Should people work to end sister city relationships with Russia?
July 25, 2013 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What is the value in pushing non-Russian cities to drop their sister/twin relationships with Russian cities to protest the anti-gay laws and attitudes in Russia? This article from Radio Free Europe offers a summery of the issue, "Sister Cities Ramp Up Russia Boycott Over Antigay Law".

I am most interested in answers that pertain to the United States, and there are a large number of American cities with relationships with Russian cities on this list.

In the article I linked above, it suggests that this kind of protest will not have a positive impact on Russian policies. Does that seem right to people? Is there a chance that this will be counterproductive and entrench anti-gay policies and attitudes in Russia? I did come across this post from Russian LGBT Network encouraging these kinds of boycotts. Has anyone seen any other comments from LGBT voices speaking about this issue?

Even if this does not have an impact on Russia, would this potentially have a positive impact in the non-Russian cities that work to mobilize in support of gay people by ending their links with Russian cities?

Or would the impact of this kind of activism be basically negligible, and people should instead put their effort into other ways to improve things for LGBTQ people?
posted by andoatnp to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
These "sister cities" are merely symbolic and don't affect trade between countries. Protesting this kind of municipal sisterhood is a waste of time.

Better to boycott the Olympics.
posted by dfriedman at 9:07 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't see the point. The idea behind sister-cities is to provide a point of commonality between the people of two cities. It is supposed to transcend the political problems between countries which is why there are sister cities between cities in Cuba, for example which the US still treats as a political enemy.

There are better ways to make political statements, like picketing embassies.
posted by JJ86 at 9:27 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

The value, in economic terms, is minimal - but in terms of moral standing for those cities that take a stand this way, it's understandable. Unless one is more concerned with keeping up appearances for outside (also perhaps economic or strategic) reasons, most of us don't want to associate with those who assert things we abhor.
posted by psoas at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2013

This kind of boycott/pressure is as likely to cause hardening and backlash as it is change. The boycotters are hoping for "OMG they're right, we really should change!"

But I think at least as often what you get instead is "Who the hell do you think you are? Screw you and the horse you rode in on!"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:46 AM on July 25, 2013

People become less angry and scared about LGBT issues when they know LGBT people and see that freedom for LGBT people doesn't harm others. So, I suspect that continued engagement with Russians, including regular cultural exchanges and visits, is more likely to be helpful than these boycotts.
posted by Area Man at 10:05 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sister-city relationships are largely cultural exchanges and opportunities for city-level government officials to interact. I think that these relationships can actually be leveraged to some small effect to communicate our cultural values. To this extent, it would be counterproductive to end sister-city relationships.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:06 AM on July 25, 2013

It's a purely symbolic Fuck That. I don't think it's expected to effect any real change, just to send a message.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:08 AM on July 25, 2013

Best answer: The thing about sister cities is that they're supposed to be ways for ordinary people to connect, no matter what you think of their awful governments.
posted by empath at 10:15 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

As I understand it, Russia's anti-gay laws are enacted directly by the Kremlin, rather than at the local government level. I can't imagine that Putin gives a gnat's fart whether LA friend-dumps St Petersburg.

As others have pointed out, a twinning arrangement between cities is meant to be a bridge between their local populaces. Certainly you can burn your bridge to make a point, but the problems are that (1) you can only do it once and (2) you can't use it as a bridge thereafter. I think that in the long run the bridge does more good as a bridge than as a bonfire. There are more direct ways to protest the actions of the Kremlin.
posted by pont at 10:25 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The way to come to mutual understanding between people is through dialogue and exchange, not boycotts and mudslinging. Now is the time for more things like sister-city exchanges, not less.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:34 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think many posters are missing the symbolic value of the move as an expression of support to local LGBTQ populations, who in many places are still quite vulnerable, even if it's not as bad as Russia. It's a way for a city to say to their own LGBTQ population "you're not alone in your outrage, and we will not support for this in any way."

It's not just a matter of bridging the gap between different political ideologies, it's also a human rights issue. The way to mutual understanding might be through dialogue, but to be quite honest, I refuse to "understand" human rights abuses.
posted by Nothing at 5:19 PM on July 25, 2013

There's been a version of this debate before, primarily about divestment from South Africa as a protest of apartheid. While South Africa did change, leading conventional wisdom toward the conclusion that divestment at least may have helped, that's probably not the case in a strict economic sense. The divestment campaign, however, created a discourse about apartheid and the place of South Africa in the world that pressured the government and buttressed the opposition to the governmental policies. To the extent that this takes place with the understanding that, largely, it's a conversation and raising awareness, it may be of assistance.
posted by dhartung at 2:09 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Whether this sort of boycott campaign will effect discourse in Russia in a positive way depends on internal Russian political dynamics. My sense is that Russia and Russians are much more comfortable being at odds with the West and Western norms than was the case with white South Africans, and that a campaign of trying to isolate and shame Russia is less likely to be effective. However, I can't claim to be any sort of expert on Russian politics and it certainly could go the other way.
posted by Area Man at 6:04 AM on July 26, 2013

The situations are quite different. South Africa was a minority regime oppressing an immediately, outwardly recognisable majority population, the situation in Russia is a societal ethics issue dealing with a more hidden minority (though there are a growing number of LGBT awareness activists and proudly out people in Russia). While both situations deal with civil rights of the oppressed groups, the Russian situation calls for more constructive dialogue and education to erase misconceptions that lead to distrust, fear and stereotyping. I definitely hear what Nothing was saying above about supporting your own community, and I think a solution would be to ensure that your local LGBT organizations are part of your local sister city initiative. If the Russian sister balks at the inclusion of this part of your city, then you talk about severing the relationship, otherwise the inclusion gives both the Russian counterpart and your own LGBT community the clear impression that they are a valued members of the community to be treated with respect and this will hopefully inspire the Russians to act likewise in their own communities.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:11 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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