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Durham City Council votes to suspend ties with Russian sister city

The Durham City Council voted unanimously last month to suspend ties with one of Durham’s sister cities, Kostroma, Russia. 

A suspension of ties means that all formal communication, activities, exchanges, and visits between Durham and Kostroma will cease. Kostroma’s quilt will also be removed from a City Hall display.

The decision was attributed to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. A June 23 recommendation by Sister Cities of Durham, Inc. suggested that “Durham send Russia a stronger message of condemnation of its war of aggression by suspending [its] Sister City relationship with Kostroma until meaningful communication with Sister City members can be restored.”

Durham has been a sister city with Kostroma since 1989. It was among the first three sister city relationships formed, along with Durham, U.K. and Toyama, Japan. The city of Kostroma is about 200 miles east of Moscow and lies next to the Volga River. 

These sister city relationships are maintained and coordinated through SCD, a nonprofit organization which is affiliated with Sister Cities International. SCI is a federal nonprofit originally established by former President Dwight Eisenhower to promote global diplomacy, cultural exchange, and mutual cooperation during the Cold War. It currently links 500 cities in the United States with over 2000 cities in more than 120 countries.

SCD works to develop and strengthen Durham’s sister city relationships through activities and programming. The organization hosts cultural events, like the Annual Festival of Nations, to showcase and introduce Durham residents to its nine sister cities and sponsor exchange programs between the cities for students, young professionals and delegates.

Brian Snyder, former chair of the recently defunct Kostroma committee of SCD, was among the first students to participate in an exchange program to Kostroma. Snyder said that the sister city programming for Kostroma allowed him to attend summer camp with students in Kostroma, lived with a Russian host family for six months, and develop meaningful and lasting friendships. 

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Board of Directors of the SCD, including Snyder, adopted a resolution in March reaffirming their relationship with Kostroma. Within the resolution, the board opposed the invasion and voiced their support for an independent Ukraine but stated that they remain committed to maintaining their relationship and communication with Kostroma. 

“The initial perspective was that this was the president of Russia's war, not the Russian people's war, and that we needed to stand in solidarity with them,” Snyder said. ”It was these relationships that were going to be the cornerstone of future citizen democracy.”

However, in June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke virtually at the U.S. Conference of Mayors and urged U.S. mayors to end their sister city relationships in Russia. Durham’s mayor, Elaine O’ Neal, attended this conference and subsequently asked SCD for an updated recommendation given Zelenskyy’s plea. 

“We were planning to just continue to try to keep the relationship as it was,” President of SCD Tom Harris said. “Then the war got worse. We heard about atrocities that Russian soldiers were perpetrating.”

“And it was obvious, we couldn't create any exchange activities during this period. We just thought that the relationship was not being productive now. And maybe the best way to make a strong statement was to suspend it,” Harris said.

The board of SCD issued the recommendation to the mayor, advising the suspension of their relationship with Kostroma. Following the recommendation, the Durham City Council voted unanimously to suspend ties. 

In their recommendation, the Board wrote, “The Sister Cities of Durham Board, in consultation with our Kostroma City Committee, will closely monitor the situation and will make a recommendation to you, the Mayor, as to when it seems appropriate to restore the relationship.”

To lift the suspension, Harris said, the war would have to end. 

“It's not that the relationship has to be perfect. But it would have to be open enough again so that people on both sides of the ocean feel comfortable having the exchanges and having the personal conversations that we had in the past,” he said. 

Durham has eight other sister cities around the globe in addition to Kostroma: Arusha, Tanzania; Durham, U.K.; Toyama, Japan; Zhuzou, China; Celaya, Mexico; Kavala, Greece; Sibiu, Romania; and Tilarán, Costa Rica. 

Globally, there have been mixed responses regarding maintaining sister city relationships in Russia. Two other cities in North Carolina have sister cities in Russia. Charlotte suspended ties with Voroezh in March, while Asheville has continued its relationship with Vadikvyaz. Durham, UK, which was previously also sister cities with Kostroma, terminated this relationship.

Correction: This article previously referred to Brian Snyder as the former president of the Kostroma committee of SCD. It has been updated to reflect that he was the former chair. The Chronicle regrets the error. 

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