The Roanoke City Council voted unanimously Monday to defy Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s call for the city to break off its Sister City ties with a city in Russia.
Instead, the council passed a resolution condemning Russia’s “unwarranted and inhumane” invasion of Ukraine and reaffirming its support for the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities organization, which maintains ties to seven cities around the world – one of them being Pskov, Russia.
Most of the discussion concerned the wording of the resolution, and whether it should specifically mention Pskov. In the end, the council settled on a resolution that didn’t mention Pskov but simply expressed support for the Sister Cities organization’s work with all of its partners, which involves “seven Sister Cities on four continents.”
In a statement Feb. 26, Youngkin directed state government to review any investments it has in Russia, and he also called on both Norfolk and Roanoke to sever their Sister City ties with cities there. Hours later, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander called on the Sister City group in his city to “immediately” break off ties with Kalingrad. The Norfolk Sister City Association has pushed back, saying it wants to maintain its ties to the Russian port city. However, the group did cover the directional marker to Kalingrad in downtown Norfolk.
By contrast, Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea said he told the governor he wasn’t in favor of breaking ties. Roanoke has sculptures to all seven sister cities in a park downtown and flies the flags of all seven nations nearby. Lea sent a letter to the governor on Feb. 28 in which he said he opposed breaking ties. “Indeed, it is times like these that such relationships are more important than ever – as person to person, we seek understanding and peace,” Lea wrote.
The Sister City organizations are nonprofits, not municipal functions, although they often entail some formal partnerships between local governments. Over the 30 years that Pskov has been a Sister City, Roanoke’s Sister City group has sent medical supplies to Pskov. There also have been Russian students who came to study at Ferrum College and Ferrum students who went to the Pskov State University.
Roanoke councilman Bill Bestpitch, treasurer of the Roanoke Sister Cities group, introduced the resolution. He noted that the Sister Cities program was founded in 1956 at the instigation of President Dwight Eisenhower, who argued in favor of citizen-to-citizen diplomacy, saying that “our most cogent diplomats cannot achieve peace without understanding, and understanding can only be achieved through the hearts of people.” On the 30th anniversary of the program in 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan released a statement praising the Sister City program, saying “people-to-people programs can help build better understanding and genuine constituencies for peace.”
Bestpitch told Lea that he praised “the courageous message you sent the governor” and said that “nobody would be happier than Vladimir Putin for his people to have less connection with democratic countries around the world. … It would only further his purposes. Breaking the tie [with Pskov] would not do one thing to help anybody in Ukraine or one thing to inhibit the military action he’s taking.”
Council member Joe Cobb read several letters from constituents who expressed interest in suspending ties, saying it was important for all views to be heard, but he ultimately voted in favor of the resolution. He also noted that some have suggested Roanoke establish a Sister City relationship with a city in Ukraine.
Council members wore blue and yellow ribbons to signify their support for Ukraine. Lea wore a blue jacket and yellow shirt. Bestpitch noted he was wearing a blue jacket with a yellow tie – and a black shirt as a symbol of mourning.