“Civil dialogue is and will remain a success story”

Impressions from the closing event of the German-Russian Year of Municipal and Regional Partnerships 2017/2018

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller and Klaudia Kruck-Schaer

In Berlin on 14 September, the closing event of the German-Russian Year of Local and Regional Partnerships took place with great attendance. Participants from active municipal administrations, local associations and citizens in volunteer work had travelled to Berlin. Already during registration in the German Federal Foreign Office, the committed and joyful atmosphere among the approximately 900 Russian and German participants was clearly noticeable. There were more participants than expected. You got into a dialogue immediately and with everyone. It was clear that this was all about concrete civic commitment, about living international understanding. Everyone willingly provided information about his involvement in a wide variety of projects, often on a voluntary basis, be it in youth and pupil exchanges, in professional, scientific, sports and cultural exchanges or in administrative cooperation, and: on an equal footing.
    Thanks to the participation of the Russian and German Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Heiko Maas, the event was held at a high political level, as was the case at the Twinning Conference in Krasnodar (2017).

The representatives of the awarded project – a “part of the whole” from the almanac of German-Russian cooperation. Among them the two foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Heiko Maas. (picture www.deutsch-russisches-forum.de)

The morning was filled with four well-prepared working groups:

  1. Russian and German strategies for improving the quality of life in municipalities and in regions,
  2. Energy supply and sustainable urban development,
  3. Civil society shapes town twinning,
  4. active civil society in the social field: developments, results and perspectives in German-Russian partnerships.

In Berlin, on 12/13 September, the preliminary conference “On the way from Krasnodar 2017 to Düren. Balance-Impulses-Outlook. Meeting of German and Russian twinned towns” had already taken place. In a warm, serious working atmosphere, the working groups presented the results of this pre-conference, exchanged experiences and developed perspectives for future work and cooperation. It was possible to experience the successful and varied development of the civil dialogue between Germans and Russians from person to person, on a municipal level.

Social partnerships – a contribution to improve relations between the peoples

Especially in the field of German-Russian cooperation on social issues for people with disabilities, there are good developments. Gulnara Vaskina, Deputy Director for social issues of Perspektive Russland, Moscow, emphasised the paradigm shift in the concept of man (Menschenbild), which since the end of the Soviet Union has been more oriented towards the needs of the individual human being. It was emphasised by Svetlana Andreeva from Pskov, where there has been since 1993 – with the support of the Protestant parish of Wassenberg in the district of Heinsberg – a curative education center for children and young people with mental and severe multiple disabilities: We regard the human being as a valuable, dignified person who has a value in himself.
Concerning the importance of social partnerships between institutions in Russia and Germany, she added: An invaluable contribution is made to improve the relations between the two peoples and to the consolidation of our cultures “from below” by the manifold intensive human encounters on a broad basis especially in the social partnerships.

Experiences from Germany: Privatisation – not too much, not too fast

Another working group delt with improving the quality of life in municipalities and regions. “Not everything that comes from private investors is good for the residents,” said Jürgen Roters, former mayor of Cologne, using examples from his city to show the disadvantages of privatising urban property through cross-border leasing. For example, a block of houses for the socially disadvantaged and the homeless was sold to a foreign fund years ago. For ten years, literally nothing was done, then the city bought back the property for 38 million euros. Especially in the area of public service, municipalities should remain the owners.
Success recipe of

German-Russian Cooperation: human co-existence, trust, friendship

With great pride and many pictures, Dmitry Samojlov, mayor of Perm, introduced his city located in the Urals on the border with Asia. Already in 1916 there was the first university. Perm has all major industries: petroleum, aircraft, telephones, textiles, chemicals, woodworking, electronics, IT. The climatic shortage – snowy and ice-rich winters from November to May – would benefit the culture, because then many artists, also from Germany, would come to make the famous ice-sculptures. The birth rate is very high, “almost like in Soviet times”. German-Russian cooperation would focus primarily on the human component and not on the economic. “At the human level, everything goes better”.
Again and again, with regard to German-Russian cooperation, human coexistence, cordial friendship and mutual trust were emphasised. “The civil dialogue is and remains a success story – especially in times of political differences between our countries. […] We will do our utmost to further develop the unifying and reconciling force of civil society cooperation with Russia and actively promote it in society and above all in politics,” said Matthias Platzeck, Chairman of the Board of directors  of the German-Russian Forum.

