YAKIMA — Would the Yakima City Council end a 22-year-long relationship with a Russian sister city in order to make a political statement?
That’s what the left-leaning grass-roots organization MoveOn.org and its members are asking Yakima and 26 other U.S. cities to do in protest of harsh new Russian laws that punish homosexuals and equal rights advocates.
Since 1991 Yakima has had an official, but fairly inactive, sister city relationship with the city of Derbent, Russia’s southernmost city bordered by the Caucasus Mountains to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. From 1988 to 1993, both cities sent official delegations and held student exchanges, including two trips by students from Eisenhower High School. But Yakima Valley Museum archives suggest there’s been little to no culture sharing between the cities since then.
MoveOn’s online petition, created Tuesday, asks the City Council to immediately suspend the sister city relationship to show Yakima “will not tolerate discrimination against our (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) brothers and sisters by a sister city.”
Several council members reached Wednesday weren’t chomping at the bit to take action, in part because none knew the city had a sister city agreement with Derbent. But they did say they were receptive to hearing the issue.
“I don’t hold Russia itself in high esteem because of the government,” Councilman Rick Ensey said. “I personally wouldn’t have any problems ending that relationship for many reasons.”
Councilwoman Sarah Bristol said sister city relationships exist to promote understanding despite political disagreements, but having just learned about the issue she was uncertain what the appropriate action would be.
“You never have friends if you cut them off when you don’t agree on everything, on the other hand there are times when it’s worth putting your foot down,” Bristol said.
Councilman Bill Lover said he, too, would consider the petition but said he’s “not too big on international protests.”
“I don’t know how much it pertains to the council,” Lover said of Russia’s controversial new laws. “I can’t do anything about it.”
In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposes large fines for holding gay pride rallies or in any way distributing information about the gay community to minors.
Foreign citizens arrested under the law can be jailed for 15 days and then deported, which has raised concern for the law’s potential impact on the 2014 Winter Olympics set to be held in Russia.
A new Russian law also recently put restrictions on adoptions of Russian children by residents of countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
Derbent became one of Yakima’s five sister cities in June 1991, about six months prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The other four sister cities are Morelia and Ensenada in Mexico; Keelung, Taiwan; and Itayanagi, Japan.
Yakima has only maintained active relations with Morelia, which usually sends a delegation to Yakima once a year, and Itayanagi, which conducts a student exchange program with Yakima area schools.
Derbent was chosen as a sister city in part because, like Yakima, it is a region known for growing wine grapes, Yakima Valley Museum Director John Baule said. The city, which was founded almost 1,600 years ago as a fortress to guard an intercontinental trade route between Europe and Asia, is also listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. It has a population of about 119,200.