After more than a year of tentative approvals, Elizabeth City changed its mind Monday and voted against placing a 25-ton Russian war monument in the North Carolina coastal town’s U.S. Coast Guard Park.
Critics of the council decision believe it was influenced by strained relations between the U.S. and Russia over accusations of Russian meddling in the presidential election. Matters weren’t helped when Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted this week that his country has developed a nuclear missile with unlimited range and immunity to enemy intercept.
The council voted 5-3 not to approve a “memorandum of understanding” with the Russian Ministry of Defense that would have permitted the bronze monument to be erected along the Pasquotank River. The 13-foot-tall statue would depict World War II-era pilots from the U.S., United Kingdom and Soviet Union who were part of the top secret World War II effort based in the area known as Project Zebra.
City Manager Rich Olson told the Charlotte Observer the council’s decision appeared to “kill or derail” the project, which had been unanimously approved by a prior city council in May of 2017.
The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, acting with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, proposed the monument last spring to honor Allied aviators who died in a plane crash in Elizabeth City’s Pasquotank River in 1945. The crash killed three Russians, a Ukrainian and a Canadian who were brought to the U.S. to train with “Project Zebra.”
Plans called for the massive bronze statue to be cast in Russia and brought to Elizabeth City for reassembly atop a 47-foot by 47-foot base. Russia would have paid for the monument at a price speculated to be well over $1 million. The town of about 18,000 people was expected to make about $228,000 in improvements to Coast Guard Park, including a boardwalk and fishing pier for public use.
Councilman Johnnie Walton strongly opposed the monument for a variety of reasons, including questions of what would happen if the city decided to remove it. At one point in the debate, Walton referred to Russia as “the hacking government,” a reference to ongoing accusations Russia launched a propaganda campaign during the past U.S. election, reported the Daily Advance.
Walton likened the monument to a Trojan Horse in a prior Daily Advance interview, suggesting the statue of three soldiers and a Catalina airplane might in some way help Russia conduct a cyber-attack against the city or the nearby U.S. Coast Guard base.
Council members Darius Horton and Anita Hummer said they voted against the contract in part because they had gotten calls from constituents who opposed to the monument, reported the Daily Advance.
Olson told the Observer he was discussing next steps with the city’s attorney and declined to speculate on whether the project might be saved in coming weeks.
There has been talk the monument could be moved to private property in the city. However, community supporters of the monument have not given up on having it at U.S. Coast Guard Park and are mounting a grassroots effort to sway the five council members.
Among the backers are Tony Stimatz, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain who served on the city council from 2005 to 2017. He told the Observer that having the monument erected on private land would be “a sad state of affairs for Elizabeth City.”
“The council members who voted against it say they got calls from constituents who didn’t like the idea. But they’re not looking at the big picture. This is an international effort to memorialize their heroes and the Russians are passionate about that,” said Stimatz. “I know we are not on the best of terms now (with Russia), but they were our allies. This is about commemorating something that happened 70 years ago.”
He believes the monument will bring national attention to the city, along with Russian visitors.
Council member Billy Caudle supports the monument and says he has not given up hope. He says the original 2017 vote to host the monument was made by a council that was reconfigured after the last election.
“I did feel the new council did not understand all the elements of what was going with the monument or the international implications,” he said. “We may have some council members who are dead set against it. Perioid. Some may change their vote, based on new information.”