Council to decide on Russian city ties

The Russian community will fiercely oppose a campaign to end Melbourne’s sister-city relationship with St Petersburg, arguing politics have no place in the long-term friendship.

Melbourne City Council are set decide the future of the 25-year union on Tuesday night, after a petition to end the relationship over St Petersburg’s controversial “gay propaganda laws” received almost 14,000 signatures.

But that push has since been met with a counter-campaign for the city-sister relationship to be preserved.

Russian Ethnic Representative Council of Victoria committee member Zhenya Vernon said the bond between Melbourne and St Petersburg was proudly characterised by the absence of a political agenda.

“The current campaign by a sector of Melbourne’s community to publicly and politically pressure the City of Melbourne to terminate the arrangement between the two cities is diametrically opposed to the mandate under which the cultural and economic link was formed,” she said.

“Any attempt to politically embargo the exchange of cultural ideas by demolishing this long standing relationship must be treated with the utmost contempt, as it is akin to ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.”

But Melbourne human rights activist Carl Katter, who is behind the original petition that prompted the debate, has rubbished the idea it is possible to separate cultural ties from political relationships. “Our culture is defined by what we believe in,” he said

“[Suspending the relationship] is how we can tell those people on the ground that we care, we know what’s going on and we don’t stand for it.”

Greens councillor Cathy Oke, who first brought the matter to council, said the council was still receiving correspondence from both Melbourne and St Petersburg opposing and supporting the push to end the friendship.

Cr Oke said while she found the gay propaganda laws “abhorrent” she was torn over whether it would be more beneficial to cut ties or keep working with the city. Whatever way the vote falls, she said she hoped the council could show “leadership” on the issue.

The campaign to preserve the relationship is supported by Melbourne musician Benjamin Skepper, who has was employed briefly by the City of Melbourne in a cultural exchange role while in St Petersburg.

The classical-electronic artist said he is also due to travel to Russian again later this year to undertake a fellowship with the St Petersburg State Conservatory.

In a blog on his website, Mr Skepper said terminating the sister-city relationship was a “knee-jerk” response that would not benefit the gay and lesbian community in St Petersburg.

“And what of the potentially damaging consequences to Australia’s national trade interest as well as our international reputation of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect?” he wrote.

Mr Skepper said he had received an email from Russian gay activist Kochetkov Igor warning that isolating Russia and St Petersburg was a “very bad idea” and that “civil exchanges between sister cities will be much more effective”.

A cloud remains over a number of events planned in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the city twinning, which was signed in April 1989 when St Petersburg was still known as Leningrad.

A council spokeswoman said, “as Councillors are yet to make a decision about the future of the sister city relationship, no decision has been made about whether events for the 25th anniversary of the relationship will go ahead or not.”

Melbourne councillors received a briefing from the Department of Foreign Affairs after concerns were raised that suspending the relationship could have diplomatic consequences.

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