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Russia’s Sberbank Switzerland changes hands to new Swiss owner

Sberbank Switzerland is under new ownership and has changed its name to TradeXBank. © Keystone / Michael Buholzer

The Swiss branch of Russia’s Sberbank has been sold to the Geneva-based m3 Groupe Holding company, freeing the bank from intensive supervision by Swiss financial regulator.

This content was published on September 5, 2022 - 12:28
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Sberbank Switzerland was not directly sanctioned by the European Union, but measures had been taken against some of its former directors. In March, the Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) had restricted the bank’s businessExternal link, preventing it from paying out money to sanctioned individuals or entities.

The Zurich-based banking unit has now been bought for an undisclosed sum by m3 Groupe, which manages a portfolio of companies in the real estate, hospitality and financial sectors. It will now operate under the name TradeXBank, specialising in the financing of the commodities trade.

Abdallah Chatila, the Swiss-Lebanese chair of M3 Groupe, told Le Temps newspaper that the sale was coordinated with United States businessman Stephen Lynch, who takes a 10% stake in TradeXBank.

Sberbank Switzerland made a CHF25 million ($25.5 million) profit last year with revenues of around CHF3 billion to CHF4 billion, Chatila said. Non-sanctioned clients have withdrawn CHF1.5 billion in assets in recent weeks.

“This leaves us between CHF600 and 700 million, to which we must add equity in excess of CHF500 million, which is a good start,” Chatila saidExternal link. “With our current size, we are already one of the 20 largest Swiss banks.”

He added that the bank’s current staff of around 65 will be retained.

FINMA confirmed that trading restrictions have been lifted following the ownership change.

The regulator saidExternal link it is “closely overseeing the change of ownership in coordination with national and international bodies,” but has withdrawn the services of a previously appointed investigating agent.

TradeXBank chair Christian Lüscher told Le Temps that bankrolling the trade of oil, gas and other commodities could prove a profitable business venture in future.

“Trade finance is an essential aspect of the Swiss financial centre, which has somewhat disappeared in recent years - even more so because of international sanctions. If we can restore strong financing of raw materials in Switzerland, it will be good for the bank, the Swiss financial centre and, indirectly, for several other branches of the economy - not to mention the retention and creation of jobs.”

A seperate Russian bank, Gazprombank, is also rumoured to be ready to sell its Swiss banking branchExternal link.

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CERN drafts plans to idle accelerators due to Europe’s energy crunch

A view inside the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector, one of the physics experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, located near Geneva. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

Europe’s energy crisis is threatening to slow fundamental particle physics experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located near Geneva, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

This content was published on September 5, 2022 - 09:47
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The newspaper reportedExternal link on Sunday that CERN officials were drafting a plan to pause experiments at CERN at periods of peak demand. The proposal will reportedly be presented at the end of September to governments that fund the organisation.

“Our concern is really grid stability, because we do all we can to prevent a blackout in our region,” Serge Claudet, chair of CERN’s energy management panel, toldExternal link the WSJ.

CERN, which straddles the French-Swiss border, is one of France’s largest electricity consumers. At peak operation, it consumes nearly 200 megawatts of power, a third as much as the nearby city of Geneva.

CERN aims to keep its biggest experimental apparatus – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) –  operating and to prevent a sudden shutdown that could disrupt the $4.4 billion machine, Claudet said. The LHC is one of eight accelerators in the complex; there are also two particle decelerators at CERN that allow scientists to study antimatter.

After three years of maintenance work, the LHC, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, started its third operational cycle in JulyExternal link working at higher energy levels. Scientists began firing proton beams at nearly the speed of light around its 27-kilometre loop as they resume their search for clues to the origins of the universe.

One-day warning

The WSJ said CERN was in talks with its electricity supplier, state-controlled French power giant EDF SA, to receive a day’s warning that it would need to consume less electricity. CERN would give priority to shutting down other accelerators besides the LHC, lowering its electricity consumption by up to 25%.

Europe's energy picture remains clouded by the war in Ukraine. Moscow's invasion of its neighbour have triggered sweeping sanctions from the West, led to a cut in energy supplies from Russia and stoked inflation.

On September 2, Russia indefinitely suspended natural gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, tightening the squeeze on Europe’s energy supplies. The ongoing economic battle between Moscow and Brussels has raised the prospects of recession and energy rationing in some of the continent’s wealthiest countries.

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The challenges of integrating Ukrainian students into Swiss schools

The Swiss and Ukrainian flags outside a classroom in central Switzerland, as seen in May this year © Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

Students from Ukraine have just started a new school semester in Swiss schools. The road to integration can be a bumpy one both for schools and students.  

This content was published on September 2, 2022 - 10:00
Olivia Kinghorst

It is summer in Zurich. At the Freies Gymnasium in Zurich (FGZ), a senior high school, six students are busy spending the long break studying German. The classes are intensive, lasting three hours every day. Some are still beginners, others have reached an intermediate level. Here, their mornings are filled with learning the basics of German prepositions, past participles and irregular verbs.

This is the new reality for Anya, Dima, Alona, Sasha, Oliviia and Emiliia who were just strangers to each other prior to the war in Ukraine. But for the past months, they have formed a tight-knit group attending integration classes in preparation for the new school year that started in August. The experience of settling into their new lives in Switzerland and a new schooling system has been challenging at times. “I’m a bit afraid that I will not manage,” says Emiliia D, 14 years old, from Odessa who joined FGZ early April. “It has been hard to attend German biology classes because I did not understand anything.”

Situation is ‘stable’

Switzerland has witnessed an influx in students since the Russian war in Ukraine began in February. There are no official statistics on the number of Ukrainian students in Swiss elementary and secondary schools. The latest data from the government shows that more than 61,000 people have been granted ‘protections status S’ so far. The permit is valid for one year (though it can be extended) and allows Ukrainians and their family members to work and study in Switzerland.

Schools quickly scrambled to accommodate the new students. Some turned to retired colleagues to help out. Others created so-called introductory classes before gradually integrating students into regular classes. Now, with the new school year just starting the situation appears to be easing.

“At present, the situation seems stable. The cantons have provided the necessary resources for the integration of the students who arrived this spring,” says Samuel Rohrbach, president of the French-speaking Association of Teachers in Switzerland. “Of course, these resources have to be secured in the long-term and adjusted upwards quickly if necessary.”

Children are generally enrolled as soon as they arrive in Switzerland. Attendance is compulsory for those aged between around four and 16 with all children having the right to education in Switzerland. They may either join a class for foreign speakers or immediately participate in a regular class while receiving intensive language lessons, although this varies from school to school.

Preparing for a new term

At the FGZ, when we meet, principal Christoph Wittmer is busy getting things in order for the new semester. He greets the groups of students who have just returned from their German lesson and hands them a voucher to buy books at the bookstore Orell Füssli.

The schedule for the students is demanding, as Wittmer shows. It includes German, English, French, maths and geography among others. “Within one year, they will have to prove that they have managed to reach the [usual] level of the classes,” he says. After that, it’s decided whether the students can continue in a Swiss high school or repeat the grade.

So far, the students from Ukraine have been attending classes in both German and English. From August, they will be placed in either a monolingual or bilingual stream. “They offered each one of us a student to take us through the day. I was really scared because sometimes I couldn’t understand a single word they were saying,” says Anya L, 15, who arrived in Switzerland on March 3. “My first lesson was geography in English. I was just trying to keep up with the information I was getting.”

>> Watch this video to see how the students are settling in at the school.

Meanwhile in Neuchâtel, Les Cerisiers – a pool of schools from seven villages with over 1,400 students – is accepting 20 Ukrainian students this semester. Director Laurent Schüpbach plans to directly integrate students into classes from grades one to six. Those from grades seven to 11 will have a reception class before transitioning into the regular classes.

He is positive about a smooth integration. “This is thanks to the follow-up of the teachers, the internal support that can be requested – medicine, socio-educational service, management – the contacts with the host families and the link that our Ukrainian teacher of the first reception class can have with the parents,” says Schüpbach.

Shortfalls

The crisis has nonetheless exposed longstanding issues in Switzerland’s schooling system including a shortage of qualified staff and financial support for schools.

“Even without the Ukraine crisis, additional teachers are needed. In order to help foreign-language children, we need additional German lessons and the corresponding teachers,” notes Dagmar Rösler, president of the Swiss Teachers’ Federation.

To assist this period of transition, the FGZ brought in two additional German teachers. Principal Wittmer has so far accepted nine students from Ukraine for the new semester but continues to receive requests from potential students. Nevertheless, he is pursuing discussions with nearby schools to see if they can also accept more students.

“The integration of refugee children is a challenge for the whole school [system] and society,” adds Rösler, who argues there should be more financial aid from the federal government for the cantons and municipalities. "The status S enables a relatively quick integration into school and the labour market. This also requires additional resources and thus financial assistance.”

Schools in Switzerland have resorted to varying measures to provide a welcoming environment. Some are collecting money and material to support the students from Ukraine or introducing a buddy system. The FGZ set up a small library with Ukrainian books and raised peace flags on its campus. Nevertheless, Wittmer acknowledges counselling remains an “important task” and is where more resources are needed in the future.

A fresh start

The students at FGZ are both nervous and excited about the new school year when we meet them, just before the start of the new term. It is the first time they will join the regular classes at the secondary school following a typical schedule.

