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Cities Asked to Suspend Ties with Russian Counterparts

by Matthew S. Bajko
Sunday Aug 18, 2013

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."

"I will also ask the Moscow Sister County Commission to open a dialogue with local LGBT leaders so they can find ways to use citizen diplomacy to influence the issue," added Yeager.

Brendalynn Goodall, with the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, told the B.A.R. she supports Oakland suspending ties with Nakhodka, Russia. And Mayor Jean Quan is exploring how to put the ties between the two cities on hiatus, said her spokesman Sean Maher .

"We are aware of the petition. We are glad to see it," said Maher, noting that Quan sent a letter August 1 to the International Olympic Committee to express her concerns about the Russian anti-gay laws and the need to relocate the Winter Games if they are not overturned. "Oakland has long been home to LGBT communities and is a leader in diversity and inclusion."

Maher said the mayor would likely work with the City Council when it returns from its summer recess in September to address the calls for it to suspend its sister city ties to Nakhodka.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Sister Cities International, the mayor of a U.S. city need only write a letter to their counterpart (and Sister Cities International) saying that they'd like to either cancel the relationship or put it into emeritus status. The organization's policy, however, counsels that suspending a sister city relationship "due to disagreement over a government policy or practice can be counterproductive and contrary to the stated mission of sister city relationships" to promote peace through interpersonal relationships.

"Canceling relationships is quite rare, although putting relationships into emeritus status is more common, usually due to inactivity," Sister Cities International spokeswoman Megha Swamy told the B.A.R. in an email. "We encourage members to keep partnerships, even if they are Emeritus, since sometimes in the future citizens will decide to revitalize the relationship and make it active once more, and this avoids having to go through the whole twinning process again."

San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra, who this summer joined the group's national board of directors, said he is discussing with his colleagues what action to take in response to the petitions.

"No doubt a strong statement needs to be made to the Russian government from all corners. That includes our federal government, cities, and even organizations like Sister Cities," said Kalra. "The question is to what degree do we respond."

He said the Sister Cities board has heard from cities across the country on how they should respond to the calls for suspending ties with their Russian counterparts.

"From what I am gathering right now, if I had to make a call right now we will certainly make a strong statement regarding the relationship. I don't know if it furthers that mission by suspending the relationship at this time," said Kalra.

As for suspending his city's ties with Ekaterinburg, Kalra predicted it would be a hard sell with the other council members and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed.

"It has been difficult for me to get anything through the council in standing up for LGBT rights. It would be a heavy lift to suggest anything to end or suspend a sister city," he said. "I am hoping it doesn't get there and to find an appropriate way to make a strong statement to the Russian government while maintaining these relationships."

San Jose is set to host the 2014 Sister Cities International annual conference next summer. Kalra, who will serve as a co-chair of the gathering, expects the topic of how sister cities "can help to move social movements for equality" will be discussed.

The issue of equal rights is one that many countries, including the U.S., continues to grapple with, noted Kalra. And having American cities suspend ties with Russian cities could prompt residents in various countries with grievances against American policies to take the same step, he cautioned.

"There are a lot of sister cities around the world in many countries that have very poor records when it comes to LGBT rights and equality," he said. "If the side effect is for us to have discussions about LGBT rights globally because of what is happening in Russia, I think we should take advantage of it."

The Legislative LGBT Caucus met Wednesday morning to discuss what actions it would take. Caucus Chair Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) told the B.A.R. his inclination is not to end ties or conduct boycotts but to use the relationship to speak out for LGBT rights.

"I think if these relationships exist then let's try to use them to communicate and to influence. If the message falls on deaf ears then suspend the relationship," said Gordon. "If it falls on something other than deaf ears, like hostility or anger, then maybe you end the relationship."

Call to end investments

A tactic state lawmakers in the Senate are pursuing is asking the California Public Employees' Retirement System and the California State Teachers' Retirement System to discontinue directly investing in Russia. Gay Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles) and Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) are asking their Senate colleagues to adopt a resolution aimed at curtailing the pension funds' Russian investments.

"It is a good opportunity for California to participate in raising the visibility of these draconian laws signed by Putin and Russia," said Leno. "And hopefully it will encourage other states to follow our lead."

Leno does not support boycotting the Olympics, though he is amendable to adding language to the resolution asking non-athletes to stay home. And he supports cities deciding to send Putin a message by suspending their sister cities ties.

At the state level, Leno added that he believes California should "create absolutely no new relationship with anything in Russia going forward until these laws are repealed. There is just no need for it."

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