Sporting encounters and memory culture as an important contribution to international understanding, especially among young people

A focal point of the municipal and regional partnerships are the sporting encounters in various disciplines, especially as an offer for the young people. In all tournaments and friendly games, international understanding and reconciliation are paramount. For example, Gert Kolbe, former press spokesman for the city of Dortmund and today’s archivist of the Dortmund football club BVB, reported that he had supported the city of Rostov-on-Don in the preparations for the World Football Championship. The German-Russian football bridges in St. Petersburg, Sochi, Orljonok, Moscow and Rostov-on-Don were organised for young athletes this year by the Brandenburg Sportjugend, the German Football Association DFB and the German-Russian Forum.
Jury Starovatych, former mayor of Volgograd, reported on the theme “Remembering for the sake of peace” that 75 years after the Battle of Stalingrad on 9 May 2018, Denkendorf and Volgograd hosted a friendly match between the U18 youth teams of Russia and Germany. Afterwards, wreaths were laid by the teams in two cemeteries in Rososchka, which had been created by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, to commemorate the fallen.

Peace ride with a covered wagon from Brück to Veliky Novgorod

Since June, the “Kaltblut Zucht- und Sportverein Brück e. V.” has been carrying out a peace ride with eight covered wagons pulled by powerful Rhenisch German coldblood horses. The tour lasts three months, crosses Poland and the Baltic States and ends in St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod; that is 2,300 kilometres. During this peace ride, conversations and encounters take place in various places. On site, the organisers symbolically present small peace bells – a replica of the large peace bell they carry with them – and peace rye. The rye symbolises life.

Attracting the youth for peace and reconciliation work

At the centre of all discussions was always the question of how to attract young people for important encounters, how to encourage them to learn Russian and German, and how to make the history of the two peoples more understandable. The memory culture and peace work form the foundation of all projects presented.

Town twinning as a means against prejudices and enemy images

The commitment to the projects that were carried out was impressive. Many participants stressed that the encounter between citizens of different nations within the framework of town twinning makes friendships possible. One gets to know the other culture and sees a friend in the other one. Helmut Domke, chair of the Stiftung West-Östliche Begnungen (Foundation for Encounter between East and West), said that the town twinning is a suitable means against appropriation, prejudices, enemy images and political confrontation. Memory is more than just looking back. Memory is also the future of cooperation.

“If Germany and Russia are doing well, Europe will do well, too”

The afternoon panel discussion in the plenary session was entitled “Looking forward – German-Russian municipal and regional partnerships”.
The wide range of the 250 partnership projects reflects the will of the citizens. This expresses the great interest of the participants in cooperation on equal terms. The most important thing is human cooperation, said Bernhard Kaster, former mayor and member of the board of the German-Russian Forum. The joint work is characterised by the joy of cooperation. At the same time, he dunned that, in addition to political appreciation, a minimal financial support is needed as well. Markus Lewe, President of the Association of German Cities and Lord Mayor of the city of Münster, emphasised “Communication face to face, not Facebook”. If Germany and Russia are doing well, Europe will do well, too.

“The qualitative dialogue will come – there is no other possibility”

Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cooperation from the Russian Foreign Ministry and board member of the German-Russian Forum, gave some insights into German-Russian relations: “When the Berlin Wall was gone, I thought people would come together now. Then the wall came back into our heads. We thought that we had to start with civil society. For example, what is the optimal solution for water supply? In the field of education, it is much easier to understand each other in everyday life. Here we get along great.” He emphasised that after the two wars, people quickly reconciled again. Today over 70% of German citizens want good relations with Russia. Shvydkoy was optimistic: the qualitative dialogue will come, and there is no other possibility.