But the uncertainty of the war still hangs in the air with many hoping to return home. Others have their sights set on finishing school and working in Switzerland if the situation does not improve in Ukraine. “I really want to take the Swiss Matura [end of high school diploma] if it’s possible,” says Alona P from Kiev. “I should work very hard but I think I can do it.”

“With the educational system here, I would like to stay in Switzerland instead of going back to my Ukrainian school,” says Anya L. “But I just really hope I have the chance to go back home to see my friends and hometown again.”

Wittmer is taking the situation in stride but wonders about the future prospects of the students. “This is still the big question for us. Is it more of an intermediary solution for the students or is it somehow now the beginning of a career and university in Switzerland?”

Edited by Virginie Mangin

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Russian band Pussy Riot temporarily held in Switzerland

Two members of Russian activist band Pussy Riot Keystone / Expa/johann Groder

Members of Pussy Riot, an anti-Kremlin feminist punk band, say they were temporarily detained in Bern on Monday night for spraying anti-war graffiti on a wall.

This content was published on August 30, 2022 - 11:22
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The incident involved three Russian women aged 25, 26 and 34, Ramona Mock from Bern cantonal police told the Swiss News Agency Keystone-SDA. She did not confirm that they were members of Pussy Riot. For reasons of data protection, the police did not give any further details.

Mock explained how the police went to Wabern, a municipality of Bern, on Monday evening because of a report that several people were spraying graffiti. Three women carrying spray cans were stopped and taken to the police station for further investigation. They were released after questioning, Mock said.

It is not yet clear whether criminal charges will be brought. That is at the discretion of the property owner, Mock said. It is not known who owns the spray-painted wall.

Several Swiss online news portals had previously reported on the incidentExternal link, citing Russian media.

The band are set to play in Rubigen, just outside the Swiss capital, on Tuesday night as part of a European tour.

Pussy Riot said on social media that the graffiti campaign against the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not limited to Bern. The band is also carrying out the action in other European cities where it performs.

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Tourist visa ban for Russians divides Europe

A group of Russian tourists on a sightseeing tour of Zurich in 2014 © Keystone / Petra Orosz

The idea of a visa ban for Russian tourists is not going down well in Switzerland. But if the European Union, under pressure from northern and eastern countries, decides to impose such a ban, Switzerland would have to follow suit.

This content was published on August 25, 2022 - 10:00

Estonia and Finland have already limited visas for Russian tourists; Poland, Latvia and Denmark are calling for an EU-wide ban. The German newspaper Bild reportsExternal link that German politicians in the centre-right CDU/CSU are also in favour of such a ban. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the centre-left SDP, has so far spoken out against it, arguing that it is not the Russian people’s war, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

The central argument for a visa ban, as also demanded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is that it is not acceptable for rich Russians to go on holiday in Western Europe while their country is reducing Ukraine to rubble. The hope is that a travel ban will make the Russian population think, so that they will subsequently exert pressure on the regime.

A northeast/southwest divide is emerging in the EU on this issue. While the Baltic and Scandinavian states are insisting on restrictions, France, the Netherlands and southern European countries are critical.

Swiss scepticism

Foreign policy experts in Switzerland also express scepticism about a visa ban. “A blanket denial of visas is not effective and would hardly impress Putin or deter him from his war campaign,” says parliamentarian Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter from the Centre party.

She points out that many Russian citizens who are critical of the regime also travel to Switzerland. “We should see the granting of visas more as an opportunity than as a risk,” she says. “It gives us the opportunity to show Russians travelling to Switzerland what kind of immoral and inhumane war Putin is waging.”

Tiana Angelina Moser from the centrist Liberal Green Party is also sceptical of a blanket ban – “it seems too sweeping to me”. However, it is obvious that Switzerland, as part of the Schengen area, can’t stand on the sidelines, she says.

Such a ban doesn’t have the support of Claudia Friedl from the left-wing Social Democratic Party either. “It’s Putin’s war. On the other hand, I support the targeted sanctions against people and oligarchs close to Putin. The war must not be financed by us.”

Similar thoughts come from Green Party politician Sibel Arslan, who says it’s much more important that oligarchs are put on the sanctions list and that Switzerland acts more quickly and clearly in this regard. “But in terms of symbolic politics it’s important to discuss different variants, such as the visa ban,” she says.

However, Arslan does not expect a visa ban to materialise in the EU. “There are other ways to act against the aggressor, and a general ban would probably hit the wrong people.” Before the EU decides, she says, it’s difficult to say anything from Switzerland because Switzerland can’t impose such a sanction on its own.

Yvette Estermann from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party thinks that anyone seriously striving for peace in Europe won’t impose new sanctions but will look for a solution to the conflict. “I’m against such a measure. It doesn’t solve problems, it creates new ones,” she says.

Christa Markwalder from the centre-right Radical-Liberal Party says: “In principle I’m opposed to guilt by association, because a visa ban like this can always also affect blameless Russian citizens. However, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas made the point in an interview [on German public television] that visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right. From the Western point of view, this can be a lever to put an end to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine as soon as possible.”

Switzerland would also be affected

An EU decision is expected at the end of August. According to Swiss news website WatsonExternal link, the EU Commission is critical; moreover, the requirement of unanimity seems to give the issue no chance.

If, contrary to expectations, an EU-wide visa freeze comes about, it would also apply to Switzerland, which is a member of the Schengen area. Only the issuance of national visas for stays of more than 90 days requiring authorisation would remain at Switzerland’s discretion, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) confirmed to SWI swissinfo.ch.

Switzerland remains a popular destination for Russians, despite the war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the year, Switzerland has issued more than 7,000 visas to Russians, SEM toldExternal link Swiss public broadcaster, SRF. This puts Russia in the top ten of Swiss visa statistics (in eighth place). The most common reasons for travelling to Switzerland are meeting friends and family, business trips or tourist holidays. In 2018, however, only about 30% of Russians owned a valid passport.

Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens

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Switzerland expects up to 120,000 Ukrainian refugees this year

© Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Between 85,000 and 120,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine could be living in Switzerland by the end of the year.

This content was published on August 24, 2022 - 11:37
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The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) shared its projection via Twitter on Wednesday. However, this forecast is still uncertain as many factors are in play.

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There are currently slightly more than 60,000 refugees in Switzerland, according to the SEM. The number could double in the coming months.

Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said on Tuesday that there is still uncertainty around the special “S” protection status refugees from Ukraine are currently entitled to. It allows them to live in work in Switzerland for a period of one year. The Federal Council will have to decide whether to extend it for a further six months from March 2023, or to repeal it.

Keller-Sutter said the status applies to the entire Schengen area and Switzerland cannot go it alone on this issue. The EU will make its own decision.

On Wednesday, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis expressed solidarity with Ukrainians on their independence day. Ukraine celebrates its independence from the USSR in 1991 on August 24.

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Swiss Solidarity has sent CHF30 million in aid to Ukraine

Lots to be done: a damaged building in Chernihiv, Ukraine. Keystone / Roman Pilipey

Six months on from the Russian invasion, the Swiss Solidarity charity has financed 54 projects to the tune of CHF30 million ($31.1 million) to help people affected in and around Ukraine.

This content was published on August 24, 2022 - 09:12
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The total numbers of those in Ukraine who have received some form of help is 660,000, said Swiss Solidarity on Wednesday. The aid group is the humanitarian arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, which is also SWI swissinfo.ch’s parent company.

Thanks to the second-biggest fundraising campaign in its history, Swiss Solidarity raised over CHF127 million for Ukraine earlier this year, which it has since been funnelling into projects run by Swiss partner organisations in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

NGOs involved include anti-poverty group Caritas Switzerland, Save the Children, the Swiss Demining Foundation (FSD), and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On Wednesday, Swiss Solidarity said it would also now be concentrating on projects to secure heating for the winter; with so many homes destroyed or damaged in Ukraine, the goal is to make sure there is at least one heated room in every accommodation, it said.

Different views

Last month, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Switzerland criticised a perceived delay by Swiss Solidarity in allocating the funds. Ukraine would also like the donations to be invested in the reconstruction project “United2024”, presented by Volodymyr Zelensky at an international conference in Lugano in July.

Swiss Solidarity, which has a long history of working with partner organisations, remains however wary of working directly with states. 

“We are an independent charitable organisation, a public service foundation,” said Swiss Solidarity director Miren Bengoa in response to the comments. “We do not have the means to work through a state body and we can guarantee the independence of the humanitarian assistance.”

The charity said at the time that the remaining funding for Ukraine-related projects should be used within the next five years.

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War in Ukraine splits peace movement

Protesters take part in a national demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Bern on April 2. The war has raised a difficult question, especially in the peace movement: how far should pacifism go? Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Pacificist organisations in Switzerland want, evidently, nothing but peace in Ukraine. But opinions differ about the best way to achieve this.

This content was published on August 24, 2022 - 09:00
Ümit Yoker

The Swiss Peace Movement (also known by its German acronym, SFB) is a relatively small organisation. Yet it seems to have sparked a heated debate about what working for peace actually means.

Unlike other pacifist movements, the SFB has not only taken a stand against arms deliveries to Ukraine – it also believes that imposing sanctions against Russia is the wrong approach.

“More weapons do not lead to a quick victory,” says Tarek Idri, a representative for the organisation. “They just prolong suffering on both sides.” Nor are sanctions an effective means of achieving peace, he adds. Unilateral coercive measures of this kind violate international law and are incompatible with the Swiss principle of neutrality.

