On 18 and 19 February 2018, the President of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, visited his Swiss counterparts in the National Council and Council of States with a delegation of high-ranking representatives of the Duma and regional representatives.
The President of the Swiss National Council, Dominique de Buman, welcomed the delegation at the Federal Palace. The President of the National Council was accompanied by Marina Carobbio-Guscetti, First Vice-President of the National Council, Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter, President of the Foreign Affairs Committees (FAC) of the National Council, Filippo Lombardi, President of the Foreign Affairs Committees (FAC) of the Council of States and President of the Delegation to the Council of Europe, and National Councillor Margret Kiener-Nellen, President of the OSCE Delegation. In May 2017, the then President of the National Council, Jürg Stahl, had already travelled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for one week with a delegation of Swiss National Council representatives from all political parties (see Current Concerns No 12 from 30 May 2017 [https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/editions/2017/no-12-29-mai-2017/dialogue-au-lieu-de-confrontation-la-suisse-donne-lexample.html]). It was the first visit to Russia by federal officials since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in spring 2014.
The return visit is a continuation of Switzerland’s independent path as a neutral state. The Chairperson of the Russian Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, was already on a visit to Berne in October 2016 (see Current Concerns No 25 from 14 November 2016 [https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/numbers/2016/no-25-14-november-2016/official-visit-from-russia-in-switzerland.html]).
Also with this visit from Russia it was said to be abused for PR purposes. By contrast, Swiss government officials made clear that it was important to advance the stagnant dialogue on the Ukrainian conflict. Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the Russian State Duma, is under both US and EU sanctions. He is barred from travelling to any EU country and his assets in the EU countries have been frozen. From 2011 to 2016, he was Putin’s first deputy chief of staff.
Filippo Lombardi, President of the Switzerland-Russia interparliamentary group, however, said that Switzerland has its traditional “neutral role”. “We have managed to reduce the factors of conflict and bring down the fighting,” he said, according to the Russian news agency TASS. “I think that is the role Switzerland should play, and the Swiss parliament should do the same at its own level.”
The president of the National Council, Dominique de Buman, stressed the independence of Swiss economic policy, which does not simply follow the application of the EU sanctions against Russia. According to Volodin, the economic sanctions should not have had a negative impact on Switzerland, on the contrary: in the past twelve months alone, the Swiss-Russian trade volume has grown by 20 per cent (sda from 19 February 2018).
Volodin lauded Switzerland’s more flexible attitude compared to the EU. In an interview with the Swiss TV RTS he added: “The time for such sanctions will soon be over […]. Sanctions are a dead-end strategy, one that we do not support, and I don’t think Switzerland supports either.” Volodin strongly criticised the EU sanctions and the anti-Russia campaign by the US.
With regard to the Ukrainian crisis, Dominique de Buman stressed that Switzerland did not want to interfere, but offered its good offices to mediate. Opening and peace is the maxim of his country.
On Monday, according to TASS, National Councillor Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter said: “I believe everything must be done to see them [Russia’s powers in PACE] reinstated.” As a member of the Parliamentary Assembly, she was always against having Russia stripped of its powers. She reiterated that under Swiss tradition everyone must have a possibility to have their say. “From the very start, the idea of the Council of Europe was in having all parties at the table, with none of the parties excluded.” Dominique de Buman had already assured that Switzerland will try to settle this problem within the framework of the Council of Europe. In April 2014, the Russian delegation was denied the right to vote and to take part in the activities of PACE’s governing bodies and election monitoring missions. The reason given was the Ukrainian crisis and Crimea. The Russian delegation in response had decided not to attend PACE sessions on these provisions.
Switzerland will send two Swiss parliamentarians as observers in the Russian presidential election on 18 March, as de Buman and Volodin announced before the media.
At the end of the visit, Duma chairman Volodin made a courtesy visit to Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. •
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