The German-Russian Town Twinning Conference took place from 28 to 30 June in the city of Kaluga, southwest of Moscow. The aim of the conference was to support the exchange between the civil societies of Russia and Germany. The Twinning Conference is the only remaining civil society forum that still exists between Germany and Russia: The regular German-Russian intergovernmental consultations have not been held since 2014. The Board of the St. Petersburg Dialogue held a meeting for 8 and 9 December. July 2021 in Moscow planned joint board meeting with the Russian side canceled, because Russia had correctly declared three German NGOs as “undesirable” organizations.
Russia as a “virus variant area”? Conference almost burst
The conference in Kaluga almost broke. Because the federal government had designated Russia as a “virus variant area” on 29 June and thus classified it in the highest corona risk category, which meant that after returning from Russia you had to go to a 14-day quarantine in Germany. On July 5, Russia was surprisingly downgraded from a “virus variant area” to a “high incidence area”.
The German-Russian Forum (DRF), one of the organizers of the conference, had already learned in advance that Berlin wanted to declare Russia a “virus variant area”, which is why the DRF sent a press release three days before the conference warning against entering the Russian Federation.
This warning prompted many people who had registered for the conference not to go to Russia. The former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the former Vice President of the Bundestag Antje Vollmer also decided against a trip to Kaluga. Of the 150 registered participants from Germany, only 50 people travelled to Kaluga on 28 June.
Here is an interview with Reiner Braun from the Friedensbüro Berlin, who participated in the town twinning conference:
Ulrich Heyden spoke in Moscow with Reiner Braun from the Berlin Peace Office. Braun, who has been active in the German peace movement since the early 1980s, participated in the town twinning conference in Kaluga. Despite the smaller number of participants, he considers the conference to be successful.
What did you experience at the conference in Kaluga?
Reiner Braun: I have to say what the conference in Kaluga actually was. This was the biennial German-Russian town twinning meeting. We have 102 city partnerships between Germany and Russia. These partnerships are a bit of a pledge of common ground between Germany and Russia, since nothing is going on in official politics at the moment.
The 16th partnership meeting in Kaluga was intensively prepared by the Russian and German sides. It was then given the first blow of the neck by the decree of the Foreign Office to declare Russia a high-risk area, which led to the fact that the number of German participants reduced from 150 to about 50 people.
Nevertheless, it was a highly interesting meeting that tried to develop elements of partnership relations between Germany and Russia at all levels: city twinning, culture, sports, music, cohabitation and clubs. The common was placed above the separating. That was the atmosphere and the philosophy of this meeting. And I believe that this meeting has fulfilled its claim more than one hundred percent from the factual results.
New partnerships have been agreed. And most importantly, continuity has also been agreed. The next meeting of the German-Russian city partnership will take place in 2023 in Germany, more precisely in Essen. in 2025, the next meeting will take place in the Russian city of Yaroslavl.
Whether these meetings, such as the meeting in Kaluga, can take place with the support of the Federal Foreign Office, of course, depends crucially on the political framework. But all those who were there, and the many who were not there, but are behind this thought, will stand up for this.
There was something special about this meeting. And that was the connection to the 80th anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by German fascism. This idea of “never again” and doing everything possible to ensure that there is never again war between our countries ran through the whole meeting like a red spiritual, moral-ethical thread.
We had a totally positive and very creative atmosphere, which actually gives rise to optimism. The Ambassador of Germany to Russia took part. The most incompetent Foreign Minister sent a greeting. This shows that the similarities and the struggle for dialogue will hopefully be stronger in the end than all the confrontational tendencies we are currently experiencing.
I would be interested to know which well-known persons, mayors and ministers from Germany and which well-known representatives of German parties and organizations participated in Kaluga?
The German participation has suffered, especially as far as celebrities are concerned, from the decision of the Federal Foreign Office. Antje Vollmer, the former vice president of the Bundestag, simply could not do it. Gerhard Schröder could not do it. Therefore, the German participants were mainly representatives of civil society from various groups. There were people involved either in the German peace movement or in German-Russian friendship activities. This is a diverse network of people who have joined together either in the German-Russian Forum and in the Federal Association of East-West Societies.
Prominence was absent from this meeting, but perhaps that was even a strength of this meeting, because it is now underpinned by the one that matters now if we are to overcome the confrontation. The confrontation is overcome by the so-called people’s diplomacy or diplomacy from below, whatever you call it. For it must be noted that German politics has completely failed in the further development of the dialogue with Russia and has embarked on the path of a destructive and confrontational policy with adventurous constructions, which really mocks everything that was once agreed upon, namely the German - Russian Treaty of 1970 on the Charter of Paris.
These agreements have just established that when things are difficult, you have to talk to each other and approach each other. That’s not happening right now. And that is why this meeting was actually exactly the opposition to what we are experiencing in official politics at the moment.
Was there a possibility that the conference would take place as planned? Did the organizers try to talk to the responsible Federal Ministry of the Interior and push for the tightened entry conditions from Russia to be postponed by two days so that the conference, which has great value, can take place as planned?
My impression is that the German-Russian Forum and, above all, the Board and management really tried everything to make the most of this conference. They tried to save to the last second what to save and beyond. So anyone who saw the managing director after this conference in Kaluga already knew how it all took him. The face looked a bit strained, to put it carefully.
Whether this was now also a conscious partial provocation for further aggravation, everyone must form his personal opinion. I can only say that I was deeply shocked and surprised that so shortly before the conference, given the ambiguity of the corona numbers in Russia and given the numbers of Kaluga, which are significantly below the numbers of Moscow, the entire huge Russia was declared a zone of highest risk.