“It is unlikely that Russia will continue to regard Switzerland as a viable mediator after this,” Idri predicts. But above all, the peace activist decries the fact that “sanctions always hit the poorest people in a country hardest.” This is true not just for the Russian population, but for people in many other countries too. 

The SFB is getting a lot of pushback for its stance. Internally, however, its members are more united and determined than ever. According to Idri, membership numbers have not changed and are still in the hundreds range, but individual motivation to take action for peace has grown noticeably in recent months.

“The ultimate goal for all of us is de-escalation,” he says. “However, this can only be achieved with a ceasefire and negotiations.” Heavy weapons and sanctions will simply aggravate the situation. “Peace and security in Europe can only be reached together with – and not against – Russia.” Idri finds it problematic that some peace activists are advocating for supplying Ukrainians with heavy weapons.

“Of course we want to continue working with these organisations, but we are dismayed by this attitude,” he says.

Disagreements over arms deliveries

By “these organisations”, Idri primarily means the Group for a Switzerland without an army, which also goes by its German acronym GSoA. With around 24,000 members and sympathisers, it is by far the largest pacifist organisation in the country. It has attracted several hundred new supporters, including many young people, in recent months.

Anja Gada, a member of the GSoA secretariat, sees no contradiction in the fact that many of the group’s members are so clearly in favour of arms deliveries to Ukraine. There have always been different positions on this issue within the group, she points out. While some reject the use of armed force outright, others believe that individual circumstances have to be taken into account. In the case of a direct attack like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the right to self-defence must be acknowledged.

“Our focus is on prevention,” says Gada. “We work to ensure that there is no escalation in the first place.” But if a conflict has already broken out, then the starting point is completely different. 

For the GSoA, Swiss support for Western sanctions against Russia is the right course of action. “Diplomatic negotiations are valuable and important,” says the activist.  “But Switzerland must not hide behind its role as a mediator.” Doing nothing in the current conflict would violate the country’s principle of neutrality just the same.

In Gada’s view, Switzerland should be more decisive in its role as a commodity trading and financial hub for Russian companies and oligarchs. Far too much responsibility is being shifted onto the cantons when it comes to freezing assets or blocking transactions. And it is precisely these funds that are financing the current war.

“This is by far the biggest and most important lever that Switzerland has for contributing to peace in Ukraine,” she points out.

Gada also criticises Switzerland’s centre-right parties for instrumentalising people’s fears in order to push ahead with re-armament projects, such as the purchase of F-35 fighter jets. The government’s rhetoric has also changed since the war, she says. It promises that the fighter jets will make the country safer, yet the security situation in Switzerland has not changed since Russia’s war of aggression. Russian troops crossing onto NATO territory, on the other hand, would trigger a nuclear world war.

“And then even three dozen new fighter jets would not help us,” she says.

Fossil fuels are part of the problem

The Ukraine war and the global pandemic before that have pushed international climate movements Fridays for Future and the climate strike out of the Swiss media spotlight. “Yet the climate crisis is more present today than ever,” says activist and climate strike spokesperson Cyrill Hermann.

A climate strike in Geneva in February 2019. The movement has been pushed out of the spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but it sees its politics confirmed by recent events. Stephan Torre

There is hardly a newspaper or television report on any topic that does not mention global warming or energy at least in passing. This is also true, and perhaps even more so, of the coverage of the Ukraine crisis and the related debate about Russian natural gas.

“The war confirms that we are doing the right thing in committing to renewable energies,” Hermann believes. “Fossil fuels are also not the solution from a peacebuilding perspective.”

The climate activist is also convinced that demonstrations, despite no longer drawing the same media interest as it did before the war and the coronavirus, still provide a space where people can talk to others and where many decide to become more active in climate protection. “We are especially pleased to see that Ukrainian activists from Fridays for Future who have fled their country have now also joined our regional groups.”

All of this begs the question of whether the movement can still make its concerns heard through demonstrations, or whether more acts of civil disobedience – like the recent occupation of the main square in front of the federal parliament in Bern – would not be more effective at drawing attention to the urgency of the climate situation. According to Hermann, there are probably several thousand activists nationwide who regularly take part in meetings and events. This is a decrease compared to two or three years ago, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

“Many activists overstretched themselves at the beginning,” he says. It is also a sign of self-care that some of them have now shifted down a gear.

Translated from German by Julia Bassam/gw

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Switzerland calls for return of Crimea to Ukraine

Cassis joined an international chorus of solidarity for Ukraine. © Ti-press

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis has again called for Russia to end hostilities and withdraw from Ukraine, including the Crimea territory it has occupied for eight years.

This content was published on August 23, 2022 - 17:07
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In a video address on the Crimea Platform, Cassis condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “in the strongest possible terms”.

“Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty must be restored immediately. I reiterate Switzerland’s unwavering support for a Ukrainian Crimea, for the Ukrainian people now facing Russia’s military aggression,” he said.

The Crimea Platform is an international demonstration of solidarity for Ukraine that was set up exactly a year ago. The second Crimea Platform summit was staged on August 23, one day before Ukraine celebrates the 31st anniversary of its independence from the former Soviet Union.

Switzerland is a founding participant of the Crimea Platform and has refused to recognise Russia’s claim on Crimea since its occupation in 2014.

Last month, Switzerland hosted an international conferenceExternal link in support of Ukraine in the southern Swiss city of Lugano. The Ukraine Recovery Conference agreed a set of principles to oversee the reconstruction of the war-torn country.

Several international leaders addressed the Crimea Platform summit on Tuesday, including the heads of state of Germany, Canada, Britain and Japan, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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Ukrainian refugees still welcome in many private Swiss homes

Many refugees are also housed in publicly-built centres, such as this one on the outskirts of Bern. © Keystone / Anthony Anex

Six months after the Russian invasion, the commitment of Swiss citizens who took in Ukrainian refugees is proving more persistent than expected, a media report says.

This content was published on August 22, 2022 - 10:57
swissinfo.ch/Tamedia/dos

Quoting an estimate by the inter-cantonal social services body, Tamedia publications write on MondayExternal link that some 60% – or 40,000 – of all registered Ukrainian refugees in Switzerland are still housed privately, and only 5-10% of them had been relocated by the summer.

Some of the 26 cantons contacted by the paper, including Basel City and Geneva, said they were surprised by the stability and persistence of the citizen engagement, which was widely seen as a temporary solution that would only last a few months.

A minister from canton Zurich – Switzerland’s biggest, and also the one hosting the most Ukrainian refugees – already said last month that “many host families are keeping people longer than expected”.

‘Exaggerated’

The Director of the Swiss Refugee Council told the newspapers that “the panic [that the commitment of many hosts was waning] before the summer break was exaggerated”.

Of course there were households who ended the arrangement after a shorter period, she said; but this could be for a variety of reasons, not just a case of conflict or tension with the lodgers. The refugees might also have found a place of their own in the meantime.

As a percentage of the overall numbers, cases of conflict leading to a breakdown in the arrangement are rare, she said.

According to the latest figures published last Friday by the State Secretariat for Migration, 62,941 Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Switzerland since the beginning of the war; 60,793 of them have obtained the S permit that allows them to live and work in the country for at least a year.

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Complaint filed over attack on Swiss journalist in Ukraine

NGOs have been documenting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Keystone / Roman Pilipey

A civil rights group has filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland over the alleged attack of a Swiss journalist by Russian troops in Ukraine.

This content was published on August 18, 2022 - 18:37
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The Ukrainian NGO Truth Hounds said on Thursday that it has submitted evidence of a war crime with the Swiss Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

Swiss freelance journalist Guillaume Briquet was injured in the arms and headExternal link when his car came under fire in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine in March. His vehicle had Geneva number plates and was marked with the word ‘Press’ on both sides.

A passport, 3,000 euros in cash, personal belongings, a helmet, photographic equipment and a laptop were allegedly taken from him.

Truth Hounds says the attack was carried out by Russian ‘commando’ who target the media to deter journalists from reporting the war. The NGO, which has been documenting war crimes in Ukraine since 2014, filed the complaint with the help of Civitas Maxima, a civil rights group that provides legal aid for victims of international crimes.

The OAG has vowed to help track down and prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors have formed a taskforceExternal link to collect evidence from refugees arriving in Switzerland to pass on to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

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Red tape frustrates efforts to hire Ukrainian refugees

The hospitality industry in particular is looking to hire Ukrainian refugees. © Keystone / Anthony Anex

Swiss companies have urged the authorities to help them hire more Ukrainian refugees by granting more flexible work permits and offering language courses.

This content was published on August 18, 2022 - 15:54
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Some 60,000 Ukrainians have been awarded special S status permits giving them refuge from the Russian invasion of their country. But only around 10% of the 33,000 refugees of working age have so far found jobsExternal link in Switzerland.

A survey by the Swiss Employers’ Association found that most companies are willing to offer more jobs to Ukrainian refugees, but they are frustrated by uncertainty about how long these potential workers can stay in Switzerland.

The Employers’ Association on Thursday demanded greater guarantees that refugees could stay in the country beyond the one-year limit of S permits should they find employment.

"A long-term perspective would encourage companies to further promote or even intensify integration through internships and apprenticeships," said association president Valentin Vogt.

Language courses

The survey of 367 companies also called on local authorities to step up language courses for refugees to give them one of the most basic skills necessary for working in Switzerland.

Job centres should also educate Ukrainians about the domestic job market and do more to bring refugees and companies together to help match job seekers with open positions, the Employers’ Association said.

