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Ties to Vladivostok, Russia? San Diego Sister-City Leader Keeping the Faith

Vladivostok is a Far East Russian port city 5,600 miles from San Diego but also 4,000 miles distant from Moscow. Photo via wordpress.org/openverse

Like San Diego, the Russian city of Vladivostok is a major Pacific port and home to a Navy fleet. In 1991, the Siberian municipality on the Sea of ​​Japan became our sister city.

Like siblings with opposing political views, that relationship is being tested as Ukraine fights off a brutal Russian invasion.

For now, it’s stay-the-course.

“’Citizen diplomacy’ helps build and strengthen relationships,” says Deborah Florespresident of the San Diego-Vladivostok Sister City Society for two years.

On Monday, the local immigration lawyer told Times of San Diego that such ties can undermine stereotypes and propaganda.

“When the time comes for rapprochement,” Flores said via email, “these kinds of relationships will play a positive role.”

A spokeswoman for San Diego’s mayor chose her words carefully when asked about contacts with Vladivostok — one of 16 San Diego sister cities.

“Under Mayor Gloria’s administration, no visits to or from Vladivostok have taken place and nothing is being planned in the future,” said press secretary Courtney Pittam, who referred a reporter to the San Diego International Sister Cities Association, “a 501c3 that manages all our sister-city relationships.”

In mid-March, The New York Times reported that Chicago, Dallas and Des Moines, Iowa, were among cities moving to suspend relationships with Russian sister cities.

Flores, 49, shared a statement by Washington-based Sister Cities International.

That group “recognizes that US communities may have differing views of laws, policies, practices or historical events in other countries which they believe may run against moral, ethical or legal codes to which they ascribe,” SCI says.

“While every citizen should feel free to express their own opinions in keeping with his or her own conscience, the suspension of a sister city relationship due to disagreement over a government policy or practice or historical events can be counterproductive and contrary to the stated mission of sister city relationships promoting ‘peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation—one individual, one community at a time.'”

Thus SCI opposes suspending sister-city ties because it would close communication channels and meaningful dialogue.

“Our policy is to encourage our members and US communities to keep their sister city relationships active, especially when political issues threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made,” said the group.

Mira Rubin, president of the House of Ukraine in Balboa Park, took vigorous exception to Flores’ arguments.

San Diego should “absolutely” consider suspending, at least temporarily, ties with Vladivostok until the Russian Federation “stops the genocide of the Ukrainians and returns all of the occupied territories, including Crimea,” she said.

Rubin said such a halt should have been considered eight years ago when Crimea was annexed — “or even back in 2008, when [Russia] invaded Georgia.”

She asked: “Do we have a sister [city] in North Korea? Or Iran? Or Syria? Or Cuba? I don’t think so. Why would you want a Sister City in the country that sponsors terrorism?”

Rubin, writing via email Tuesday, continued:

“I want your readers to ask themselves a question. What does San Diego gain from being a Sister City of a city in the country that is not a democracy, that is responsible for countless war crimes in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, is known for the oppression of minorities and the LGBQ community?

“Why would San Diego want to be associated with Russia at all? I don’t think there is anything for us to gain. I don’t believe remaining a Sister City will facilitate breakthroughs in the cloud of propaganda. Once RF is a respectable democratic and free society, we can reconsider being a Sister City.”

Flores says communications with her Vladivostok counterparts have been “minimal” and “superficial” since Russia attacked — “for many reasons, including the safety of our partners.”

“I am concerned for the safety of colleagues and friends in Russia,” she wrote. “Merely using the term ‘war’ can lead to a prison sentence of 15 years. They’re taking a risk merely by being associated with us at this time. I do not wish to increase the dangers they face.”

San Diego’s last official trip to Vladivostok was Flores’ visit in 2015, shortly after the Crimean annexation, she said.

“The increase in nationalism was already visible in 2015,” she said. “During this visit, I was invited to a parade. At the parade, there was a large ‘Crimea is ours”/”Крым наш’ contingent with balloons in yellow and blue.”

Flores, a Mission Valley resident, says her stomach dropped.

“This was a serious red flag. Some Russians in the crowd also expressed dismay and disgust,” she said. “During this visit, I had a number of private conversations with random people about the evils of nationalism. In Moscow and elsewhere in Russia as well. Many people were already afraid, while a few expressed strong nationalist tendencies.”

“I suspected the situation would continue to deteriorate, but felt it important to keep our positive ties alive,” Flores said.

Speaking for herself, Flores says her focus shifted to other forms of building and maintaining relationships, such as virtual meetings.

She said the last virtual meeting co-hosted by San Diego and Vladivostok was in September 2021 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their ties begun as the Cold War was ending.

As part of SanDISCA, she said, her Vladivostok team works with other San Diego Sister Cities on joint projects. They includes groups such as San Diego-Warsaw, “another city heavily impacted by this war.”

Flores said the San Diego-Tijuana Sister City Society is also impacted by the increased influx of asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia.

“There’s been a steady but smaller stream of Ukrainians and Russians for some years. Our organization has informally assisted some asylum seeking families in finding local services, pro bono help, etc.,” she said, and also works with partners including the International Cottages and House of Pacific Relations in Balboa Park, which includes the House of Ukraine.

The daughter of a US Air Force officer once stationed in Cold War West Germany, Flores was born in a wall-divided Berlin.

“This was my introduction to both politics and Russia,” she said. “In Berlin, the four occupying powers (US, UK, France and USSR) had to work out a functional coexistence and have professional dealings with one another … despite frequent and sometimes serious breakdowns in communications between the USSR and the others.”

Flores says she has some “unusual, occasionally chilling, family stories from this period.”

During the waning glasnost and perestroika days of the Soviets under President Mikhail Gorbachev, Flores successfully lobbied her high school in Central California to add a Russian program “so we could better understand and potentially work with Russians in the future.”

She ended up specializing in Russian Studies as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, and ultimately became a lawyer (out of the University of San Diego) who also did (while at USD) a master’s paper on Vladimir Putin’s early abuses of rule of law.

Flores noted Vladivostok being a “closed” city during the Soviet Union days.

“Foreigners were not allowed, and most residents of the region were unfamiliar with foreigners,” she said. “San Diegans from Sister Cities and Rotary were among the first foreigners to travel there and start making local connections.”

She noticed that many grassroots groups in Russia are led or driven by women.

“Their activities, while completely apolitical, slowly help build a sense of civil society independent from government control,” she said. “This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the future.”

Updated at 4:13 pm April 19, 2022


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