Don’t end citizen diplomacy with Voronezh

Russian President Vladimir Putin is violating international law with his brutal and bloody assault on the Ukrainian people, leaving the United States and its allies to respond with crippling sanctions.

While it is appropriate to cut off commerce, financial flows and contracts that will bring economic pain to Putin and his supporters, other actions are less appropriate. 

The Charlotte City Council will soon vote on whether to end our sister-city relationship with the Russian city of Voronezh, a connection that began in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

I urge the council not to sever those ties.

Over the past three decades, Russians from Voronezh have visited Charlotte and Charlotte delegations have traveled to Voronezh in what is best termed citizen diplomacy. The economic impact has been minimal, but the goodwill and understanding generated have been far greater.

Charlotte has hosted Russian art exhibits, cultural exchanges, student exchanges and face-to-face meetings that have helped erode stereotypes and let people see that we are more alike than we are different.

Citizen diplomacy, where American business people, students, teachers and community members meet and get to know citizens of other countries, is an important aspect of building a more peaceful world. In fact, the U.S. Department of State runs an International Visitor Program which, each year, brings thousands of emerging foreign leaders to the U.S. to meet ordinary Americans and better understand our people and our systems. More than 500 current or former chiefs of state or heads of government have been through this program. These visits produce a deeper understanding of different countries and cultures and help erode those divisions that lead to wars.

Many of the exchanges with our sister cities involve students. These middle and high school students are still forming their views of “the other.” When they form friendships with people in other countries, it has a lasting impact on their views and helps remove bias and prejudice in their dealings across ethnic, racial, gender, religious and other differences.

I have seen this work firsthand, including with my own children.

When I led a Charlotte delegation to our Chinese sister city, Baoding, in 2017, little was mentioned about global tensions. Rather, we learned about Chinese history and culture. We broke bread with Chinese citizens eager to hear about Charlotte and the U.S. from a personal perspective. Those we met gained an understanding of Americans that was warm, personal and different from the images put forth by media coverage.

It is understandable that Charlotte wants to sever ties with Voronezh. But this will not be felt by Putin or any of the Russian oligarchs who support him.

Recently, the Sister Cities program has been re-invigorated by a new group of volunteers eager to build relationships in an increasingly polarized world. These efforts are the best way to avoid future wars, to put a human face on suffering, to build relationships that make the image of conflict and war personal. This humanizing of those who are different affects our own domestic polarization as well.

A time will come when Russians can travel again, and we should give those ordinary Russian citizens a chance to show us how they are not Vladimir Putin and that we are more alike than we are different. Let’s keep our sister-city relationship with Voronezh.

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