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Swiss join EU to put Ukraine’s ex-president on sanctions list

Yanukovych (left) was ousted by the from power in 2014 and has been living in exile Russia since. Keystone/Yuri Kochetkov

Switzerland has adopted European Union sanctions against the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his son Olkesandr.

This content was published on August 17, 2022 - 17:23
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The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECOExternal link) said the pair was put on a list of travel and financial sanctions to come into force later on Wednesday.

The 72-year-old former president is believed to have been involved in the first stage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, while his son is said to run business operations in the Donbass region held by separatist forces.

The sanctions are the latest in a series of punitive measures by the EU, which Switzerland decided to take over following a case-by-case examination.

Financial sanctions against Yanukovych and his entourage have already been in place in connection with illicit potentate assets.

More than CHF100 million in assets was frozen following Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 and the Swiss government in May said it was looking to confiscate the money in order to be returned to the Ukrainian authorities.

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Moscow hoped Switzerland would remain ‘haven for Russian business’

Cleaning up after Russian shelling hit a block of flats in Nikopol, Ukraine, on Monday Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Russia “really hadn’t anticipated” Switzerland aligning itself with EU sanctions in March, according to a former Russian diplomat to the UN in Geneva.

This content was published on August 17, 2022 - 09:25
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The Russians had hoped Switzerland would remain a “haven for Russian business – legal or not”, Boris Bondarev said in an interviewExternal link with Le Temps newspaper on Wednesday. “It was very naive, but that’s really how it happened.”

Bondarev resigned in May in protest at Russia’s war in Ukraine. He is currently in Switzerland.

He also said Russia’s strategy in the war was to wait for the West to get tired. “Moscow will ensure that Europe freezes this winter. To the point where public opinion puts pressure on politicians to demand that Ukraine negotiate with Russia,” he said.

Russia classified Switzerland as an unfriendly country after the adoption of EU sanctions. The Russian embassy has repeatedly posted negative tweets about Switzerland.

Last week Russia rejected a protecting power mandate agreed by Switzerland and Ukraine, saying Switzerland was no longer neutral.

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Chocolate maker Lindt & Sprüngli pulls out of Russia

Lindt's Home of Chocolate in Zurich. The company is withdrawing from the Russian market. Keystone / Alexandra Wey

Swiss chocolate manufacturer Lindt & Sprüngli is withdrawing from the Russian market, after announcing in March that it would cease operations there following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces.

This content was published on August 16, 2022 - 12:46
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“We will support our employees in Russia and act in accordance with local regulations,” the Zurich-based company said in a short statementExternal link on Tuesday.

On March 9 Lindt & Sprüngli announced it was closing its eight shops in Russia and halting deliveries. The previous day managing director Dieter Weisskopf had said he wanted to keep operations running for the time being.

“We’re not supplying arms or petrol, bear that in mind. But we’re monitoring the situation closely,” he said at the time.

In March the Lindt & Sprüngli group employed around 120 people in Russia, where it generates less than 1% of its turnover on a total of CHF4.59 billion ($4.83 billion) in 2021.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several Swiss companies suspended their activities in Russia. Others pulled out for good, while for others it was business as usual.

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Ukrainian refugees struggle with life away from home

Most people crossing Ukraine’s border in the past few weeks have been leaving the country. But a growing number of Ukrainians are returning home. © Ti-press

More and more Ukrainian refugees are leaving the security of Switzerland to return home. For them, feeling uprooted after Russia invaded their country is more unbearable than the war.

This content was published on August 15, 2022 - 09:00

Alina Dubyna returned home to Ukraine at the end of June, after nearly three months in Switzerland. She was reunited with her family and found her apartment intact, but so much in her life has changed.

Prior to the war, the young soprano sang with the philharmonic orchestra in Chernihiv, in the north of the country. Today she is unemployed because most of the orchestra members have fled to other parts of Europe. Almost six million people – 90% of whom are women and children – have left Ukraine since the war started in late February, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The city of Chernihiv, which had close to 300,000 inhabitants before the Russian invasion, has suffered massive destruction. The region is less frequently under attack now than in spring, but it has recently been targeted by missilesExternal link.

“My feelings are complicated,” Dubyna told SWI swissinfo.ch by phone via a Ukrainian translator. “I’m reunited with the country I love so much, but it’s no longer the same Ukraine.”

The musician Alina Dubyna before the war. Alina Dubyna

More than 60,000 Ukrainians have found refuge in Switzerland so far, but the flow of new arrivals is slowing. Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter told the Aargauer ZeitungExternal link in mid-July that more and more Ukrainians were returning to their homeland. “They consistently express a desire to contribute to the reconstruction of Ukraine,” she said.

By the end of June, according to the latest statistics published by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), nearly 500 refugees with S permits had officially left Switzerland. These permits had been activated specifically for people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The number of Ukrainians returning home from Switzerland is rising, but the current total is unknown.

“Ukrainian citizens are allowed to be in the Schengen area without a visa for 90 days. It’s possible that refugees who never registered officially have also left Switzerland,” explained SEM spokesperson Anne Césard. This was the case for Dubyna.

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How Switzerland assists returnees

When refugees in Switzerland are granted S protection status, they are allocated to the cantons, which are then responsible for them; the cantons also administer applications for return assistance, in consultation with Bern. The German-speaking cantons of Zurich and Aargau have recently announced that they will provide financial assistance for return worth CHF 500 per adult, CHF 250 per child, and a maximum of CHF2,000 per family. However, in a July update, Zurich minister Mario Fehr said the federal authorities should contribute more to return assistance.

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Chernihiv’s devastation

Dubyna left for Switzerland because of the tragic devastation at home. At the beginning of the war, Chernihiv was besieged by Russian forces and heavily bombarded. Dubyna and her boyfriend, thinking they would be safer in the countryside, headed for the village of Ivanivka, where the young man’s parents live. But Ivanivka was bombed and hit by air strikes too, and chilling reports arrived from neighbouring villages like Yahidne that were occupied by the Russian military.

Shocked by what was happening, Dubyna reluctantly agreed to join a convoy of women and children heading to Kyiv. There she received a message from a Ukrainian friend who had escaped to Switzerland – the friend’s host family in Cugy, canton Vaud, was offering to shelter Dubyna as well. Dubyna arrived in Vaud at the beginning of April.

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Swiss relatives feel helpless

The Ukrainian-Swiss artist Oksana Kornelyuk has lived in Switzerland for 20 years. She remembers feeling helpless and tormented when the war began in Ukraine. Her parents are in their seventies, and as their only child all she could think about was having them come to stay with her in Grandson, canton Vaud. They lived in Lutsk, in northwestern Ukraine. “It wasn’t the hardest-hit region of the country, but its proximity to Belarus felt menacing,” Kornelyuk explained to SWI swissinfo.ch.

Kornelyuk phoned her parents every day to try to convince them to leave. At first, her father refused categorically. “He admitted that the situation was serious only when he started seeing checkpoints in his town,” she said. In mid-March he told his daughter that he had found a bus to Poland, where it would be possible to catch a flight to Switzerland. When Kornelyuk’s parents landed in Geneva, the family felt immense relief.

While Kornelyuk’s mother began to settle in, her father’s morale sank. He felt guilty that he was safely abroad while younger Ukrainian men were not allowed to leave their country. He pointed out that his region of Ukraine wasn’t being directly affected by the war.

Kornelyuk remembers that he kept asking her “What am I doing here?” and that he was struggling to find his bearings. He was naturally gregarious but couldn’t speak a word of French. Accessing healthcare was stressful for him and he was afraid of bothering people. He was deeply attached to his homeland and missed it terribly. “He wants to die where he was born,” Kornelyuk said. “The first time I ever saw him cry was in Switzerland. His tears weren’t about the war but about feeling uprooted.”

After about a month and a half in Vaud, Kornelyuk’s father started talking about returning home. At first Kornelyuk tried to delay this – until it made her father angry. “He threatened to leave, with or without my assistance. At that point I promised to help him however I could,” she said. It broke her heart.

A man repairs his home targeted by Russian strikes in the village of Yahidne, in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region. Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Common problems

Dubyna described difficulties similar to those experienced by Kornelyuk’s father. “Everything is different” in Switzerland, she said – the language, the people. She spoke no French and only very basic English. She missed her family in Ukraine. To feel closer to her relatives, she engaged with the Ukrainian diaspora in Switzerland, but this failed to help. She “thought about Ukraine every day” and wanted only one thing: to return home.

Anna Lysenko, the president of Free UkraineExternal link, an organisation that helps Ukrainian refugees settle in Switzerland, sees repeated difficulties as the refugees try to integrate. Finding stable housing is challenging. The language barrier can be extremely frustrating, whether navigating bureaucracy or looking for work. Switzerland’s high cost of living has a real impact. And these issues are easily exacerbated by a fragile emotional state.

“The war creates stress and despair, sometimes guilt at having fled, and sometimes trauma,” Lysenko said.

Returning to Ukraine: breathing again

“I knew I was safe in Switzerland, but thinking about my relatives in Ukraine was unbearable,” Dubyna explained. She admitted that she was scared to return home but added: “My happiness at being in Ukraine and my family’s joy at seeing me again overwhelmed me the moment I crossed the border.”

Kornelyuk helped her father give up his S permit and found him a seat in a minibus leaving for Ukraine at the beginning of June. “The moment I told him, he seemed to start breathing again,” she said. He shared the journey home with people returning from all over Switzerland. Kornelyuk’s mother has chosen to stay in Vaud for the time being.

