Sunday, October 26, 2014


Russia

Sister Cities Ramp Up Russia Boycott Over Antigay Law

Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr says Moscow's leaders  "seem to want to go for oppression and fear, where women and LGBT people are second-class citizens. So it's just natural we go our separate ways."
Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr says Moscow's leaders "seem to want to go for oppression and fear, where women and LGBT people are second-class citizens. So it's just natural we go our separate ways."
By Claire Bigg
Cultural exchanges between Moscow and Reykjavik could soon be a thing of the past. Iceland's capital is considering revoking its sister-city status with Moscow to protest controversial new legislation targeting Russian homosexuals.

If the proposal by Mayor Jon Gnarr is approved, Reykjavik will join a growing list of cities that are turning their backs on Russia over the law.

"Reykjavik is a peaceful city with an emphasis on human rights and equality for all," Gnarr told RFE/RL. "They seem to want to go for oppression and fear, where women and LGBT people are second-class citizens. So it's just natural we go our separate ways."

Gnarr filed a motion with Reykjavik's city council last week to end partnership between the two cities, which have been twinned since 2007.

A long-standing advocate for gay rights, Gnarr said Reykjavik would rather focus on "like-minded cities" and vowed to encourage other capitals to "take a stand" against homophobia in Russia.

The Russian law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, introduces fines of up to 1 million rubles (about $30,000) for the dissemination of "propaganda" on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to minors. It effectively outlaws any gay-pride events.

Reykjavik City Hall spokesman Bjarni Brynjolfsson says the city council has already drafted a resolution backing Gnarr's proposal. "Now the city attorney and the human rights office of Reykjavik are looking at the proposal, along with Iceland's Foreign Ministry," he says.

Icelandic Tolerance

The small northern country is known for its progressive attitude toward sexual minorities.

Same-sex marriage has been legal there since 2010, and former Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir in 2009 became the world's first openly lesbian to head a government.

Brynjolfsson says Reykjavik's annual gay-pride parade is a popular "family event" in Iceland that also attracts visitors from all over the world.

Despite being heterosexual, Gnarr, a comedian by profession, has demonstrated his support for the parade by attending the event dressed in full drag.

Growing Opposition

Reykjavik would be the fourth city to sever cultural ties with Moscow or St. Petersburg over Russia's antigay legislation, part of a campaign by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church to enshrine conservative values.

The new restrictions come amid a wider crackdown against civil society and political dissent in the country.

Three Italian cities -- Venice, Milan, and Turin -- have already canceled their sister-city programs with St. Petersburg after the city adopted an earlier, citywide ban on "homosexual propaganda."

Australia's Melbourne also mulled severing cultural ties with St. Petersburg after a petition to that effect gathered about 10,000 signatures. The cities have been twinned since 1989.

Melbourne city councilors eventually rejected the proposal last month, opting instead for outlining the concern of local residents in a letter to St Petersburg's governor.

There have been similar calls in Los Angeles, which is also twinned with St. Petersburg.

'No Effect' In Russia

Few in Russia, however, believe this type of boycott will force the Kremlin to reconsider its stance on gays.

Russian officials have remained defiant on the matter.

St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says European officials oppose Russian antigay legislation because "many of them are members of the gay lobby."St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says European officials oppose Russian antigay legislation because "many of them are members of the gay lobby."
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St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says European officials oppose Russian antigay legislation because "many of them are members of the gay lobby."
St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says European officials oppose Russian antigay legislation because "many of them are members of the gay lobby."
St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, a driving force behind the law who has famously called for homosexuals to be "isolated from society," has claimed that European officials oppose Russian antigay legislation because "many of them are members of the gay lobby."

"Such steps won't influence Russia's internal politics. Our leaders don't give a damn about sociocultural competitiveness. They will react only when Russia's economic competitiveness is affected," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and a former member of Russia's presidential human rights council.

"The decision by several cities to revoke their sister-city status doesn't cause any immediate harm to Putin's government machine. But in the long run it does, because it's one more factor reducing the quality of life in Russia."

Speaking Out

Regardless of its success, the boycott suggests that a growing number of Western officials are starting to view their connection with Russia as a political liability.

Another case in point came earlier this month when Andreas Geisel, one of Berlin's district heads, canceled a planned visit to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

As the head of Berlin's Lichtenberg district, which has been twinned with Kaliningrad since 2001, Geisel had been invited to attend its annual City Day festivities on July 13-14.

He called off the trip after his district's council noted concerns among Lichtenberg residents about the treatment of gays and lesbians in Kaliningrad following the law's adoption.

"It's not only about German tourists visiting Russia. We are also acting out of solidarity with homosexual people in our sister city of Kaliningrad. We want to express our disagreement with this Russian law and make it clear that it goes against human rights," Geisel says.

"As a member of the Council of Europe, Russia has committed itself to refrain from discrimination against people on the basis of their political views, their race, or their sexual orientation."

Geisel followed his council's recommendations and sent a letter to Kaliningrad's mayor voicing alarm about mounting homophobia in Russia. Gnarr, too, wrote to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin last year, asking him to lift the ban on gay-pride events in the Russian capital. Both letters went unanswered.

For Geisel, Russia's dogged unwillingness to address prickly issues such as gay rights is at odds with the very notion of city twinning. "For sister cities, partnership is not always restricted to good times and cheerful topics," he says. "Friendship also involves being able to discuss serious issues together, to voice criticism if one disagrees with the partner's decision."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yuri Vexler contributed to this report from Berlin

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