Chapel Hill severs ties with Saratov
The town of Chapel Hill has officially severed its ties with Saratov amid heavy anti-homosexual sentiment and legislation throughout Russia.
The council unanimously agreed Monday night that the mostly inert relationship was not in the best interest or support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people in the Russian city.
“This is not a situation where engagement is possible … to create change,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “It’s to isolate. Pressure from the outside comes in different forms. Engagement seems to fuel the oppressor.”
Russia has made international headlines with recent legislation and negative public opinions about LGBT people. In a letter to Sarratov Mayor Oleg Grishenko in September, Kleinschmidt said that the issue would be going before the council for consideration.
“Both Council Member (Lee) Storrow and myself are openly gay politicians, and find deplorable the policies and laws in Russia that target Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Russian citizens,” the letter said. “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 that there was no response to his letter from Saratov officials.
Council member Jim Ward said that he was not ready to sever ties five months ago but the lack of response “makes me feel like this either isn’t an important issue for their leadership or they’re rigid in their position and our engagement would have no impact.”
Kleinschmidt received an email from a Sarartov resident who said, “your application to sever relations with the Saratov caused hysteria among the local authorities, its lackeys and in the media. But, you did it right! I support your decision to sever ties with Saratov, and hats off to you!”
Jen Jones of Equality N.C. told the board that it was ENC’s efforts that resulted in the hundreds of emails the Chapel Hill council members received requesting the town rethink its relationship with Saratov.
The relationship between Chapel Hill and Saratov began in 1992 when the two entered into a Sister City Relationship as part of a cultural exchange program designed to strengthen the ties between the two and promote mutual understanding following the Cold War.
Council member Sally Greene expressed concern that there was no dialogue with UNC about the possible impact of ending the more than two-decade relationship.
UNC professor Silvia Tomaskova in the UNC Department of Slavic and Eastern European Studies has been working with students and staff performing Saratov-based research, including working on LGBT issues and disability rights through oral history.
She is cited as being concerned that the split would cause the Russian government to retaliate by denying visas to UNC students and staff or the loss of their ability to travel to Russia.
“That’s a cost that’s worth paying in support of the folks in Saratov,” said Council member Donna Bell.
Council member George Cianciolo was pleased that the resolution presented included “a willingness to open up the dialogue and talk at any time. We’re telling the people that we want to have a dialogue as soon as we can.”
“I hope and pray that in Russia there will be change. We have some battles to fight at home,” said council member Maria Palmer. “I hope that we can engage through Equality N.C. at home and abroad.”