Although the mass exodus of people fleeing Ukraine continues, especially from the east and south of the country, where battles are raging, French newspaper Le MondeExternal link reports that refugees are increasingly returning to Ukraine. According to UNHCR, there were almost four million border crossings into UkraineExternal link between late February and late July. The number of entries into Ukraine was negligible at the beginning of the conflict but has increased by 40% since mid-June.

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“The huge wave of refugees between March and April was caused in part by fears about what might happen,” explained Lysenko. Since then, she said, some people have decided to return home because they don’t feel it is as dangerous anymore. But she also noted that “the level of risk tolerance is much higher today”.

Lysenko emphasised that returning refugees remain in the minority and tend to be those who feel they have nothing to lose. “Women with young children are not returning,” she said, and going home is simply impossible for many people “because they don’t have anywhere to return to”.

Dubyna said a number of others have, as she has, returned to Chernihiv. “Of course the region is currently safer than it was under Russian occupation,” she said. “But I think most people are simply returning because this is where they belong.”

She added that she had developed a fatalistic outlook: “In the end, everyone has their own destiny.”

Switzerland expects most Ukrainian refugees to return home

In an interview in mid-July, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter reminded that the S status, activated for the first time with the war in Ukraine, is not intended to keep people in Switzerland permanently. She said she had instructed the State Secretariat for Migration (...) to clarify with the cantons all questions (...) relating to a possible return "The S status was initially activated for one year, until March 2023. It can certainly be extended, but it is not enough to wait until the end of the year to think about how to organise a possible exit," she explained.

For Karin Keller-Sutter, it is clear that most refugees from Ukraine will leave as soon as the situation allows. However, she recalled that the situation remains "very volatile and unpredictable, which is why the Confederation is working with different scenarios".

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Translated from French by Katherine Bidwell/edited by Virginie Mangin

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Swiss tighten rules on social assistance for Ukrainian refugees

As of August 11, some 60,000 people from Ukraine have come to Switzerland and received status protection S. © Keystone / Michael Buholzer

Authorities have announced that they will consider the financial situation of Ukrainian refugees with Status S when evaluating requests for social assistance. This brings requirements in line with those for other temporarily admitted persons in Switzerland.

This content was published on August 12, 2022 - 10:11
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Some 60,000 people from Ukraine have arrived in Switzerland and received S protection status, which allows them to receive social assistance as well as work in the country. Up to now, the decision of whether to provide such benefits hasn’t considered the person’s income or assets. This contrasts to how temporarily admitted people from other countries have been treated.

“We noticed that there was a certain amount of public criticism of the different treatment of those temporarily admitted and those in need of protection,” Gaby Szöllösy, secretary general of the cantonal conference of social directors, told Swiss public television SRF.External link

On Thursday, cantonal authorities responsible for social benefits agreed to tighten rules so that income and assets are considered regardless of whether they are obtained in Ukraine or in Switzerland.

This means that if people with status S withdraw funds from bank accounts or obtain other assets in Ukraine, these are to be considered in the assessment of income. The only exception is a car as this is needed to return home, says Szöllösy. New recommendations on how to deal with vehicles and other assets such as jewelry are expected to be available in late autumn.

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Russia rejects protecting power mandate agreed by Switzerland and Ukraine

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis (right) with Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in May © Keystone/Laurent Gillieron

Bern and Kyiv on Wednesday concluded negotiations on a mandate for Switzerland to represent Ukrainian interests in Russia. However, on Thursday Moscow said this was not possible since Switzerland was no longer neutral.

This content was published on August 11, 2022 - 12:28
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The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed on Wednesday a report by the Luzerner Zeitung which said the outline of a protecting power mandate had been worked out.

While the details of the agreement are secret, the primary objective would be to ensure that Ukrainians living in Russia could benefit from consular services provided by the Swiss Embassy in Moscow, according to Swiss public radio, RTSExternal link.

Such a mandate, which has been mooted since the Russian invasion in February, would fit into the Swiss tradition – as a neutral country – of acting as diplomatic go-between when states partially or fully break off relations.

However, in order for it to enter into force, Russia would first have to agree, the foreign ministry said.

On Thursday Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Ivan Nechayev appeared to bury any chance of this happening.

“The Swiss were indeed interested in our opinion on the possible representation of Ukraine’s interests in Russia and Russia’s in Ukraine,” Nechayev said. “We very clearly answered that Switzerland had unfortunately lost its status of a neutral state and could not act either as an intermediary or a representative. Bern has joined illegal Western sanctions against Russia.”

‘Unfriendly’

After Switzerland decided in February to follow European Union sanctions on Russia, Russia added Switzerland to a list of “unfriendly” nations. It reckons the Alpine nation “damaged its neutrality” in applying the measures, RTS writes.

The Ukrainian side has however for some time been in favour of the Swiss acting as letter-carrier, a role which Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis offered shortly after the start of the conflict.

Switzerland currently carries out several similar mandates: sometimes representing one party to a dispute (such as US interests in Iran) or sometimes both (such as between Russia and Georgia). Until 2015 it represented the interests of the US in Cuba and vice versa.

However, it doesn’t always work out: in the case of the dispute between Venezuela and the US, Washington agreed to a Swiss mandate in 2019, but Caracas never approved it.

Further aid

The Swiss foreign ministry also said on WednesdayExternal link that a further 100 tonnes of aid had been transported to Ukraine. The material including firefighting equipment, medical equipment, medicine, and water treatment units left in convoy from Switzerland over the past week, bound for Kyiv and Lviv. Since the war started, Switzerland has transported over 600 tonnes of relief supplies from Switzerland to Ukraine and purchased more than 4,750 tonnes of food aid within Ukraine for donation, the foreign ministry said.

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Swiss and Estonian talks focus on Russian aggression

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at the townhall in Bellinzona on Saturday © Ti-press

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas have met in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, where topics of discussion included the war in Ukraine and the use of new technologies in foreign policy.

This content was published on August 6, 2022 - 16:42
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Cassis and Kallas paid tribute on Saturday to their countries’ good bilateral relations and emphasised their intention to further expand and intensify ties in future.  

The war in Ukraine was a core topic, the foreign ministry said in a statementExternal link. Both countries strongly condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.

“Switzerland condemns all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. War crimes and crimes against humanity must be investigated and prosecuted by independent actors – regardless of who committed them,” said Cassis, who also holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year.

The two politicians also discussed digitalisation-related cooperation. Estonia is a pioneer in digitalisation in particular, having digitalised 99% of its public services.

Switzerland’s European policy was another topic on the table. Within the framework of the second Swiss contribution to selected EU member states, CHF26 million ($27 million) is earmarked for Estonia. This provides an opportunity for Estonia and Switzerland to work together in the areas of integration and biodiversity, the foreign ministry said.

“Switzerland’s second contribution to selected EU member states demonstrates the country’s commitment to actively promote stability, security and prosperity in Europe,” it said.

Kallas’s visit to Switzerland comes a year after Cassis visited Tallinn on his Baltic tour celebrating the two-fold anniversary with the Baltic states: the centenary of the recognition of their independence and the 30 years since the resumption of diplomatic relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Almost 10% of eligible Ukrainian refugees in Switzerland have a job

© Keystone / Ti-press / Gabriele Putzu

A total of 9.4% of adults in possession of a special “S” permit are in work, with most employed in the restaurant sector.

This content was published on August 4, 2022 - 15:29
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Overall, 3,130 Ukrainian refugees have found employment thanks to the special S protection status that allows them to live and work in Switzerland for a year. Nearly a quarter of them (23%) are active in the restaurant industry, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) said on Thursday. In addition, 17% work in the “planning, consulting, IT” sector. Agriculture and education each account for 8% of those with the S status.

A total of 33,379 beneficiaries of this protection status were of working age in the week of August 1, according to the SEM. The share of working refugees is therefore 9.4%. However, the number of work permits issued is actually higher, as they are only registered with a delay, says the SEM.

According to the latest figures published Thursday on Twitter by the State Secretariat, 61,424 Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Switzerland since the beginning of the war; 59,411 of them have obtained the S permit.

The protection status “S” was created following the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s but it was never used until now. It allows refugees to live and work in Switzerland for a year with an option to extend if necessary.  

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Ex-prosecutor general proposed as Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland

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The recently dismissed Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova has been proposed as her country’s new ambassador to Bern. 

This content was published on August 4, 2022 - 12:30
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“Yes, I signed the application for Ms. Venediktova’s appointment as our Ambassador to Switzerland,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in an interview with the state news agency UkrinformExternal link on Wednesday.

Kuleba added that Venediktova has the competencies for the role and that her work with international partners in recent months showed that she can prove herself on the international track.

High profile dismissal

At the request of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian parliament had dismissed Venediktova from her post as prosecutor general in mid-July. The head of the internal intelligence service, Ivan Bakanov, was also relieved of his duties.

Zelensky accused both of them of insufficient action against Russian spies and collaborators. Ukrainian authorities are investigating more than 650 cases of potential treason by local officials, he said. 

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It is not yet clear when Venediktova is to take up her post in Bern. Her appointment still needs to be formally approved by Zelensky. 

It is also unclear what will happen to the current Ukrainian ambassador extraordinary to Switzerland Artem Rybchenko. The Ukrainian embassy has not commented on the matter.

