Fallon: No interest in remaining sister cities with Voronezh

Council's Mayfield, Mayor Kinsey opposed to dropping sister-city status; Local LGBT advocates push back and say Charlotte must take action on global human rights abuses

Originally published: Aug. 6, 2013, 9:43 a.m.
Updated: Aug. 7, 2013, 2:06 p.m.

A still from a YouTube video showing altercations between gay protesters and anti-gay counter-protesters in Charlotte's Russian sister city, Voronezh, on Jan. 20, 2013.

A still from a YouTube video showing altercations between gay protesters and anti-gay counter-protesters in Charlotte’s Russian sister city, Voronezh, on Jan. 20, 2013.

Update (Aug. 8, 2013, 5:10 p.m.): Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey says Charlotte will not drop Voronezh

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Members of City Council are in disagreement over their sister-city relationship with Voronezh, Russia. Last week, activists in Charlotte  launched a petition and sent a letter to Council and Mayor Patsy Kinsey to drop its sister-city status with the Russian city as the global debate over that nation’s harsh new anti-gay laws and violence directed toward LGBT people continues to make news.

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On Wednesday, City Councilmember Claire Green Fallon (D-At large) told qnotes the sister-city relationship with Voronezh should be dropped.

“I do not believe in targeting any group and if this is what this Russian city is doing we have no interest in remaining a sister city,” Fallon said in an email. “I do not believe you turn your face away from injustice and rationalize it. The world has gone through this in 1934 — and on.”

Fallon’s remarks directly contradict a Monday statement made by Councilmember LaWana Mayfield (D-Dist. 3), supported by Mayor Kinsey.

Mayfield, the city’s first openly LGBT elected official, condemned the Russian legislation but stood by the city’s relationship with Voronezh.

“While I strongly condemn anti-gay legislation and violence anywhere in the world, severing the sister city relationship between Charlotte and Voronezh would do nothing to help the LGBT community there, nor would it be fair to penalize a Russian city for the actions of its central government,” Mayfield said in an emailed statement to the group and to qnotes. “Now is not the time for Charlotte to turn its back on the LGBT community in Voronezh, it’s the time to let them know that we stand in full support behind them.”

Mayfield’s full statement appears at the end of this article.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 204 people had signed MeckPAC’s petition. The group says the nation’s so-called gay propaganda legislation, passed unanimously by Russia’s parliament in June, has put LGBT people there in danger. They also cite recent attacks on LGBT people, including a Jan. 20, 2013, attack in Voronezh, where some 1,500 people attacked 14 gay rights activists. Some reports have said the attacks were initiated by nationalist and Russian Orthodox counter-protesters. And, recent unconfirmed reports made to qnotes indicate at least some of the protesters were seriously injured after the attack.

qnotes has reached out to other City Council members for their responses. Mayfield, was the first to respond. A spokesperson for Mayor Kinsey said she and Mayfield had discussed the request and that Kinsey “stands by Council Member Mayfield’s statement.”

Severing that relationship, Mayfield warned, is difficult and the relationship not easily reparable once broken. Mayfield also said Charlotte’s “citizen diplomacy” with Voronezh seeks to “help shape global relations through actions that increase cross-cultural understanding and encourage respect.”

“We encourage citizens to find a more productive way to influence change in society,” Mayfield said. “This can be done by showing solidarity for the people affected by the national policies in Russia. Let them know you support them and share your ideas for helping them achieving the societal changes that they seek. Dropping the relationship does nothing to show support to the LGBT community in Russia and some may even see this as abandonment. It is better to encourage a peaceful dialogue than to cut the ties that bring us closer as citizens of the world.”

Councilmember Billy Maddalon (D-Dist. 1), the city’s second openly LGBT official, said Wednesday afternoon that he was conflicted on the issue. Sending a symbolic message to Russia and to Voronezh would be powerful, he said.

“Your peers and your sister cities across the world are concerned about what’s going on in your city and we have a much different feeling about how humans should be treated and human rights,” Maddalon said. “The real question becomes how do you do that. I’ve always felt like you’ll probably get more mileage from talking and being exposed to each other and having more open trade and engagement than we do when we shut each other out.”

Maddalon, who is new to Council, said he needed to learn more about the sister-city relationship. Still, he hopes Charlotte can set a tone and direction for its peer in Russia.

“I’d love to be able to show them that, look, gay people in Charlotte even serve in city government and we do so with reasonable distinction; there is an alternative way to look at this,” he said.

Neither Mayfield and Kinsey nor other Council members have opted to describe what actions, if any, the city can take if dropping the sister-city status is off the table.

