Switzerland and Russia pursue "fruitful" dialogue
Switzerland's good relations with Russia are evidence that a beleagured Bern still has friends, says top diplomat Michael Ambühl.
Ambühl, the state secretary at the Swiss foreign ministry, spoke to swissinfo.ch ahead of an historic visit by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev later this month.
It comes at a time when Switzerland has been under attack over banking secrecy and has found little support internationally over its diplomatic problems with Libya.
It will be the first time that a Russian head of state has visited Switzerland in the almost 200 years since the Swiss opened their first consulate in St Petersburg.
Switzerland is hoping that "cooperation with this important partner will be stepped up" as a result of the visit, said Ambühl. "Switzerland is anxious to get an idea of Russia as it is now, and not to fall back on the stereotypes of the Cold War."
Addressing a seminar of the East-West Forum on the subject of Swiss-Russian relations, Ambühl pointed out that since the collapse of the Soviet empire Russia had been forced to redefine its political, economic and social structures, and this had led to tensions and distortions.
"As a result, there are still great challenges to be faced in the areas of governance, the rule of law and human rights," he explained.
Relations with the EU
Russia with its huge raw material resources is an important trading partner for Switzerland. Swiss exports to Russia have quadrupled since 2000, and were valued at SFr3 billion ($2.8 billion) in 2008. At the same time Switzerland imported goods worth SFr1 billion.
"Russia is a major economic partner, but the country is also important for us politically, because Russia plays a very central role in all the important questions affecting our planet, particular in the United Nations," Ambühl told swissinfo.ch.
Russia appreciates Switzerland as a neutral country, which is not a member of either the European Union or of Nato.
"It is a very interesting parallel that two such different countries should in fact be in the same situation with regards to the EU. We are in a similar league when it comes to trade with the EU, neither of us being members. But we are much more integrated into the EU than Russia."
Dialogue as strategy
In 2007 Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey signed a memorandum of understanding with her Russian counterpart in Moscow, covering close cooperation in 20 different areas. At its heart lie regular institutionalised discussions between experts. There have already been seven such discussions in 2009.
Topics under discussion include ideas for reforming the United Nations and about policy towards Europe.
Another issue has been Protocol 14 of the European Human Rights Convention, which Russia, alone of Council of Europe members, has not yet ratified. The Council says the protocol is urgently needed in order to simplify and speed up litigation, but Russia believes it could be used to discriminate against it.
Asked whether human rights would be on the table during Medvedev's visit, Ambühl said: "In the framework of our bilateral discussions we shall touch on all subjects of importance for both sides."
The regular discussions between experts have already borne fruit, inasmuch as the two sides have "a very good understanding" of each other's positions, Ambühl explained.
"That is why even the opposing views of the question of the independence of Kosovo – which Switzerland supports and Russia rejects – has not led to any tension to speak of."
Thanks to mutual understanding "there is no problem when we adopt different positions over important questions. That doesn't interrupt our good partnership."
As a "sign of trust", Ambühl cited the fact that Russia had asked Switzerland to look after its interests in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, after its 2008 war with Georgia.
"I think this will help to promote mutual understanding," he said.
Andreas Keiser, swissinfo.ch (Translated from German by Julia Slater)
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is due to make a state visit to Switzerland on September 21 and 22.
He is scheduled to meet all seven members of the Swiss cabinet.
His agenda also includes meetings with representatives of Swiss business.
In addition, he will pay a visit to the Suvorov monument near Andermatt in the central canton of Uri, which commemorates the Alpine campaign of the Russian general in 1799.
Regular contacts between Russia and Switzerland go back to the 18th century. Numerous Swiss worked in Russia, among other things as scholars and architects, while many Russians visited Switzerland.
In the 19th century Russia was one of the great powers which guaranteed Swiss neutrality.
In the 19th and early 20th century Switzerland attracted Russian artists, students and dissidents, including Lenin who spent several years of his European exile in different Swiss cities.
After the Russian revolution of 1917, Switzerland broke off diplomatic relations and they were only restored in 1946.
In the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, relations were quickly stepped up, not only on the political and economic level, but also in science and culture.
Russia is one of Switzerland's major trading partners, and Switzerland is one of the leading foreign investors in Russia.
Swtizerland has been providing technical and financial support and humanitarian aid to Russia for ten years, particularly in the northern Caucasus.
In the wake of the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Switzerland has represented Russia's diplomatic interests in Georgia and Georgia's interests in Russia.
In compliance with the JTI standards
More: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative
Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!
If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at email@example.com.