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Switzerland takes over EU sanctions on Russian gold

Switzerland’s five refineries process 70% of the raw gold mined in the world each year. Keystone / Martin Ruetschi

Switzerland, a major global hub for gold, has followed the EU in banning imports of Russian gold as part of new sanctions due to the war in Ukraine.

This content was published on August 3, 2022 - 16:16
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“The new measures primarily concern a ban on buying, importing or transporting gold and gold products from Russia. Services in connection with these goods are also prohibited,” the economics ministry wroteExternal link on Wednesday.

The measures come into force from 6pm today, August 3.

The decision is in line with the ban on Russian gold made by the European Union (EU) on July 21, the ministry said, and implements “the most urgent measures in terms of time and substance” taken by Brussels. Until now, only exports of gold from Switzerland to Russia had been banned.

The potential impact of the new sanctions on Swiss refineries is unclear: following the invasion of Ukraine in February, imports from Russia have been largely avoided for ethical reasons. Moreover, since March 7, trade of bullion produced by Russian refineries has not been possible in Switzerland, due to a decision by the leading London Bullion Market Association (LBMA).

Reacting to the decision on Thursday, the Swissaid NGO said it was a welcome step, but that more needed to be done to ensure that no Russian gold enters Switzerland via indirect channels – for example after having been further processed in a third country.

Switzerland’s five gold refineries process some 70% of the raw gold mined in the world each year. For Russia, meanwhile, the precious metal represents the country’s most valuable export after energy.

Sberbank freeze

The economics ministry also said on Wednesday that the largest Russian bank, Sberbank, has had its assets frozen and is now banned from providing funds, economic resources, or technical services. “New derogations are being introduced to ensure the orderly wind-down of transactions and the sale of Sberbank subsidiaries,” it said.

The ministry also said that with a view to tackling the global food and energy crisis, and to “avoid disruption to payment channels”, Switzerland has made two new exceptions to sanctions regarding transactions on agricultural products and oil supplies between Russia and third countries. Again this tallies with recent measures taken by the EU.

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What it takes to deliver aid in war-torn Ukraine

To get relief supplies into Ukraine and distributed to communities in need, Switzerland relied on a number of locally-based partners with which it had already nurtured relationships. © Keystone / Michael Buholzer

Among the international donors trying to assist civilians caught up in the war in Ukraine, Switzerland managed to roll out aid relatively fast. What does it take to be an effective responder when armed conflict suddenly breaks out?

This content was published on August 2, 2022 - 09:00

Not long after Russia’s invasion began, many hospitals and medical centres in Ukraine were running out of essentials such as beds, medicines and disinfectants. The Swiss Army Pharmacy had plenty of these items – more than 100 tonnes, in fact – ready to be delivered. The question was how to distribute them in a country where access was severely limited by fighting and shelling, and by the closure of air space.

With the embassy in Kyiv shuttered, diplomats evacuated and expatriate staff unable to enter the country because of security risks, Switzerland decided to call Caritas in Ukraine, a non-governmental organisation it had worked with in the past. The NGO could provide what the embassy could not – transport and logistics – to get supplies to various oblasts (states) and hospitals.

“The close cooperation with local partners was crucial for us to be able to react quickly and on a needs basis,” says Amanda Ammann, a policy advisor at the Swiss embassy in Kyiv, which re-opened in May. Also on the list of items Switzerland hoped to donate were fully-equipped tents, hygiene products and basic foodstuffs like sugar and flour.

As a donor country, Switzerland contributes to funding for various aid organisations but also implements its own humanitarian programmes. In Ukraine, as many international aid groups struggled to set up or scale up in the first weeks and months of the invasion, the Alpine state managed to provide emergency aid to civilians. Much of it came down to harnessing the advantages of being a decades-long development actor in the country.

The nexus approach

Swiss engagement in Ukraine dates back to the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and intensified after the Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014 that overthrew the country’s pro-Russian leader and ushered in a new era of reforms. Until the war began, Switzerland was overseeing development projects ranging fromExternal link supporting small entreprises in the agricultural sector to promoting sustainable cities.

Instead of casting these to the side, the Swiss decided to base their humanitarian response on their existing development programme as soon as war began.

The Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (SDC), the development arm of the foreign ministry, began either scaling up or adjusting a handful of projects to cater for war-related needs. At the train station in the western city of Lviv, for example, newly-arrived internally displaced persons (IDPs) can get support around the clock from the same volunteers and psychologists who were implementing a Swiss project initially designed to support reforms in the mental healthcare system.

The foreign ministry is in the process of institutionalising this way of working – called the double-nexus approach. This autumn it plans to merge its humanitarian aid and development arms to improve synergies between staff.

“The reality is that these spheres overlap more and more, especially in volatile situations,” says Fritz Brugger, co-director of the Center for Development and Cooperation (NADEL) at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. “We do not live in a linear world.”

In recent years, a number of humanitarian actors, including UN agencies, have vowed to implement this concept (sometimes also referred to as a triple-nexus to include peacebuilding) and work in a more integrated manner. But putting it into practice can be difficult, Brugger cautions. Institutional silos can persist despite a reorganisation, including with budgeting (funding for the two branches at the foreign ministry will remain separate even after their fusion) and accountability. There is also a risk that humanitarians could lose their neutrality if they are closely associated with development actors.

But the Swiss believe their work in Ukraine shows it can be done. Integrating the humanitarian team, which is currently based in Lviv, into the development team at the embassy in Kyiv creates greater efficiency and strengthens Switzerland’s overall response to the conflict, Ammann insists.

Harnessing the local network

In fact, she adds, the contacts and relationships nurtured over years of doing development work with local NGOs and civil society, authorities and businesses now form the backbone of the humanitarian response.

Among its earliest interventions when the war began, the embassy relied on a large Ukrainian agri-industrial company, Astarta, to procure essential foodstuffs inside the country for delivery to cities affected by the fighting. In addition to Caritas, the Swiss called on other local partners for transporting relief supplies, including the state-owned Ukrainian Railways for larger shipments.

Switzerland’s humanitarian response in Ukraine

To date Switzerland has released CHF34.9 million ($36 million) for its humanitarian aid package for Ukraine. The nearly 5,000 tonnes of foodstuffs it procured in Ukraine were delivered to several areas, including Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro. The 140 tonnes of medical supplies were delivered among other places to Ternopil, Lutsk, Rivne, Kyiv, Kivertsy, and Torchyn. The Alpine country has also given funds to neighbouring countries to support Ukrainian refugees.

The SDC has deployed over 70 humanitarian aid experts to Poland, Moldova and Ukraine, plus a handful of experts to the United Nations humanitarian coordination office (OCHA), other UN agencies and to Caritas.

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The choice of partners is no accident. Caritas in Ukraine, part of the international charitable group Caritas, has some 64 offices and 1,000 staff spread across the country. Other national chapters of Caritas and donors like Switzerland were able to rely on this infrastructure to provide emergency assistance.

“We began collaborating [with Caritas in Ukraine] right after war broke out,” says Lukas Voborsky, Ukraine crisis response director for Caritas Switzerland. “We had access to offices, accommodation and warehouses.”

Before the call about delivering medical supplies came, Caritas had already coordinated with the SHA to get other types of relief items from the Alpine country, such as winter-proof family tents, into Ukraine. This was in the early days of the war, Voborsky recalls. The first task was to get the supplies to border crossings in Poland. Then they had to pinpoint where in Ukraine these should be delivered, so Caritas got in touch with local authorities to assess needs.

A matter of preparedness

By contrast, many humanitarian groups that have re-entered the country or started from scratch since the Russian invasion began have faced a steep “set-up curve”, as Voborsky calls it. With so many people on the move, recruitment on the ground has been difficult and caused delays in aid operations, the consulting firm Humanitarian Outcomes reportsExternal link. By mid-May, only around 20 international NGOs had aid programmes running in Ukraine, compared to hundreds that had set up shop in neighbouring countries to help with the influx of refugees.

Helping the local aid effort

As many international aid agencies faced delays setting up or scaling up in the first weeks of the war, nearly all humanitarian aid in Ukraine was organised by local responders, including volunteers, according to the consulting firm Humanitarian Outcomes. These local groups continue to deliver the majority of aid in the country.

“People are dropping everything they are doing to respond to this crisis,” says Kristina Preiksaityte, an international programme officer with the Geneva-based NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) who is investigating civilian protection needs in Ukraine.

International donors have been criticised for being concentrated in the west, while other parts of the country where fighting is heaviest remain underserved. Preiksaityte notes volunteers are the ones taking enormous risks to reach isolated or vulnerable groups in hard-to-reach areas around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city that has experienced intense bombardment. These volunteer collectives are running out of money and energy.

NP has discussed with the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (SDC) ways they could work together to strengthen these volunteer networks.

“There’s a lot of [donor] money and that influences the response itself,” says Preiksaityte. “We want to make sure it trickles down to the local responders.”

End of insertion

Lack of preparedness and contingency planning, which involves thinking about various possible eventualities and preparing for them, are also to blame, according to Humanitarian Outcomes.

“Being agile is only possible when you have an idea of what to do in different scenarios,” says Brugger of NADEL.

Caritas itself was ready to help the Swiss in part because it began preparing for a major escalation as the Russian military build-up gained steam in December 2021.

“That’s one of the reasons we have been effective from the beginning [of the invasion],” says Voborsky, speaking from Warsaw. 

The Swiss too did internal planning, developing scenarios and evaluating their potential impact, according to Ammann. Once war broke out, the SHA deployed its experts to Poland, Moldova and Ukraine.

