Facing the Sister City dilemma

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 11:37 AM

Chapel Hill faces a dilemma, not an uncommon one, to be sure.

Principals seem to be in conflict.

On the one hand, every fiber of the town’s self-image and history argue for building bridges, for tolerance, for finding ways to enlighten and broaden the horizons of those who might view the world differently.

On the other, it is steadfastly and correctly on the side of equal rights, of asserting forthrightly its (at least recent) commitment to standing firm against discrimination on the grounds of race, cultural heritage, gender or sexual preference.

One part of that heritage has meant a long-standing commitment to bridge-building through the Sister Cities program. Chapel Hill has been linked in a Sister City relationship with Saratov, Russia, since 1992.

To be sure, that relationship commenced only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the year before, so it’s not as if Chapel Hill embraced a Russian city in the most restrictive days of Communist dictatorship. But the relationship nonetheless spoke of cultural exchange since the early days of new openness and – almost – democracy in the former Soviet Union, and persisted even as the country passed through oligarchic plundering to a revival of heavy-handed state control.

Still, it was a signal of embracing interaction as a road to greater international understanding and grass-roots community even in the face of suspicion and hostility at the nation-state level.

But the relationship has been dormant –a charitable description – in recent years.

And as the Russian government has become more and more oppressive, it finally passed a red line for many in Chapel Hill with the passage of restrictive gay laws this year.

This past week, the Town Council received a petition asserting that the Sister City relationship should be dissolved. Its signers included some pretty heavyweight actors – Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Councilman Lee Storrow.

Kleinschmidt and Story not only have petitioned the council, they have sent a letter to Saratov Mayor Oleg Grishenko explaining their reasoning.

“Both Council Member Storrow and myself are openly gay politicians and find deplorable the policies and laws in Russia that target Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Russian citizens,” they wrote.

The council received the petition Monday and at a later date will invite public comment and consider how to respond. Already, it has attracted some pushback, including from Silvia Tomaskova, professor of Slavic and Eastern European studies, who argued the move would be an “empty gesture” that would endanger scholarly exchanges with Russia.

“We would prefer to work on a meaningful and constructive conversation between Chapel Hill and the people of Saratov and Russia in general in figuring out how to help in any way to the LGBT community,” Tomaskova said.

We admit to seeing merit in both sides of this debate. It is commendable that the council and Chapel Hill are ready to embark on a significant discussion of a sensitive and important issue. Our sympathies tend toward the dissolution of ties, especially given the virtually nonexistent evidence of real bridge-building.

But we look forward to hearing considerable more debate before the council must reach a final decision.