less noticed have been calls for the suspension of sister city relationships between U.S. and Russian municipalities.
In the Bay Area, Oakland in 1975 became sister cities with Nakhodka, Russia, a coastal city on the Sea of Japan, while San Jose since 1992 has been sister cities with Ekaterinburg, Russia, where in 1918 Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered.
Santa Clara County has a sister county relationship with Moscow. And California has sister state agreements with the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region and the Altai Republic of the Russian Federation, according to the state Senate Office of International Relations.
In recent weeks petitions have been launched to urge elected leaders in the various American cities to suspend their Russian relationships as a protest of the homophobic laws adopted by Soviet leaders.
"The reported violence on our LGBT brothers and sisters is unacceptable. We must speak out," gay San Jose resident Steve Kline , who has encouraged his neighbors to sign the online petition, told the Bay Area Reporter. "If we just look the other way, we are part of that violence. Dialogue is always available, but it takes two to create that conversation. I have not seen or read about any Russian official who wants to talk about equal rights for LGBT citizens. In fact, it seems that they are still threatening tourists, and the participants and spectators at Sochi."
In a letter sent last Thursday, August 8 to the state’s Legislative LGBT Caucus, several Bay Area activists urged the out lawmakers to "consider severing the two sister state pacts, as a method of telling Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian society that there is a diplomatic price to pay for homophobia."
There is not universal support for the tactic among LGBT people overseas, as some would rather see the sister cities relationships be used to dialogue with Russians about the need for LGBT rights.
"We are of the view that cancellations of such relations may sadly foster the scapegoating of the LGBT community in Russia," Bjorn Van Roozendaal, the program director for ILGA-Europe, which stands for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, told the B.A.R. in an email. "Cities with such sister links could probably better use their relations to foster dialogue and support local LGBT communities in their twinning cities."
St. Petersburg, Russia resident Polina Savchenko , an LGBT activist who visited San Francisco in 2011, wrote in an email to San Jose resident Gloria Nieto that she is conflicted about the calls for suspending ties.
"Regarding cutting sister-city relations, I have a mixed feeling. It would not be good if all sister-cities did that, because then the LGBT people in Russia and Russians in general would end up isolated from the West and its ideas of human rights and freedoms," wrote Savchenko. "But I think it is good when once in awhile one city or another suspends these relations until the time when homophobic legislation is withdrawn."
Nieto, who shared her friend’s email with the B.A.R. , in 2009 served on the Santa Clara County Moscow Sister County Commission, though she has never visited Russia herself. She has spoken to South Bay officials about suspending ties until the anti-gay Soviet laws are appealed in hopes it will spur their Russian counterparts to speak out against them.
"If we suspend those relationships it is kind of doing a carrot and stick thing. We are not abandoning LGBT folks there but letting elected officials know we are not happy," said Nieto, a longtime LGBT activist. "They should be doing something to affect what is going on in the Duma and other house. They can’t just shrug their shoulders and not do anything. They have to go and tell their elected officials this is affecting their cities."
Some connections inactive
It does not appear, however, that most of the local U.S.-Soviet connections have been active in recent years. Several out state lawmakers told the B.A.R. they were unaware of the state pacts, while officials in both Oakland and San Jose were unsure of the status of their Russian sister cities committees.
The one relationship that has fostered recent cultural exchanges between the countries is that of Santa Clara County and Moscow. According to the office of Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager , a gay man who is serving as the Board of Supervisor’s president this year, the county recently hosted a Soviet delegation made up of nonprofit employees and social workers focused on working with youth in foster care and institutional settings.
Another Muscovite delegation of social workers and police officers is set to visit Santa Clara County to study its juvenile justice programs.
The commission "has worked very hard to establish ties with Russian citizens working to affect positive change in their country’s social services sector. Building that trust took years," Yeager wrote in an email to the B.A.R.
Instead of severing ties, which Yeager does not support, he does plan to have the board vote on a resolution to officially condemn the anti-gay Russian laws and send letters to the appropriate ambassadorial contacts.
"Official condemnations from governments at every level will help bring attention to the issue," wrote Yeager. "However, I believe that severing such a productive program would do more harm than good for LGBT people in Russia, especially the youth."
In addition, when county staff meets with the visiting delegation, Yeager said he would insist that a portion of the program be spent on the importance of LGBT rights and "the vital need to protect the dignity and safety of all people."