With the help of local partners, in the end Switzerland was able to deliver 140 tonnes of medical supplies, 22 tonnes of family tents and close to 5,000 tonnes of foodstuffs in Ukraine.  

For all these early interventions, however, there is one part of the country that remains difficult for most donors to reach. According to the foreign ministry, before the war began, Switzerland was the only country that was providing humanitarian aid on both sides of the contact line in the east that separates Ukrainian government territory from areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Switzerland has suspended aid delivery to these non-government-controlled areas, says Ammann. Instead, it’s advocating for better access to civilians and supporting organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross that are actively trying to provide aid in this region.

As the war progresses, priorities are also shifting. Protecting civilians from rights violations, such as sexual and gender-based violence or human trafficking, and repairing damaged infrastructure are among the major mid-term challenges now facing responders.  

“Humanitarian needs are everywhere in the country,” says Ammann. “We try not to lose sight of that.”

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Watchdog extends protective measures at Sberbank Switzerland

These measures, intended to mitigate a risk of liquidity problems at Sberbank (Switzerland), will remain in force until September 1 © Keystone / Michael Buholzer

The Swiss financial regulator (FINMA) has extended previously imposed protective measures at the Zurich-based subsidiary of Russian bank Sberbank.

This content was published on August 2, 2022 - 10:03
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These measures, intended to mitigate a risk of liquidity problems at Sberbank (Switzerland), will remain in force until September 1, 2022, FINMA said in a statementExternal link on Tuesday. The investigating agent appointed by FINMA will continue to perform their duties.

Specifically, these are measures to protect creditors. They include a deferral of obligations from deposits as well as a far-reaching ban on disbursements and transactions.

The measures, which were imposed in MarchExternal link, had already been extended on June 1 and partially lifted for a short period in July so the bank could settle claims of non-sanctioned creditors. Repayments to sanctioned persons or to the parent company Sberbank of Russia in particular were excluded.

Sberbank (Switzerland) is an indirect subsidiary of Sberbank of Russia. It is not directly affiliated with the Sberbank Europe Group, which is affected by sanctions due to the war in Ukraine.

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Swiss fundraising effort creates tensions with Ukraine

Ukrainians receive humanitarian aid from the Worldwide Food Program (WFP) at a school building damaged by recent shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, July 15, 2022. Keystone / Sergey Kozlov

The humanitarian charity Swiss Solidarity raised CHF126 million ($132.4 million) to help Ukrainian refugees and support local journalists. But Ukrainian authorities say they have yet to receive anything and appear to be getting impatient. 

This content was published on July 31, 2022 - 14:17
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The foundation explains it works on a long-term basis and finances concrete projects with the help of Swiss and local NGOs. The Ukrainian ambassador aired his country's grievances over this matter in an interview with Swiss public broadcaster RTS. 

"We want Ukrainians who have fled to be able to return to their country as soon as possible, so that they can go to the hospital, to the pharmacy, to buy medicines in cities that are in ruins. And they can't wait two or five years, it must be now", said Artem Rybchenko.

Swiss Solidarity confirmed to RTS that it recently received a reproaching letter over the issue and says it is in contact with the ambassador. But the director of the foundation, Miren Bengoa, defends herself and assures that the organisation, through its partners, has already invested CHF15 million from the funds raised.

Dozens of projects underway

More than 629,000 people have already received the help and protection they need during the conflict, according to Swiss Solidarity. Thirteen of these projects are currently underway in Ukraine, 11 in neighboring countries such as Poland and Moldova, and ten more in Switzerland.

"These are projects of medical aid, distribution of direct funding for families," Bengoa said in a Saturday evening programme broadcast on RTS. "We will soon begin a reflection around improving living conditions, especially in anticipation of winter."

No support for war effort

Ukraine would like the donations collected to be invested in the reconstruction project "United2024" that President Volodymyr Zelensky presented at the Lugano conference earlier this month.

But this fund, to which the participants in the Ukraine Recovery Conference will contribute, fits into to the country's broader war effort. The fund rests on three pillars, the first of which is money earmarked for defence and demining. For Swiss Solidarity, it is out of the question to pay money into a fund that would finance military activities of any kind.

Since its creation in 1946, Swiss Solidarity has worked with private humanitarian organisations. In Senegal, for example, it works for the education of children alongside the Red Cross and the association Save the Children. These partnerships allow it to be practically and financially independent from local governments. That independence is especially important in a conflict zone.

"We are an independent charitable organisation, a public service foundation," stressed Bengoa. "We do not have the means to work through a state body and we can guarantee the independence of this humanitarian assistance.

The charity says CHF111 million remain available for Ukraine-related projects. Swiss Solidarity expects this funding will be used within the next five years.

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Europe energy woes raise concerns in Switzerland

in 2021, about 40% of gas consumed in the European Union came from Russia. EU states accuse Russia of squeezing supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Keystone / Jens Buettner

The energy crisis in Europe continues to make headlines in Switzerland. This was reflected in the Sunday press which focused on German pressure on Switzerland to implement a gas saving plan, a petition to speed up hydroelectric projects and a spike in Swiss demand for electric heaters in anticipation of a difficult winter.

This content was published on July 31, 2022 - 11:22
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European Union energy ministers from 27 member states have agreed on a voluntary 15$ reduction usage over the winter. That could become mandatory if Moscow orders a complete shutdown of Russian gas to Europe, a possibility with diplomatic relations frayed over the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.

Switzerland should also participate in the voluntary reduction of its gas consumption by 15% between August 2022 and March 2023, warns Germany’s ministry of economy and climate protection in a NZZ am Sonntag report. If Germany were to experience a critical situation, Swiss regions supplied by Germany  would also be affected. The St. Gallen Rheintal region and canton Graubunden source their gas exclusively and directly from Germany.

Assessing options

Swiss Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said Thursday that she was in favor of Swiss participation in the European gas saving plan. Her department told the NZZ am Sonntag that it was coordinating with the Federal Department of Economic Affairs to put in place voluntary measures corresponding to those of the EU.

In order to face the energy crisis, the Zurich section of the Radical-Liberal Party is launching a petition so that the projects for new hydroelectric facilities with government approval be implemented without delay, Le Matin Dimanche reported. Bern has identified 15 dam projects that could boost Switzerland's hydroelectric production by more than 5%. In the long term, these installations should produce two terawatt hours (TWh) of additional electricity.

"We ask that these fifteen projects be implemented immediately," says parliamentarian Philippe Nantermod the newspaper. According to him, the implementation must be done by a federal law, which can be passed within ten months and which will open the way to a possible referendum. "But we are not going to wait ten years and risk going back to candlelight or stopping the elevators," he says.

After several weeks of intense work to avoid a gas shortage in Switzerland, the government still does not know how much gas reserves suppliers may have built up abroad, according to the SonntagsBlick. "We do not have the desired data," the Energy Ministry  told the newspaper. According to Thomas Hegglin, spokesman for the Swiss Gas Industry Association (SVGW), gas suppliers have reached the target of building up gas reserves of between 75 and 100%. They are "on track to secure options for additional non-Russian gas deliveries by November", he added.

Panic buying

Meanwhile, the Swiss are rushing to buy electric heaters for fear of being cold next winter, the SonntagsZeitung reported. The online retailer Digitec Galaxus says demand has spiked, sales jumped by 370% in June compared to June 2021 and by 470% in July.

The use of all these heaters would have adverse consequences for the electricity supply, warns Michael Frank, head of the Association of Swiss Electrical Companies, in the newspaper. If emergency electric heaters replace gas heatersl he explains, ”electricity consumption will increase massively, while the situation is already tense.”

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Swiss sales of medicines to Russia jump during war

Swiss pharma sales to Russia hit an all time high in June this year. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Swiss exports of medicines to Russia have risen sharply since the start of the Ukraine war, according to an analysis by business news agency AWP.

This content was published on July 27, 2022 - 18:10
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This analysis, based on government foreign trade data, shows Swiss pharma generated record revenue of over CHF330 million ($342 million) in June alone from sales to Russia.

Russia has been subject to numerous sanctions owing to its war in Ukraine, which started on February 24. Switzerland has followed European Union sanctions, but medicines are excluded for humanitarian reasons.

Swiss pharma, with companies such as Roche and Novartis, has benefitted in particular. The sector earned more than CHF720 million from Russian sales from March to June 2022, according to the analysis. June was the most profitable month, with Russia spending more than two and a half times more than in the same month the previous year.

Thanks to the Swiss boom in medicine sales, total Swiss exports to Russia also reached a new record high in June 2022. In total, Switzerland sold goods to Russia worth around CHF430 million, more than at any time since 1992. Exports from the pharmaceutical sector accounted for over 80% of this total.

In contrast, exports of medicines to Ukraine have declined. In the first half of 2022, over 40% less medicines were exported to the war zone compared with the same period the previous year. Total export sales to the country, at around CHF91 million, were also 20% lower.

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Switzerland condemns Russia strike on Ukraine port

The southern Ukraine port of Odesa has been struck by several missiles since the start of the war. Keystone / Str

A Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian port of Odesa has been condemned by Switzerland as a “blatant disregard for the looming food insecurity worldwide”.

This content was published on July 23, 2022 - 19:01
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Explosions damaged the Black Sea port on July 23, just a day after Russia agreed a deal with Ukraine to allow the movement of blocked grain shipments.