Expand town twinning and fill them with life

Referring to the “Joint final declaration” (see box below), Peter Franke, chairman of the Federal Association of German West-East Societies (BDWO) named also current difficulties: The donations of the German industry for the projects are decreasing, and only about 50% of the existing partnerships are really filled with life.
The event concluded with the ceremonial signing of three new German-Russian partnership agreements with the participation of the respective mayors (Greifswald and Vyborg, Schwedt and Tuapse, Lahr and Zwenigorod) and the awarding of 30 selected projects of German-Russian municipal and regional cooperation by the two Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Heiko Maas. Jury Starovatych, former mayor of Volgograd, was especially and for the first time honoured by the German Foreign Minister for his merits concerning the 30-year town twinning between Chemnitz and Volgograd. With great applause, he addressed the participants, before entering the stage.
The coming thematic year will be dedicated to science or education partnerships.    •

Joint declaration on the occasion of the closing event of the German-Russian Year of Municipal and Regional Partnerships 2017/2018 (excerpt)

The past year of municipal and regional partnerships 2017/2018 has impressively demonstrated the commitment to German-Russian understanding that has been shown by active municipal administrations, local NGOs and citizens working on a voluntary basis. This is why municipal and regional partnerships are part of the fundamental pillars of stable and multi-faceted relations between our countries, especially in these often tense times.
These partnerships – whether in youth and pupil exchange, in professional, scientific, sports and cultural exchange or in administrative cooperation – have often grown over decades and are shaped sustainably by citizens. They are based on a relationship of trust that has jointly been developed between those involved.
The municipal and regional partnerships are original tasks of the municipalities and regions and serve the well-being of their citizens. […]
Active town twinnings as well as new initiatives require not only political support and appreciation, but also concrete financial resources so that the work can bear fruit. Only then will it be possible to significantly increase the number of town twinnings and launch new projects in German-Russian relations.
We would like to propose the following concrete measures:

  • Support for the establishment of a German-Russian coordination council of the German-Russian twinned towns, consisting of representatives of German and Russian cities or their associations as well as representatives of committed social organisations active in the town twinning between the two countries,
  • Support for the German-Russian Town Twinning Conferences, which take place every two years, and additionally for one municipal conference each between the official meetings,
  • Regular implementation of a youth forum of town twinning in order to interest young people in German-Russian cooperation and to win them over for project realisation,
  • Continuation and support of the website for municipal cooperation as a point of contact for the cities and at the same time for greater transparency of the successes of regional German-Russian cooperation,
  • Over-the-year starter kits to launch new twinning programmes,
  • Over-the-year town twinning revitalisation packages to help cities and citizens reactivate town twinning,
  • Facilitation of the issuing of visas for citizens and city representatives involved in town twinning and friendships. In particular, facilitation of visas for youth and pupil exchange in town twinnings and -friendships,
  • Facilitation of traineeships, hospitations as well as professional and cultural exchange within the framework of town twinning.

Berlin, 14 September 2018

Matthias Platzeck, former Prime Minister, Chairman of the Executive Board, German-Russian Forum

Thomas Hoffmann, Managing Director, Stiftung German-Russian youth exchange

Peter Franke, Chairman, Federal Association of German West-Eastern-Companies

Jelena Hoffmann, Chairwoman of the Executive Board, Foundation West-Eastern Meetings

The brochure contains short descriptions of 243 projects from German and Russian regions. 250 projects had applied for the call for proposals for the German-Russian Year 2017/2018. “Each of the 243 projects tells of committed, enthusiastic and accomplished people in towns, municipalities and villages, of people who use their free time in an honorary capacity to make a difference. Each individual project shows how political tensions can be countered with something constructive that binds people together – with a small budget, spirit and skill. […]. … a very concrete success story that is far too seldom acknowledged by positive reports, articles or film reports in the media.” (from the foreword by Martin Hoffmann, Managing Member of the German-Russian Forum e.V.)
Available at www.deutsch-russisches-forum.de