Creating trust through dialogue German-Russian

German-Russian Town Twinning Conference in Düren 2019

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

How people can communicate across borders and different opinions and work on joint projects is demonstrated by the more than one hundred German-Russian town twinnings, whose representatives met from 25 to 28 June in the district of Düren (Germany) for the 15th German-Russian Town Twinning Conference. These Town Twinning conferences take place in a two year cycle, alternating between Russia and Germany. The aim of the conferences is to develop perspectives for more intensive cooperation at regional and municipal level and new opportunities for cooperation between civil society and local authorities. The most recent host was the Russian city of Krasnodar (see also Current Concerns No. 17/18 of 25 July 2017).

More than 800 participants had come to Düren, among them 300 guests from more than 100 cities in Russia. They had travelled to Düren to talk to each other about how to further develop their town twinnings: Representatives of cities and municipalities, civil society organisations, politicians and economists from Germany and Russia. A colourful, self-confident civil society that had come together in a friendly atmosphere to exchange ideas and make progress, because they know what they are doing. Despite all the hostilities in German-Russian relations at the political and media level. The importance of interpersonal relations and friendship was repeatedly stressed.

Achieving understanding across political divides

Wolfgang Spelthan, head of the district authority of Düren, made the most of his role as host with great enthusiasm. Courageously! More than 50 helpers endeavoured making the stay for the participants as pleasant as possible. The event was accompanied by world-class musical contributions.
The absence of attention, especially from the big media, was disturbing. Here, something could be done to improve relations between the two countries, which are urgently needed, and to contribute to peace – if that were what was intended. People have a right to know what has happened there in the district of Düren.
With the headline of the conference “Ways to understanding: Partnerships as mediators of the German-Russian dialogue”, ways of understanding on the municipal level were pointed out and helped to get over political divides. Seven working groups met on topics such as sustainable urban development, the digital city, municipal and regional development, cooperation in science, culture and language promotion, inclusion and participation, civil society shapes town twinnings – paths to peace and medical-scientific and humanitarian cooperation.  
Parallel to this, from 21 to 28 June, the 3rd Youth Forum of the German-Russian Town Twinnings took place. The 60 young people from Germany and Russia developed projects for youth exchange between the twin cities.
The conference was hosted by the district of Düren, represented by the head of the district authority Wolfgang Spelthan, who accompanied the entire event. According to Spelthan, town twinnings exist “from exchange and dialogue, because both are the basis for tolerance, international understanding and ultimately for peace”.

A blessing of history

The conference started with a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial stone for Soviet forced labourers at the West-Cemetory in Aachen. The opening ceremony then took place in the coronation hall situated in Aachen‘s town hall (13th century). The opening speech was delivered by Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia. He remembered the Second World War and the 27 million Sowjet soldiers and civilians who were killed after the German invasion (1941–1945). It was “a blessing of history that the Russian people were ready to accept German reunification 45 years later”. The former Prime Minister of Brandenburg and chairman of the German-Russian Forum, Matthias Platzeck, said that Europe would be unthinkable without Russia. He pointed out that it was not D-Day in Normandy that was decisive for the war: the Soviet army bore the brunt of the Second World War and won the victory over fascism. “After the unique war of extermination that Germany waged against the Soviet peoples, they offered forgiveness, reconciliation and friendship. This is a great gift.” We must not forget that reunification was also made possible by the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the former GDR in 1991–1993.

Greetings from Putin and Merkel

Sergei Y. Netschaev, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Germany, thanked Laschet and Platzeck for the historical memory. In his welcoming address, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the town twinning as “a piece of peoples diplomacy”. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke in her greeting of the “best way to bring people together”.
Dr Michail Schwydkoj, the Special Representative of the Russian President for International Cultural Cooperation, saw the conference and the many participants as an important sign of civil society’s efforts to establish good relations between the two states. For Platzeck, this is “popular diplomacy in the best sense”.
At the end of the event, a new town twinning was sealed: between Innopolis (Tartastan Oblast) and Elgersburg (Thuringia); this brings the total number of German-Russian partnerships to 112.

Engaged, open discussion

The next day began with a top-class panel discussion on the topic of “Quo vadis German-Russian relations”. On the podium participating was the journalist and author Prof. Dr Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, member of the German Bundestag and Russia commissioner of the Federal Government Dirk Wiese (SPD), Peter Franke, chairman of the Federal Association of German West-East Societies, and on the Russian side Dr Michail Schwydkoj, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cultural Cooperation, Pawel Sawalny, Chairman of the Russian-German Parliamentary Group of the State Duma, and Valery Fadeev, Chairman of the Social Chamber of the Russian Federation, who moderated the discussion. The panel participants agreed that one should stick to the completion of the North Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline, that visa regulations should be relaxed, and that the culture of remembrance should be cultivated and promoted beyond contemporary witnesses. It was also agreed that direct contacts between the people are essential for good relations between the two countries.
In the ensuing lively discussion with the participants, the neuralgic points in German-Russian relations were also openly addressed: The EU sanctions against Russia, which were recently extended because of the Crimean crisis, were clearly criticised. Pavel Savalny characterised the constant use of the term “annexation” in connection with the Crimea as “propaganda and brainwashing”. One participant pointed out that Crimean twin cities were not allowed to participate in the conference. According to the organiser, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have cut all subsidies for the conference if only one participant from Crimea had attended. Another participant promoted a petition calling on the federal government to end sanctions against Russia.

Taking note of realities

Professor Gabriele Krone-Schmalz criticised the tabooing of the topic “Crimea”: “One should take note of realities and at least talk about them“. She emphasised that German citizens are much more positive about Russia than is portrayed in the media. Michail Schwydkoj stressed the importance of the quality of relations between Germany and Russia. This year, visa applications for trips to Russia have increased significantly. By May, 21,000 applications had been filed in Bonn. He stressed the deep historical ties between the two countries, which go back to the Middle Ages, and the inestimable value of the forgiveness and reconciliation already achieved. Town twinning is the most democratic and free form of partnership, because people don’t mince their words. This is not possible at a higher political level. Peter Franke praised the town twinning: “They are marked by a deep desire for peace and mutual exchange; and this is also important in difficult times”.
Matthias Platzeck praised the quality of the conference and the “openness of the discussion”. With the well-known quotation of Willy Brandt, “Peace is not everything, but everything is nothing without peace”, he summarised: It had been very clearly expressed that peace policy and disarmament policy must be core issues in the coming years. Because: “What is the benefit of all civil society efforts when there is no longer the possibility to live in peace?”    •

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