Philadelphia is currently in a “sister-city” relationship with Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city. The municipality passed a law banning LGBT propaganda last year, and the nation followed suit this summer, prompting international outcry.
Thousands have signed on to a petition calling for Philadelphia to end that relationship, but Mark McDonald, spokesperson for Mayor Michael Nutter, said the mayor does not plan to do so.
“After much discussion, we have concluded that severing ties would cut off communication and would be counterproductive,” McDonald said. “Ending our sister-city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod would sever our ability to support their LGBT community today and in the future. It would also invalidate 21 years of work that would likely never be repaired.”
McDonald said the severing of a sister-city tie is something only the mayor can do.
In 1992, Ed Rendell signed a mayoral agreement with government officials from Nizhny Novgorod to create the relationship.
“It is a mayoral agreement, not a contract by two elected officials to do certain things. Only the mayor could sever the ties,” McDonald said. “City Council could pass a resolution urging the mayor for a different action but otherwise this is a mayoral thing.”
Jim Engler, director of legislation for Councilman James Kenney, said the councilman plans to introduce a resolution next month calling on Nutter to sever ties with its Russian sister city.
“We haven’t had a conversation with the administration on what they will do with that, but we do have a plan to introduce a resolution,” Engler said. “We have high hopes that a large amount of Council people will be in support. If the mayor doesn’t want to sever the ties, there are further steps that we can take but we are hoping he will be in agreement with the resolution.”
According to McDonald, the International Visitors Council, which oversees the Sister Cities program, received an email last month from Nizhny Novgorod officials asking for advice from Philadelphia about a new law concerning political opposition, which McDonald said the administration sees as a positive sign.
“The Nizhny Novgorod representatives said they didn’t know how to work with opposition and reached out to us to learn how Philadelphia handles it, referencing London’s Hyde Park where free speech is legal,” he said. “We see this as a positive sign, especially since Nizhny Novgorod was a leader in democratic reform in the 1990s. We can only continue to offer meaningful assistance to Nizhny Novgorod if the sister cities relationship is intact.”
McDonald added that the administration believes there are other ways to communicate Philadelphia’s support for the LGBT community in Russia.
“Maintaining our sister cities relationship doesn’t weaken our own commitment to LGBT civil rights and the struggle for human rights. We believe it is more constructive to find ways to support LGBT people there, to let them know we’re aware of their struggles and support them in solidarity,” he said, noting the city hopes to use means such as social media to promote Philadelphia’s LGBT community to Nizhny Novgorod and other locales. “It can show that we care and that we know what they’re going through, and that we had been there, too. While not on the same scale, Philadelphia’s own LGBT people have had to fight for their rights, a fight that continues to be waged. People in other countries see our freedoms but don’t always know what we went through to get them.”
McDonald contended that severing the sister-cities relationship could prevent that message from getting to Russia.
“If ties to our sister city are to be cut, let it be the Russians who want us stopped from showing what freedom, human rights and acceptance really are.”
The effort to reach out to Russia is also gaining traction statewide.
This week, State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17th Dist.) introduced “To Russia with Rainbows,” a three-part resolution that calls for the protection of LGBT athletes and spectators at the 2014 Olympic games.