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Chapel Hill Town Council votes to cut ties with Russian sister city

Months after Russia passed a series of anti-gay laws, the Chapel Hill Town Council has opted to sever its ties with its sister city Saratov.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Town Council member Lee Storrow, both openly gay, initially suggested rethinking the town’s relationship with Saratov when Russian officials drew worldwide criticism for laws targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.

The Chapel Hill Town Council voted unanimously at its meeting Monday to sever all ties with its Russian sister city. The sister city relationship was designed to promote understanding between American and Russian cities in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“We’re just not friends anymore,” council member Donna Bell said.

Saratov is a port city on the Volga River located about 100 miles from the Russian border with Kazakhstan.

It has been more than five months since Kleinschmidt sent a letter to Saratov’s leader, Oleg Grishenko, in which he explained why the council would consider severing the ties.

“Considering Russia’s policies, and that I myself would be subject to these laws as the mayor of Chapel Hill if I were to visit Russia, it seems to me the cultural values of Chapel Hill and Russia are in conflict,” Kleinshmidt said in the letter.

Kleinschmidt said he has not received a response from anyone in the town’s sister city, and the council is done waiting.

“I think particularly because a lot of this work was geared around the Olympics, it’s an appropriate time to bring it back up,” Storrow said.

The Winter Olympics are currently being held in Sochi, Russia.

The Town Council has fielded dozens of emails from residents this week calling for the council to end its controversial relationship with Saratov.

The Town Council also received a letter from a resident in Saratov, who commended the council’s efforts to end its relationship with the Russian city. The person said historically, Saratov has not been sensitive to its gay residents.

Kleinschmidt said there aren’t other options for the town to continue engagement.

“It’s not as if we can cheer on a local organization over there,” Kleinschmidt said. “One, because they’re not allowed to exist because they’d be in violation of the propaganda law. And two, if we were to find someone to send money to, it would be confiscated and just go to support the repressive regime.”

Jen Jones, a representative from Equality N.C., said she welcomed the decision to rethink the relationship.

“Chapel Hill has always taken the lead,” Jones said. “So we have asked other sister cities in North Carolina — Asheville, Durham, Raleigh — to do the same.”

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