Personally, I actually want to be very careful. For me, what really matters is that there were so many positive things at this conference that we need to focus more on.
And it is amazing again that this conference plays almost no role in the German media. But the smallest aggravation and the smallest possibility of confrontation is played up, is dramatized, is used as an aggravation.
This fits a bit with Antje Vollmer’s statement last week at our press conference in Berlin, where we presented our call “Let’s make peace”, saying that the German media still plays a pioneering role in the confrontation, even in relation to politics. I think that was underlined again by the Kaluga conference.
Can you please explain what the call “Let us make peace” is all about?
The appeal was printed full-page in the Russian newspaper" Kommersant “and in the” Berliner Zeitung". He had 1,300 signatories. The message was that, 80 years after the invasion, we want peace, cooperation, dialogue and disarmament with Russia. That was the core idea of this appeal, which was put out of the ground in three weeks by the German-Russian Forum and the Berlin Peace Bureau. We wanted to show that there is also another Germany, the Germany of dialogue, the peaceful Germany. And we were surprised by the diverse reactions.
At the press conference in Berlin were, after all, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Berliner Zeitung and others. Gerhard Schröder and Horst Teltschik signed the call. These are certainly conservatives. So people of different mindsets and beliefs, from conservative to left, united in the thought that we need cooperative relations with Russia.
And we will continue to work to focus on the idea of cooperation. This is going to be a very big task. And I have to say honestly: especially after the Bundestag election. The government constellations that can be imagined after the election are not particularly optimistic about relations with Russia. Therefore, the commitment of civil society and the actions of the peace movement are all the more necessary.
What concrete, tangible steps were taken in Kaluga?
So, Bremen wants a twinning with a Russian city. This has been bagged in Kaluga. Another twinning of a smaller town has been signed. The German-Russian History Commission and the Culture of Remembrance based on the three-volume joint work on the reappraisal of history (publisher: degruyter.com) directly into schools and universities. And we want to help ensure that this really becomes part of the curricula at schools and the training content in teacher training at universities, in Germany and in Russia. In the field of medicine and corona, agreements have also been made between the experts in Kaluga. Among other things, it is about the question: What does Corona teach us for the future?
Which political parties from Germany were represented in Kaluga?
The conference was supported by two foundations, from which it is not expected at first glance, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Hanns Seidel Foundation. They were also both represented with their Moscow representatives. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, as an active political supporter of the forum, was represented by its Moscow Managing Director and was an active part of the discussion.
By enumerating this, it also becomes clear who was missing. This fits a bit into the picture of confrontation. That’s all you need to say.
At the conference, the idea arose whether we should not make a Berlin-Moscow peace train with 500 participants on 8/9 May 2022, where the peace message will come to Moscow in opposition to the tanks of that time. Various events are planned on the way to the Russian capital. There was spontaneous applause for this idea.
Were the German opposition parties “Die LINKE” and “Alternative für Deutschland” represented at the conference in Kaluga?
The party “Die LINKE” was represented by an employee of the Bundestag faction, who is responsible for this area. The AfD was represented by the chairman of the German-Russian Group of parliamentarians, who, and I want to say this explicitly, played a very positive, peace-promoting and constructive role in Kaluga.
I have myself published on the subject of AfD as a war party. But I have to say, the performance there was emotionally and politically peace-promoting.
You are in Russia for a week. How do you experience Russia, the people and especially the Corona crisis? Russia is currently in the third corona wave and the government has decided on very strict hygiene measures. How do you experience this when you compare Russia and Germany?
More casual, more open. Actually, more liberal. And thus also very sympathetic. I have a little feeling that people in this country have become accustomed to Corona and are somehow also trying to live with Corona without giving up their purpose in life and the joy and design right now in the summer.
I went to a moving Russian wedding on the weekend. I did not notice much difference to a wedding before or after the Corona period. That was very, very pleasant. We were an hour before Moscow in a large park area.
The first view from Moscow is deceptive. The economic crisis is hardly visible. But I notice this crisis when I go shopping and look at prices, and I notice it when I exchange money and see that the euro in Russia is worth much more than it was two years ago.
But the economic crisis is under the surface, except when you go to the park and see a few more homeless people than before. But this crisis is overshadowed by the gigantic development of this city. I have a colleague who was back in Moscow for the first time in 35 years at the Kaluga conference who said ‘I did not recognise anything’.
In these days there is an international event, which is happy, but which also raises big questions: the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, long demanded by the peace movement, now hastily carried out. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 2. He declared on July 23 that this hasty withdrawal does not suit him at all, because he feels that the terrorists from IS are getting stronger in Afghanistan and are advancing north and that the republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan in the north, can be destabilized if the Islamist underground there draws strength from the upsurge of IS in Afghanistan.
Personally, I am pleased that the Western intervention forces are withdrawing. This has been an old demand of ours that these troops have no place in Afghanistan. I can understand the Russian Foreign Minister, but I do not have to agree with him on all issues where I have a different strategic point of view. For us, the key point is that foreign troops have no business in Afghanistan. We have done enough shame and enough destruction there. And I’m glad the troops are leaving there. How hasty or less hasty, I relatively do not care.
The question is, what’s next? Are we now coming to a dialogue on the future of the entire region? It must always be about what is the relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Today, China must also be included. Are there any dialogical structures that prevail or not?
And for Afghanistan itself, I have to say, if the child has fallen so deep into the well, there is no good solution for Afghanistan in the short term. Whatever happens is bad. This evil has developed in over twenty years. You can’t just push that away. In my opinion, we can only try to find a very long-term path that starts less from Afghanistan itself than from dialogical structures in the surrounding countries.