This story has been updated to reference a letter from Sister Cities International that discourages ending relationships with Russian sister cities.

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Montclair officials are considering ending the township’s sister city relationship with the Russian city of Cherepovets, over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cherepovets is one of four Montclair sister cities around the globe. If Montclair withdraws from its sister cities relationship with Cherepovets, it would end a symbolic partnership that has lasted for more than 30 years. Mayor Sean Spiller told leaders of that city in a letter last week he’s “beginning the work of withdrawing from our relationship.”

It would take an act of the Township Council to formally end the sister cities relationship, Councilman Peter Yacobellis noted in a separate statement sent to Montclair Local Saturday. He said he and Councilman Bob Russo recently asked township staff to retrieve the 1990s resolution that created the relationship, so that they and the mayor could formally move a resolution to pause or possibly dissolve the relationship at the March 15 council meeting. That resolution didn’t appear on the meeting’s agenda, but the council could still take action at an upcoming session. 

“My thoughts are with everyday Russians who are suffering, the brave Russians who are standing up and calling for a stop to this war, and not least the people of Ukraine,” Spiller told Montclair Local by email Saturday. “I believe that small, principled acts, when taken with larger diplomatic efforts, provide a means through which we can stop broader, catastrophic armed conflict.”

He said he was hopeful that in the future Montclair could reestablish a connection with Russia if it “chooses to engage in good faith dialogue with the global community.”

Several communities around the United States have withdrawn from or considered withdrawing from relationships with Russian sister cities in the last few weeks. Among them: Colorado Springs, Colorado, ended its relationship with Smolensk, Russia, Fox21 in Colorado reported earlier this month. Sarasota, Florida, suspended its relationship with Vladimir, Russia, the Herald-Tribune reported.

But in a letter addressed to “fellow citizen diplomats,” Leroy R. Allala, president and CEO of Sister Cities International, discouraged withdrawing from sister city relationships with Russian communities. 

“While suspending or ending a sister city relationship to register disapproval of a foreign government's actions may seem, on the surface, like a positive policy protest action, it has the complete opposite effect – closing a vital and, ofttimes, last channel of communication with vulnerable or isolated populations,” Allala wrote.

In Spiller’s letter, sent to Cherepovets Mayor Vadim Germanov, the mayor wrote that he is “deeply disturbed” by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine. The letter was first published by Baristanet

“My thoughts are with the Ukrainian people and everyday Russian citizens,” the mayor wrote. “I cannot, however, in good conscience continue to support a symbolic relationship among our local governments as long as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.”

According to the township’s website, the Montclair-Cherepovets sister city relationship began in the 1990s, growing out of a need to help bring food and medicine to the region after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The first 12 Montclair delegates traveled to Cherepovets in 1990, and since then Montclair professionals have traveled to the city to offer training. Several student exchanges have taken place, and Russian children have received life-saving heart surgery in the U.S. with the help of the Montclair Rotary Club, the township’s website states. 

“Montclair's sister city relationship with Cherepovets, Russia, began as a way to facilitate a free dialogue and an exchange of ideas as Russia emerged from Soviet rule,” Spiller wrote in his message to Montclair Local. “Now, Vladimir Putin and his government have chosen to isolate Russia and the Russian people from the world by unleashing a war of aggression against Ukraine.”

Yacobellis said he and Russo had been discussing what action Montclair might take with regard to Russian ties, including pausing the relationship with Cherepovets and considering  “our engagement with Lukoil in Upper Montclair to ensuring the town doesn’t do any business, inadvertently or otherwise, with any Russian or Belarussian citizens on federal sanctions lists.”

Lukoil is a multinational energy company based in Russia, though individual stations are owned by franchisees. The Newark City Council suspended business licenses for franchisees there earlier this month, NJ.com reports.

Yacobellis said the council has also ordered a Ukrainian flag, which will come later this month, with the intention to fly it from the flagpole on Church Street.

He also recently started a Facebook fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees. The money raised goes to the International Rescue Committee and as of Saturday, March 12, had raised more than $25,000. 

Russo said he’s collected funds for the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Ascension Church in Clifton’s relief effort. The church has been sending items including medical supplies, diapers and feminine hygiene products to Ukraine; more information on its needs and fundraising effort is at Facebook.com/CliftonOrthodox.

Russo said he has received a check for $250 from the Montclair State University Federation of Adjunct Faculty, which he serves as treasurer. With his own donation and other smaller contributions he’s collected, they’ll be providing $1,000 to the church’s relief effort.

“I want to also make sure that we’re taking the opportunity not just to call out Putin’s abhorrent and criminal actions, but to say that we hope there’s a future where we can reestablish ties like this because diplomacy should never stop,” Yacobellis said.