A delegation from Greater Portland will go to Russia this week to visit its “sister city” Archangel despite diplomatic tension between Washington and Moscow that has prompted some U.S. cities to consider suspending ties to their Russian partners.

The five-member delegation’s trip to Archangel – a city of about 350,000 in northwestern Russia – coincides with the lowest point in relations between the Obama administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, because of Russia’s annexation of neighboring Crimea and military operations in the area claimed by Ukraine.

The U.S. and its European partners have imposed economic sanctions on key Russian leaders, expelled Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations and, on Thursday, rallied enough votes in the United Nations General Assembly to declare the annexation invalid. The U.S. has increased its military presence in Eastern Europe in response to events in Ukraine.

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who is preparing for his fifth trip to Archangel in the sister city program, said some people have expressed surprise that the delegation is still able or willing to make the trip, given the political concerns. Sister city arrangements are formal agreements aimed at fostering cultural, educational and commercial exchanges between communities.

“I can’t think of a better, more important time for Russians and Americans to be reaching out to each other,” Suslovic said this week, noting that similar outreach between communities happened during the Cold War. “We clearly have differences. But what I have learned and what keeps me going back is that I am reminded, every time, that we have much more in common than divides us.”

The visit to Archangel, whose Russian name is Arkhangelsk, comes exactly 25 years after a Russian delegation first visited Maine and coincides with Archangel’s annual “America Week,” celebrating American culture. The group will meet with local officials, visit universities, participate in roundtable discussions and attend cultural events.

OTHER U.S. CITIES SUSPENDING TIES

The situation in Ukraine and earlier tension over Russia’s treatment of gay, lesbian and bisexual people have prompted scrutiny of other sister city relationships with Russia.

Earlier this week, Chicago’s Committee on Human Relations voted to suspend that city’s relationship with Moscow until Russia withdraws its military from Crimea. The Chicago City Council is scheduled to vote on the committee’s resolutions next month.

“We think it is very important to send Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin as strong a message as possible, and we think suspending the sister city relationship is just one step in a whole host of steps that are needed,” said Pavlo Bandriwsky, vice president of the Illinois division of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

Asked whether he believes other U.S. communities with sister city relationships in Russia should consider suspending their programs, Bandriwsky said “absolutely.”

The sister city relationship and trade negotiations between California’s capital, Sacramento, and the Crimean region have been put on hold, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

The U.S. State Department has issued a “travel alert” for Russia, advising travelers to avoid public demonstrations and “evaluate their personal security situation in light of current political tensions and the possibility of violence or anti-U.S. actions directed against U.S. citizens or U.S. interests.”

Members of Greater Portland’s delegation say they have no concerns, safety or political. The group plans to hold a news conference Friday morning at the Portland International Jetport before beginning the trip to Russia.

“This is clearly something that we talked about,” said Michael Foley, a Westbrook city councilor who will make his first trip to Russia. “Clearly, there are some differences between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, but that doesn’t hurt our ability to continue to have a friendship.”

Foley said he has heard from some people who are upset that the city of Westbrook is paying some of the travel costs for Foley and Philip Spiller Jr., son of the late Westbrook Mayor Philip Spiller, who negotiated the original agreement with Archangel. Portland is not paying for Suslovic’s trip.

SISTER CITIES PUT TENSIONS ASIDE

Sister Cities International, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that helps support and foster the international relationships, said there are 76 sister city relationships between U.S. and Russian communities, and 23 partnerships between U.S. and Ukrainian communities.

“Sister cities are not, nor have they ever been, an explicit or implicit endorsement of policies, laws or actions of the partner community,” the organization said in a statement on its website as tension rose over Ukraine. “Rather, they maintain channels of communication, even when political or cultural differences threaten to sever the relationships between communities that citizens have spent years cultivating.”

This isn’t the first time that international politics have changed the dynamics of exchange trips between sister cities.

Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people waged similar but largely unsuccessful campaigns in the U.S. and internationally last year after the Russian parliament passed a law making it illegal to disseminate information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors.

As a well-known gay-friendly community, Portland came under pressure from some LGBT groups to sever or suspend its sister city relationship with Archangel because the region was the first in Russia to ratify a law banning activities in public places that promote gay and lesbian relationships.

Instead, Greater Portland’s Archangel Committee organized a closed-door discussion on civil rights and gay rights for a visiting Russian delegation. Two members of an LGBT group, Rakurs – Perspective, in English – came to Portland from Archangel ahead of the sister city delegation to meet with gay and lesbian advocacy groups and state and local officials.

UKRAINE, EQUALITY WILL BE TOPICS

Rob Lieber, a Portland-area resident who helped organize that visit, said the two Russian activists have faced official harassment and intimidation since returning to Archangel. So Lieber said he was pleased to hear that Suslovic and other delegation members plan to meet with the Perspective members in Archangel.

Lieber supports the trip to Russia.

“This is a very big deal that the delegation will be able to meet with them in their office,” said Lieber, who also has worked to raise awareness about the political imprisonment of members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot.

Suslovic, Foley and Spiller will be joined on the trip by Archangel Committee members Carol Lord and Susan McCarthy.

Suslovic said he fully expects representatives from the sister cities to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the ongoing concerns about sexual equality in Russia. During their meeting with Perspectives members, the delegation plans to convey that “they have the support of the city of Portland,” he said.

“It’s not just fluff. We sit down and have very meaningful and sometimes very difficult conversations,” Suslovic said. “But these are conversations that old friends can have and should have. If all we did was exchange plaques and platitudes, I would have gone (to Russia) once and not gone back.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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