MeckPAC responds

MeckPAC Chair Scott Bishop said Tuesday afternoon in an emailed response to Mayfield and qnotes that Charlotte should take some sort of action, citing the violence in Voronezh where city officials have not responded.

“We would like to emphasize that if Voronezh were not the site of anti-gay violence as a result of the Russian central government’s laws, then we might not have requested this action,” Bishop wrote. “However, as is pointed out in this article, LGBT citizens in Voronezh are directly being harmed and persecuted as a result of the central government’s actions.”

Bishop said MeckPAC understands sister-city relationships are delicate, but also said inaction wouldn’t be an option if other minorities were being similarly persecuted.

“If Charlotte’s Jewish community were calling upon Charlotte leaders to sever ties due to anti-Jewish violence in this same sister city would the response be different? What if it were violence against blacks?” Bishop asked.

Bishop added, “If Charlotte truly has a good relationship with Voronezh’s ‘citizen diplomats,’ then we would like to request that Charlotte City Council direct Charlotte’s own citizen diplomats to open a dialog with the citizens of Voronezh to help identify what can be done to stem the violence. If Voronezh’s police and government officials won’t do it, someone must.”

Bishop’s full statement appears at the end of this article.

MeckPAC’s petition was launched on MoveOn.org’s petition site. The national online advocacy site issued a press release today supporting MeckPAC’s petition. Activists in Los Angeles and Philadelphia are also pushing their cities to drop sister-city relationships in Russia.

“MoveOn members care very deeply about human rights issues around the globe and I believe some members are very upset that their own cities might be seen as complicit in supporting what is going on in their sister city,” Stefanie Foucher, MoveOn.org’s communications manager, told qnotes.

Voronezh, Russia, has nearly 900,000 residents and is located to the country’s southeast and about 515 kilometers south of Moscow.

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Growing violence, worldwide protest

One of several photos taken by a Russian neo-Nazi gang allegedly torturing gay men. The photo was censored by the U.K.'s Pink News, which reported claims that the man died from injuries he sustained from the gang.

One of several photos taken by a Russian neo-Nazi gang allegedly torturing gay men. The photo was censored by the U.K.’s Pink News, which reported claims that the man died from injuries he sustained from the gang.

The local protest in Charlotte is but a small part of a growing global protest against Russia’s treatment of LGBT people. Many groups are calling for a boycott of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Some gay activists in the U.S., led by columnist Dan Savage, have been encouraging gay bars, other businesses and consumers to boycott Stoli vodka and other Russian-made vodkas.

The City of Los Angeles, whose sister city is St. Petersburg — where the nation’s anti-gay legislation originated — is being asked to drop its sister-city relationship. Activists in Philadelphia are requesting similar action there.

Some activists have also requested the U.S. State Department block Russian members of parliament and other officials from visiting the U.S. On Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama canceled his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A statement from The White House cited recent tensions of Russia’s asylum for Edward Snowden, as well as human rights concerns.

On Tuesday night, Obama told TV host Jay Leno that he “no patience” for human rights abuses.

“I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country, and I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama said.

In addition to legal discrimination, an Eastern European human rights group, Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, has been documenting several instances of gang violence against some young gay men in Russia. The group claims neo-Nazi gangs are using social media to arrange meetings with men, whom they then harass, physically assault and emotionally torture. The group claims, though it remains unconfirmed, that one man has died as a result of injuries he sustained from the group. Other reports have said some victims of the group have committed suicide.

Mayfield’s full statement

Councilmember LaWana Mayfield’s full response to MeckPAC’s petition and qnotes‘ request for comment:

While I strongly condemn anti-gay legislation and violence anywhere in the world, severing the sister city relationship between Charlotte and Voronezh would do nothing to help the LGBT community there, nor would it be fair to penalize a Russian city for the actions of its central government. Now is not the time for Charlotte to turn its back on the LGBT community in Voronezh, it’s the time to let them know that we stand in full support behind them.

These relationships are bonds that are not easily severed. Sister cities relationships typically only end when the Federal government ends normalized relations with the country of the sister city. For example, a city may have had a sister city in Iran prior to 1980, and now that relationship doesn’t exist. At times it can also be very difficult to resurrect these bonds once they are broken. Such a action should only be made after very thoughtful deliberations or if the federal Government requires an end to normalized relations.

More importantly, the community shouldn’t abandon a relationship because of something the central government is doing. By definition sister city relationships are based on citizen diplomacy. Citizen diplomacy is a concept that hinges on the idea that the individual has the responsibility to help shape global relations through actions that increase cross-cultural understanding and encourage respect. They open the diplomatic channels to track two diplomacy and allow for dialogue on issues of national concern at the local level.