Ukraine said Odesa had been struck by two missiles that had caused fires. The attack has drawn widespread condemnation from across the world, particularly for its timing.

On July 22, Kyiv and Moscow ended two months of negotiations to finally allow millions of tons of grain trapped in Ukraine to be exported.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has been blamed for reducing supplies of grains to many parts of the world, resulting in food shortages.

“Switzerland strongly calls on Russia to implement this important agreement now,” the Swiss foreign ministry tweeted on Saturday.

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Swiss Red Cross launches digital advice for Ukrainian refugees

Switzerland has welcomed more than 60,000 refugees from Ukraine and expects that number to double. © Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

The Swiss Red Cross has launched an online platform to help Ukrainian refugees navigate through the initial steps of arriving in Switzerland.

This content was published on July 23, 2022 - 11:15
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The helpful.redcross.chExternal link website gives information about finding accommodation, security, financial support and medical care. The platform will add details of work, education and life in Switzerland in a second phase.

The digital platform has been launched in Ukrainian, Russian, German, French and Italian languages and is accompanied by a Telegram chat group, moderated by volunteers, to field questions that are not answered by the website.

Users have the option of enabling a geo-tracking function to give them more detailed information on the specific regulations of each canton and municipality.

More than 60,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine currently live in Switzerland; more than half of them have been put up by citizens. The Swiss authorities estimate this number could double by the end of the year.

The Swiss Red Cross says its new platform is needed as online information is currently sometimes difficult to find and is not always available in the right language.

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Switzerland changes stance on treating injured Ukrainians

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Injured Ukrainian children will be able to receive medical care in Switzerland despite initial opposition on neutrality grounds.  

This content was published on July 21, 2022 - 10:00
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Swiss officials have expressed a willingness to allow 155 injured Ukrainian children into Switzerland for medical treatment. This represents a shift in policy. 

This week it was revealed that the foreign ministry had vetoed a NATO request to treat wounded Ukrainian civilians in Swiss hospitals over concerns that it would violate its obligations as a neutral state under international law. 

This veto aroused fierce criticism, not least because the cantons had been open to accommodating the wounded in their hospitals. Numerous prominent political figures had expressed their incomprehension on the matter.

No soldiers

According to Deputy State Secretary Johannes Matyassy, the initial refusal was because it would be up to Ukraine to decide who should be sent abroad for medical treatment. Switzerland would therefore not have been able to verify whether military personnel were involved. Now, however, the situation has changed.

The diplomatic representation in Kyiv sent a missive to the foreign ministry assuring it that no soldiers would be sent to Switzerland for medical treatment, Ukrainian Ambassador Artem Rybchenko told Swiss public television, SRF, on Thursday.

The Ukrainians recently made a specific request concerning 155 children. The Federal Office of Public Health will now make the final decision.

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What happens if the Black Sea blockade is lifted?

A deal allowing Ukraine to resume its grain exports is urgently needed. The harvest season starts in July, but storage facilities are still full of last winter’s grain. Meanwhile in Somalia, which used to import all its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of famine. Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

United Nations and Turkey-led negotiations with Moscow and Kyiv to allow Ukrainian grain exports to resume in the Black Sea are moving forward. But even if a deal is signed, its impact to alleviate the food crisis could take months.

This content was published on July 20, 2022 - 13:35

“In a world darkened by global crises, today, at last, we have a ray of hope,” declared United Nations secretary general António Guterres on July 13. The hope – to “alleviate hunger around the world” – stemmed from a round of negotiations between Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials to unblock food exports through the Black Sea.

The UN had been working for weeks behind the scenes to find a way to safely export the 22 million tons of grain trapped in Ukrainian silos and ports – enough to cover the annual consumption of the world’s least developed economies, according to The EconomistExternal link. Guterres said that a “broad agreement” had been reached on many “substantive aspects” of the operation but stressed that “more technical work” was needed for a formal agreement.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar was even more optimistic and said a deal could be signed this week. His comments were echoed on Monday by European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell who said that he too hoped an agreement would be found before Sunday.

The exact details of the deal remain unknown, but an agreement is likely to cover issues such as mines clearance, naval escorts, and cargoes inspections. The date when the four delegations will meet again is not yet known.

So far, Ankara has said it would ensure the safety of export routes while warring parties would jointly inspect shipments before they enter Ukrainian ports. A coordination centre with Russia, Ukraine, and the UN would be established in Turkey.

But experts caution that even if a deal was signed today, it would likely take weeks or months before countries hardest hit by the global food crisis feel the relief, while the deal itself could prove fragile.

Food crisis

Ukraine produces enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people and is a major exporter of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Before the war, most food exports used to leave Ukraine on ships out of Black Sea ports. But Ukrainian mines and Russian warships have closed sea export routes.

“Failure to open those ports in the Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine, destabilisation, and mass migration around the world,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley warnedExternal link the UN Security Council in May.

The Black Sea blockade is adding to a global food crisis fuelled by Covid-19 disruptions and climate change. Low supplies of Ukrainian grain and high food prices have been bad news for African and Middle Eastern countries that rely heavily on food imports from Ukraine. The Horn of Africa, which faces its fourth consecutive failed rainy season, has been hit particularly hard. UN agencies have warned that in Somalia, which used to import all its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of famine.

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A deal allowing Ukraine to resume its grain exports is urgently needed. The harvest season starts in July, but storage facilities are still full of last winter’s grain. There are fears that this grain may now rot away. On top of that, if farmers cannot sell their cropsExternal link, they may not be able to afford to plant or harvest in the future. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s agriculture minister speaking to the Financial TimesExternal link, warned farmers will plant two-thirds less this year unless a deal is agreed. Such a reduction would threaten future global food output, as Ukrainian wheat accounts for 10%External link of all exports. Food security experts fear thatExternal link a failed harvest in Ukraine next year could turn the current food prices crisis into a food availability crisis in lower-income countries.

The heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank Group (WBG), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a joint statementExternal link last week calling for urgent action now but also longer-term reforms to tackle the global food crisis. Recommendations include boosting food production across the world and investing in climate-resilient agriculture.

A deal, then what?

But reaching a deal this week would not mean that grain exports would resume immediately. The shipping industry must reorganise itself and the Black Sea needs to be de-mined.

“The ships that sail the seas are not all at the entrance to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles waiting for Ukraine to open,” says Florence Schurch, secretary general of the Swiss Trading and Shipping Association (STSA). “They continue to work, the trading companies continue to send their ships left and right. International trade continues.”

Schurch says that even if an agreement was found as soon as this week, it would still take months for the shipping industry to reorganise, and for the first vessels to enter the Black Sea.

“On top of that, ports and shipping lanes need to be cleared of mines, traders need to be assured that their captains and crew are safe, and insurers need to agree to insure all these ships and their cargoes at non-prohibitive prices,” says Schurch.

According to Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group in New York, the UN has anticipated such issues by reaching out to “an unusually wide range of contacts” that include shipping insurers. Gowan also points out that Guterres has an “amazingly detailed grasp of issues like de-mining”.

Still, clearing mines to open up a safe corridor for ships to sail through could take time – from weeks to months, depending on how many de-mining ships are mobilised and the number of mines in the water, a naval expert told The New York TimesExternal link.

The UN plan

“I think Turkey wants the UN involved in this process, as it offers both political legitimacy and technical expertise to the discussions,” says Gowan. “Having the UN creates some additional transparency as the UN can act as a sort of neutral ‘umpire’ over the terms of any agreement,” he adds.

The lack of trust between Kiev and Moscow has so far been a major impediment to reaching a diplomatic agreement. Ukraine does not want to remove the mines it placed in ports without guarantees that Russia will not attack them, while Russia has asked to inspect the cargoes of ships entering Ukrainian ports to ensure they do not carry weaponry.

Moscow also asked for sanctions on Russia to be lifted if a deal was found, which Western countries oppose. The UN and Turkey-led deal could include measures to support Russian fertiliser and grain exports. Russian grain is not under sanctions, but many traders and banks have stayed away from dealing with Russia out of fears they may be exposing themselves to fines.

Schurch confirms that grain traders have stopped working with Russia. According to her, the European Union sanctions, which Switzerland adopted, are too vague. She calls on Brussels and Bern to clarify their position so that traders can work without risk.

According to Gowan, if an agreement is reached, the deal could still be questioned in the future. He points to the UN cross-border mechanism that allows humanitarian convoys to enter rebel-held parts of Syria from Turkey. Earlier this month, Russia threatened to put an end to the mechanism by vetoing a 12-month extension of its mandate before eventually agreeing to a 6-month extension, which will make planning aid deliveries more difficult.

“I am sure that even if a Black Sea grain export mechanism is created, Russia will frequently question how it is managed and threaten to cut it off. The Russians know how to play games with humanitarian aid,” says Gowan.

If all fails

If the current negotiation process fails, Gowan suspects that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France will raise the issue at the UN Security Council, where the three countries sit as permanent members together with Russia and China.

He says the three countries could table a resolution demanding that Russia allows grain exports to resume out of Black Sea ports, which Moscow would most likely veto. Russia would then need – under a resolution adopted last spring that aims to increase accountability for permanent members using their right of veto – to explain its decision in front of the General Assembly in which, unlike the Security Council and its 15 members, every member state has a seat.

“Western diplomats will want to make the Russians explain to African and Arab countries why Moscow is cutting off their food,” says Gowan.

Data visualisation by Pauline Turuban.

Edited by Virginie Mangin and Imogen Foulkes.