It has ebbed and flowed with international politics, but never died.
Last week, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the US flew to Seattle to help kick off festivities celebrating the 35th anniversary of the two cities’ association.
"We have come all this way together," Abdulaziz Kamilov told a gathering of several hundred people in Seattle on Saturday, most of whom have visited Tashkent at least once. "Sometimes," he said, "people-to-people exchanges are more stable and have better perspective than political relationships."
In 1973, Seattle was the first city in the US to adopt a sister city in the then-Soviet Union. Wes Uhlman was Seattle’s mayor at the time, and he recalled Saturday how he had to seek help from the late US Sen. Warren Magnuson to persuade the US Department of State to allow the plan to go forward.
It is an odd friendship in many ways. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is more than 2,000 years old. It’s in a landlocked country more than 6,000 miles from the Northwest. The dominant religion is Islam.
Seattle, in contrast, is less than 200 years old, and is nearly surrounded by water. Over the years, the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association has made a lot of headlines.
It endorsed and assisted Seattle residents who, as part of an effort called Target Seattle, flew to Tashkent in 1983 to distribute a letter signed by 42,000 Seattleites that expressed a desire to avoid nuclear war. In response, Tashkent citizens gathered about 120,000 signatures on a peace letter of their own.
In 1988, hundreds of volunteers from Seattle traveled to Tashkent to build the Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park, another effort co-sponsored by the sister-city group.
The two cities’ relationship survives because of strong beliefs on both sides about the value of people-to-people diplomacy, even when politics strain the two countries’ official relations. Uzbekistan has been in trouble with many countries over its human-rights record.
After glasnost — the policy of openness and transparency in the Soviet Union, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev — exchanges of all kinds flourished between Seattle and Tashkent. Groups of doctors, lawyers, students, chefs, artists and many others have gone back and forth.
In recent years, the friendship entered a hiatus of sorts. There hasn’t been a large delegation from one country to the other for some years. The leaders of the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association hope to step up activities again this year.
A delegation from Seattle is scheduled to visit Tashkent in late August and early September, and Tashkent’s mayor hopes to lead a group here sometime in the fall.
Members of the Ilkhom Theatre of Uzbekistan are now in Seattle, performing two works at ACT Theatre. There are plans to jointly address the challenges of energy needs and global warming, and hopes for a symposium when the Tashkent delegation is here.
The sister-city activities have long drawn skepticism from those who feel it’s at best naive and perhaps dangerous for citizens to delve into places where there is significant political conflict with the United States.
But the leaders of the Seattle-Tashkent organization believe citizen diplomacy can play a strong role in lessening tensions and providing a model for constructive dialogue.
"It’s really not just a saying, this ’people-to-people’ stuff," said Charles Royer who, when he was mayor, also visited Tashkent several times. His then-wife, Rosanne, led the sister-city group for more than a decade.
So on Saturday, Uhlman declared Ambassador Kamilov an honorary citizen of Seattle, giving him a Seattle medallion and a pin.
Then the crowd left the auditorium to eat Uzbek food and share decades of memories, Seattle Times reported.