Citizen diplomacy instead of confrontation – Town twinnings are ambassadors of understanding

Impressions from the 16th German-Russian Town Twinning Conference in Kaluga

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

The 16th German-Russian Town Twinning Conference took place in Kaluga, Russia, from 28 to 30 June 2021. The city of Kaluga is located on the Oka River, about 190 km southwest of Moscow, and is celebrating its 650th birthday this year. The theme of the conference, which was held due to the pandemic in hybrid format, was “Strengthening Municipal and Regional Relations – Enhancing new Horizons”.

The conference, part of the ongoing Year of Germany in Russia, marked the 80th anniversary of the German Wehrmacht’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Several times, the appeal “Let us make peace” (see Current Concerns No. 15 of 8 July 2021) was acknowledged by the conference participants.

Despite travel restrictions…

Despite travel restrictions the event was a great success and a ray of hope for German-Russian relations, which are currently strained at the political level. The German Federal Government had classified Russia in the highest Corona risk category at short notice on 29 June, which meant a 14-day quarantine for all those returning to Germany. This is why many German participants had to cancel their trip to Kaluga. It was a pity that due to the travel restrictions, prominent contributors such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former Vice-President of the German Bundestag Antje Vollmer and the Chairman of the Board of the German-Russian Forum Matthias Platzeck could not attend in person. The German-Russian Forum was co-organiser.

Welcoming messages at the ceremonial opening

At the ceremonial opening in the concert hall of the Kaluga Region Philharmonic, the great importance of the town twinning was emphasised in greeting messages by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “I have no doubt that you will hold fruitful and substantive discussions, which will help to further develop our constructive partner ties and also strengthen the trust and understanding between the people of Russia and Germany,” the Russian President said. “The response to any turmoil in our relations is not less but more dialogue between Germany and Russia,” said Heiko Maas. Numerous other greetings from German and Russian officials and dignitaries followed. Many German participants who followed the event online expressed their solidarity and good wishes in the “chats”.
  “At times when things get difficult at the political level, relations between cities and municipalities can help overcome some obstacles. Municipal and regional partnerships are ambassadors of understanding.” This statement by Matthias Platzeck was a kind of guiding star of this year’s conference as well.
  The second day began with a panel discussion on “What can dialogue between municipalities and politics for German-Russian relations accomplish?” German Ambassador Géza Andreas von Geyr highlighted the chequered history of the Germans and Russians, “with glorious high points and very bitter eras. No country in the world and no people in the world can escape from its history and its biography; both determine our actions today and our future.” It was important for Germans to keep reminding themselves of everything that has happened in German-Russian relations and for which Germans also bear responsibility; this also had to be expressed, as well as the gratitude for the reconciliation that Germans experienced after these shoals of history. “This reconciliation is a great achievement, especially on the part of the Russians towards the Germans; civil society takes place on this basis. [...] The Russians [have shown us] generosity [...] and offered human greatness and very early [...] reconciliation in order to get into a good common people-to-people coexistence.”
  Pavel Savalny, the Chairman of the State Duma’s Energy Committee and the Russian-German Parliamentary Group, stressed the importance of a profound scientific reappraisal of history and its dissemination “in order to be able to comprehend certain phenomena of the present. [...] I am always concerned with this history of the reconciliation of great peoples. The history of Russia and Germany is the history of wars, but also the history of friendship. It is our task today to do everything to ensure that we do not forget this history and to remember the victims [...] and to do everything to ensure that war is never again waged between our peoples – never again war also in the context of today’s politics. Germany is a very special country for me. There are above all the people who – perhaps somewhat differently from other European peoples – understand Russia and the Russians a little better; they have a deeper understanding than the others, and that is an important basis for our dialogue.”

Important contribution of youth

Among many other important topics, the issue of passing on the relay baton to the younger generation was also discussed. As a representative of civil society, Dr Andrei Tsarev, Chairman of the Board of the Interregional Organisation for the Support of People with Intellectual Disabilities and Psychophysical Disorders “Equal Opportunities”, is optimistic about the future with regard to youth exchange. His experiences with young people from Germany showed that they are very willing to cooperate and also like to contribute to the common good. “The young people who come to us are very committed and interested. They like to participate; they get involved and they contribute significantly to our German-Russian projects.”
  These projects aim to help people; this is concrete work on site with older people, people with disabilities or with children who have been left without a family.
  In the afternoon, the focus was on an International Business Forum as well as practical work and exchange in five working groups on the following topics:

  1. Municipal and regional cooperation.
  2. Vocational orientation for young people: How can vocational exchange succeed?
  3. Inclusion and participation “Living in dignity for all”.
  4. German-Russian twin towns and remembrance for the future “22 June 1941/2021 is a European date”.
  5. Health.

This is only a small insight into the rich discussions and talks as well as the numerous German-Russian projects. It is this form of citizen diplomacy, which has a future and form a pleasant counterbalance to all the tensions on the political and media level. Time and again, the importance of personal people-to-people relations was emphasised, on which committed civil society engagement is based. A respectful and friendly atmosphere accompanied the entire event and was definitely noticeable online. The important economic relations between the two countries were also repeatedly mentioned, which are well on their way despite the media drumfire against Russia by most Western media.
  New planned town twinnings (Bremen and Tula, Weimar and Borovsk) are to complement the 102 German-Russian city partnerships already in place. At the end of the conference, the city of Essen invited participants to the next town twinning conference in 2023.
  It was worthwhile to have been present.  •

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