PORTLAND, Maine — Gay rights advocates urged Portland city officials Monday to cut off exchange visits from government officials from their sister city of Archangel, Russia.
Robert Lieber, who organized a Monday news conference on the subject, said three Archangel university professors — including at least one, Oleg Klyuenkov, who visited Portland last year — are being pressured to resign because of their support for Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community.
Lieber said Klyuenkov was ordered to meet with local prosecutors after his visit to Portland as part of a delegation representing Russian LGBTQ group Rakurs, which translates to “Perspective.” Prosecutors accused him of being a “foreign agent” after his trip to America, Lieber said, as a veiled attempt to punish him for being outspoken on LGBTQ issues.
“The bullying evolved into a witch hunt,” Lieber said. “This is a witch hunt — this is a witch hunt that must end now.”
Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a member of the city’s Archangel committee who has participated in multiple exchange trips through the sister-city program, was skeptical that cutting back ties with the Russian city would promote change.
“All of us deplore the discrimination going on in Russia, particularly of the LGBTQ community,” he told reporters Monday. “At this point I’m not convinced that suspending communications between Archangel government officials and Portland officials would help us toward the goals we all have.”
On his most recent trip to Russia two months ago, Suslovic said he made an official visit to the Archangel office of Rakurs, with which he has strong relations, and said its leaders have not asked him to dial back interactions with Archangel government officials.
“As long as we can have open, honest conversations, we can make progress,” Suslovic said. “If we shut down those conversations, we don’t have a hope of progress. Russia is in a very different place from America.”
But Lieber and his backers, who include representatives from the Portland branch of PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] and the University of Southern Maine fundraising group Sub/Merge, said those conversations should continue out of the public eye until conditions improve for LGBTQ supporters in Archangel.
Charlotte Rosenthal, a former Russian professor at USM and a founding member of the now-25-year-old Portland-Archangel Sister City Committee, said the government delegation trips to Maine “are very desirable” to the Russian city’s leaders, and being seen alongside Portland officials helps “legitimize” their sometimes anti-gay positions.
Rosenthal said the two cities should continue to run exchange programs with nongovernment peer groups — like the Rakurs delegation visit — to help maintain the sister-city relationship.
“You have a government that’s really quite hostile to the LGBT community,” Rosenthal said. “I think it’s particularly important we keep this relationship going in a peer-to-peer level in order to counteract this anti-gay propaganda,” she added.
Meagan LaSala, USM student and Sub/Merge member, said the threats of firings and the interrogations by prosecutors represent “human rights violations.”
“They’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of LGBTQ harassment and discrimination,” she said.
“There have been examples of people being beaten up, there has been pressure on landlords not to rent to LGBT organizations and pressure on banks not to lend to them,” Lieber said.
Lieber said the three university professors are being targeted by smear campaigns in the local media and on anonymous websites. The bad publicity is being attributed to Russian government influence.
“This is a common tactic in Russia, to try and pressure people to quit for the ‘common good,’” he continued. “But [the university professors] aren’t going to do that.”
A 2013 Russian law outlawing LGBTQ demonstrations and symbols under the auspice of protecting minors from exposure to “non-traditional sexual relationships” has garnered international criticism as legal clearance for the widespread arrests of gays and lesbians and their supporters.
But Suslovic argued Portland will need more power to influence its Russian sister city by maintaining strong ties.
“I share a lot of common ground with some of my colleagues in the Archangel government when it comes to social issues,” he said. “Does this mean just because they’re a government official, they can’t come here? I don’t know that that’s productive.”
The city councilor said keeping up diplomatic relations with Archangel’s government does not represent an endorsement of everything that government does.
Suslovic noted the Soviet Union had yet to fall when the sister-city relationship was founded, and the mayor of Archangel came to Westbrook in the late 1980s to help finalize the international partnership with Greater Portland.
“Was that the city of Westbrook saying they support communism?” Suslovic posed. “I doubt it.”