Amid war in Ukraine, Juneau Assembly decides to maintain sister city relationship with Vladivostok

Zolotoy Bridge in Vladivostok
The Zolotoy Bridge crosses Golden Horn Bay in Vladivostok, Russia, pictured here on Sept. 20, 2019. (Creative Commons photo by porkandchicken)

Juneau and the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok have been sister cities since October of 1991. In recent years, the relationship has been largely dormant.

On Monday night, the Juneau Assembly considered formally suspending that relationship because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.

Since the sister city agreement was signed, locals have hosted visitors from Vladivostok. Students from Vladivostok qualify for in-state tuition at University of Alaska schools. The last Russian student to use the perk at the University of Alaska Southeast was in 2009, according to academic exchange and study abroad coordinator Dashiell Hillgartner. The student was from Yelizovo, a sister city with Homer. Juneau residents have gone to Vladivostok on educational, business and cultural exchanges too.

Like in 2018, when the Alaska String Band toured over there with support from the U.S. Department of State. The U.S. Consulate organized a July 4th concert in Vladivostok.

During the July 4th concert, the band covered The Beatles’ 1968 song “Back in the U.S.S.R.” They played with the lyrics in a way that hasn’t aged well.

“Well the Ukraine boys really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And the Moscow boys, they make me scream and shout… ”

On Monday, the Juneau Assembly was one vote short of suspending the sister city relationship. Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski led the push. She said she felt like the Assembly had to do something, between the governor calling on cities to sever these ties, hearing the Ukrainian president during the Grammys and reading tweets from former U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul.

Obviously, this is not going to end the war in Ukraine. It’s a pebble. And if it helps a few people in Vladivostok think twice about what’s happening in Ukraine, and if they talk to their friends about it, and they think twice about it, perhaps eventually they could be moved to action,” Gladziszewski said.

Gladziszewski’s resolution also would have condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin and voiced support for Ukraine and its people.

The Assembly voted the resolution down, 4 to 5. Gladziszewski, Michelle Hale, Wade Bryson and Greg Smith voted yes. Beth Weldon, Carole Triem, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, Christine Woll and Barbara Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake voted no.

Some members said suspending the sister city status defeated the purpose of the arrangement in the first place: to promote peace and prosperity through citizen diplomacy.

“This is meant to bridge and build connection with our sister city in a way that allows for two-way communication,” Wáahlaal Gíidaak said. “Suspending that and saying we’re no longer going to communicate with you, cancels our ability to do that and also cancels their ability to communicate back to us.”

The Russian government has criminalized free speech about the war and used state media to spread false narratives about it. That’s part of why Sister Cities International, the nonprofit that facilitates these relationships, has also urged against cutting these ties.

“This is not a war that’s being led by the Russian people,” said Leroy Allala, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “It’s a war by Putin and the military and, you know, I think everyone is on the same page when they say that this war was unprovoked by Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”

Over the years, several elements of the original sister city agreement have been neglected. It calls for at least one annual official visit from each city to the other, and a free flow of information and ideas between residents. The agreement says each city will allow freedom of communication and association in sister city activities, which now seems impossible in Putin’s Russia.

Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said the public emailed support and opposition.

“But some of the emails we received in favor of this resolution shocked me, and only convinced me that voting against this would be the right thing to do,” she said. “They were extreme in their characterization of the Russians as a people. And it reminded me of exactly what I don’t want us to do, which is to go into a sort of Red Scare situation.”

After the resolution failed, the Assembly asked Mayor Beth Weldon to send a letter to her counterpart in Vladivostok that conveys the Assembly’s condemnation of Putin and the war, and its support for Ukraine.

Gladziszewski said she hopes the discussion renews interest in Juneau’s Sister Cities Committee.

“Our relationships with our sister cities wax and wane depending on who’s on that committee,” Gladziszewski said. “It was super strong in the early ’90s. There were people super interested in Vladivostok. As you heard, people — Vladivostokians, if that’s a word — came to Juneau. And it’s waned in recent years. It just has. So this, ironically, could reinvigorate that, and I hope that it does.”

For several months, the volunteer committee responsible for nurturing relationships between Juneau and its sister cities hasn’t had enough members to operate. Four out of seven seats on the committee are vacant.

Residents can apply to be members on the boards and committees page of the city’s website.

Juneau also has sister city status with Kalibo in the Aklan province of the Philippines and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Canada.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Russian students had never attended UAS. There have been at least three since 2009.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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