28 June 2017
Foreign Minister, Sergey,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking you for the warm welcome here in Krasnodar.
It is really a wonderful experience to be here with you in Krasnodar for the opening of the fourteenth town-twinning conference – yes, the fourteenth! This is not the first meeting between towns with special ties to one another, but rather a long-standing tradition. I believe – and Sergey Lavrov just pointed out the same thing – that we need this type of exchange in difficult times like these in particular.
I see two reasons why the fact that we are opening this conference and launching the German‑Russian Year of Municipal and Regional Partnerships together here in Krasnodar is a good sign of how wide-ranging and resilient relations now are between people, that is, between Russians and Germans, despite all of the current difficulties between our countries and between Europe and Russia.
The first reason is that as a German visiting Krasnodar, one is of course impressed by the economic momentum in the city and region. Naturally, one hears about Krasnodar’s famous natives, such as the opera star Anna Netrebko, who is also renowned in Germany.
But at the same time, when one visits Krasnodar and this region, one cannot fail to be reminded that very dark and terrible chapters of our common history also took place here. One is reminded that the Wehrmacht did not only severely damage the city during the Second World War, but that Germans also committed horrific crimes against the civilian population.
I mention this because I sometimes think that notwithstanding all the political differences between us, it is still almost a miracle that Russians have constantly sought contact with us Germans and reached out to us in a spirit of friendship, despite what Germans did in your country, including in your city. This demonstrates enormous trust, as one can react very differently after everything that people experienced in Russia. For this reason, I believe we should particularly cherish the exceptional nature of these relations, which has proved possible despite this terrible history between our peoples. We truly hold a treasure in our hands, one that has been handed on to us by those who experienced the war themselves and were the first to reach out to Germany. People of my generation are more like the heirs to this treasure which makes our responsibility to look after this legacy and not to squander it all the greater.
We Germans face up to this history. We will not forget it. On the contrary, we are writing new and more positive chapters in German-Russian relations in awareness of the painful past. My generation is very grateful to the Russian people for this.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to mention a second reason why today’s meeting here in Krasnodar is so important. The very large number of representatives of town, municipal and civil-society German-Russian initiatives present here today also shows clearly that our two countries and societies are united by close and firm ties.
Relations between Germany and Russia are not only shaped by Moscow and Berlin and by the two governments.
But let there be no misunderstanding – relations between our two governments are important to both Germany and Russia. And they are very important to me personally, as well as to Sergey Lavrov. But they are not always easy.
We disagree on many issues, such as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. But nevertheless, something is happening here that one can aptly describe as “international understanding from the bottom up”.
Sergey Lavrov rightfully pointed out that despite certain political differences and no matter how great they may be, contact between civil societies is particularly necessary because the more difficult it is to make progress on the political level, the more important municipal relations and relations between people on both sides are.
This “international understanding from the bottom up” is clearly symbolised in the meeting of towns and regions here in Krasnodar.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Only through dialogue can trust grow again. Such dialogue is needed on many levels – obviously on the level of governments, regions, municipalities, private organisations and individuals. This conference facilitates dialogue at regional and municipal level in particular. I don’t know what things are like in Russia, but in Germany local politicians firmly believe that if national politicians would only listen to the mayors and district commissioners, everything would be easier.
For my part, I am convinced that we can only help each other make progress if we are open. And open societies unlock space for creativity, exchange and new ideas, including those that may initially appear strange or only arise in the first place through talks with people from other countries.
I would like to mention two recent examples that show how much good can arise and be achieved from German-Russian relations if both sides truly want this to happen.
The first example shows the strength that can result from town twinning and the individuals active in them.
An ecumenical service was held last year to inaugurate a peace chapel at Rossoshka military cemetery in Volgograd, where Soviet and German soldiers who died during the Second World War lie buried side by side. The chapel commemorates the victims and is an eminent symbol of reconciliation.
It is the outcome of years of hard work by Denkendorf municipality in Bavaria and by Mr Holtz, who is here with us today and who managed to fund the project entirely by donations. The Russian and German Foreign Ministers became the patrons of this project.
This type of personal dedication, as well as the energy and ability needed to persevere despite occasional setbacks, deserves our greatest recognition, respect and gratitude.
However, this personal dedication from the heart of our societies does not absolve us governments of our responsibilities. And that is why the second example of what we can achieve is the German‑Russian Youth Exchange Year, which is now drawing to a close. Over the course of this year, we finally managed to increase the number of participants, as well as interest in one another, once again.
And we will continue to focus our endeavours on young people. As early as next week, 30 young and motivated people from Russia and Germany will meet in Moscow to discuss the state of our bilateral relations and to develop their own ideas on the future of our relations.
I firmly believe that enabling young people to meet is the best investment in peace and understanding for the future.
And I can say that on the basis of my own experience. I travelled to Moscow for the first time during a very difficult year, as part of a youth exchange. At the time, in 1980, the Olympic Games in Moscow were boycotted by the West following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Cold War was at its worst. Nevertheless, we decided now was the right time to go on a youth exchange trip to Moscow and Leningrad, as it was still called then, to what is now St Petersburg. Naturally this influenced our image of Russia and continues to do so to this day.
In other words, facilitating contacts between young people is something that can still pay off decades later.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Following the successful 2016-2017 Youth Exchange Year, the coming year will focus on municipal and regional partnerships.
We are united by a common desire to increase the number and intensity of direct contacts between Russians and Germans through numerous municipal and regional partnerships, thereby strengthening dialogue and understanding between our societies.
And in the spirit of the peace chapel of Rossoshka, we need your initiative, creativity and ideas!
I believe the sky’s the limit here. I hope that the contacts and links resulting from this town-twinning conference will form a good basis for this input.
And perhaps there will also be new initiatives by individuals. When I was in St Petersburg a couple of weeks ago, I visited the memorial to the victims of the Wehrmacht’s Siege of Leningrad. Everyone in Russia knows how many lives this siege claimed. I thought it was remarkable that the German Foreign Minister was greeted there by the German and Russian national anthems. That too shows me how great Russians’ trust in Germans is.
I was thinking, Sergey, that when we are talking about how we can improve our relations, why can’t we open a German-Russian institute for peace and international understanding in St Petersburg, something that could perhaps come about via cooperation between private initiatives and our countries, so we can show that we feel a particular commitment to peace and international understanding between our peoples in the place where terrible historical events took place.
In this spirit, I wish all the conference participants and all Russians and Germans active in municipal and regional partnerships much happiness and enthusiasm in their work to foster good relations between Germany and Russia.
Thank you for listening.