We encourage citizens to find a more productive way to influence change in society. This can be done by showing solidarity for the people affected by the national policies in Russia. Let them know you support them and share your ideas for helping them achieving the societal changes that they seek. Dropping the relationship does nothing to show support to the LGBT community in Russia and some may even see this as abandonment. It is better to encourage a peaceful dialogue than to cut the ties that bring us closer as citizens of the world.

A more productive proposal would be to see if the State Department is interested in having an Open World/Waging Peace project on human rights between our cities. Another suggestion is to hold a rally and show support for those who are being oppressed in Russia. Let’s utilize our connection to influence others in a positive manner.

MeckPAC’s full response

MeckPAC’s full response to Councilmember Mayfield’s statement on Voronezh:

Councilwoman Mayfield,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to our letter. You are the only city council member from whom we have heard.

We would like to emphasize that if Voronezh were not the site of anti-gay violence as a result of the Russian central government’s laws, then we might not have requested this action. However, as is pointed out in this article, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21578520, LGBT citizens in Voronezh are directly being harmed and persecuted as a result of the central government’s actions.

We understand that it can be very difficult to break and then re-establish ties with a sister city. However, we think something needs to be done. If Charlotte’s Jewish community were calling upon Charlotte leaders to sever ties due to anti-Jewish violence in this same sister city would the response be different? What if it were violence against blacks?

If Charlotte truly has a good relationship with Voronezh’s “citizen diplomats”, then we would like to request that Charlotte City Council direct Charlotte’s own citizen diplomats to open a dialog with the citizens of Voronezh to help identify what can be done to stem the violence. If Voronezh’s police and government officials won’t do it, someone must.

Thanks,

Scott Bishop
MeckPAC Chair

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

6 Replies to “Fallon: No interest in remaining sister cities with Voronezh”

  1. Antony Masters August 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    There’s a slightly bigger picture here which isn’t being fully addressed besides the US-Russia relationship. The black and jewish communities of Mayfield should see the Russian state is not only being lead by the Russian Orthodox Church in it’s new rules to stamp out the ‘Western’ disease of ‘Equality’ and ‘Free Of Expression’ , but also the Russian state is supporting Neo-Nazi groups, such as ‘Occupy Pedofilyaj’ in their attacks and now murder of their victim. The latest victim was an young Uzbek man, who the Neo-Naz only seen as something to destroy in their quest to purify Russia… this should send shivers down your spine, it’s 1938 again and unless the world calls Russia out on this, other minorities groups will feel the jackboots of the Russian Neo-Nazi stomp… Boycott Sochi #notosochi2014

  2. I answered Scott the minute I recieved his E-mail about this, what happened to my response, Claire green Fallon- city council

    1. Councilmember, We can’t answer for MeckPAC. But, we sent our own requests for on-the-record comment on Friday and this morning. You can email your response to us at editor@goqnotes.com. Thanks.

      Matt Comer, editor
      QNotes

  3. Robert Kellogg August 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    I wish City Councilwoman, Mayfield’s insightful suggestions would have been part of the main story. It reads as though she did not have any alternative solutions to offer. The following suggestions are very thought provoking: “A more productive proposal would be to see if the State Department is interested in having an Open World/Waging Peace project on human rights between our cities. Another suggestion is to hold a rally and show support for those who are being oppressed in Russia. Let’s utilize our connection to influence others in a positive manner”.

    As a member of the LGBT community and one who follows politics and world events passionately I am leaning toward Miss Mayfield’s perspective. I realize the conditions and the violence against our LGBT family members in Russia is escalating, but the act of isolationism only serves to empower the oppressor. Staying engaged as long as possible while attempting to change Russia’s views and behavior by example, dialogue and outreach might not be as sensational as cutting ties, but could bare more fruit in the end if patience and persistence are given the chance to work.

    Just my thoughts!

    1. Robert,

      I think your comment is spot on! Nothing more to add!

  4. Janice Covington August 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I think the wisest and the most productive move is to contact our sister city with an open letter requesting some sort of dialog with Charlotte’s leaders to express our concerns, but not to threaten or sever our tie’s with them. If we break off completely, then we have no communication or chance of educating the citizens of Vornonezh to take it upon themselves to express their concerns and displeasure to the Russian government for imposing inhuman laws upon its citizens. It’s my opinion if we communicate our concerns eventually they will understand and take action. Big steps start with small ones.

Comments are closed.