Council to consider cutting ties with Russian sister city over gay rights

Sep. 08, 2013 @ 10:24 PM

The Town Council will receive a petition from Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Councilman Lee Storrow on Monday night asking their colleagues to sever the town’s sister city relationship with Saratov, Russia, because of the passage of restrictive gay laws by the Russian Duma. 
Kleinschmidt and Storrow, who are openly gay, have sent a letter to Saratov Mayor Oleg Grishenko explaining the reason for wanting to end the dormant relationship established in 1992, mostly as a cultural exchange program between the two cities.
“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,” the letter said.
The two said they have followed stories in the world press detailing “violent deaths, detainment and persecution of LGBT” engaging in nonviolent expressions of support for their rights.
“Considering Russia’s policies, and that I myself would be subject to these laws as the mayor of Chapel Hill if I were to visit Russia, it seems to me the cultural values of Chapel Hill and Russia are in conflict,” Kleinschmidt said in the letter.
Russian leader have passed a law imposing heavy fines on anyone who provides information about homosexuality to youth under 18 years-old, banned the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples and to any couple or single parent living in any country where marriage equality exists and is now considering a bill that would strip gays of their parental rights. 
Chapel Hill officials acknowledge that the town’s relationship with Saratov has not been an active one and “due to the enactment of Russia’s anti-LGBT policies, we see no reason to keep the relationship even in name.”
But while ending the town’s relationship is a no-brainer for Kleinschmidt and Storrow, there is at least one person who thinks it’s a bad idea that could potential harm the research efforts of UNC faculty and students in Russia.
Silvia Tomaskova, a UNC professor in the Department of Slavic and Eastern European Studies, said she worries that UNC faculty and students may be prohibited from traveling to Russia and that the Russian government might deny visas for UNC-affiliated staff as a result of ending the town’s relationship with Saratov.
Tomaskova said in an email that cutting ties with Saratov seems like an “empty gesture” coming from the town, which has not had any contact with Saratov for seven years.
“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. “Public gestures of this sort are not the best form of diplomacy, as a matter of fact they are the antithesis of diplomacy.”
Tomaskova said Chapel Hill residents would not want the world to judge its town by political decisions made in Raleigh or Washington.
“Did we just pass a proposition about marriage in North Carolina that is seriously discriminatory by many standards of Western democracies?” Tomaskova asked.
As the director of UNC’s Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, Tomaskova said she is proud of the work students and faculty have done in the region for decades and hopes that they can continue their efforts, some of which involve work on LGBT issues.
“We have faculty and students who work in Russia, know Saratov far better than the mayor's office and his staff, and have contacts with LGBT communities in Russia,” Tomaskova said. “I find the mayor's decision misguided and uninformed.”