Surrounded by the great powers of the 20th Century, Switzerland, a very small country in the middle of Europe, obtained international recognition of its neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Faced with the risk of military intervention by states that had reverted to the ancien régime and were sympathetic to the looming secession of the conservative Swiss Sonderbund, the Swiss Tagsatzung (Federal Diet of Switzerland) ended this secession in 1847/48 with a brief but decisive armed operation. This took place under scrupulous observance of maximum damage limitation on the strict orders of the Confederate commander-in-chief, General Dufour, who had declared: “We will have to live on agreeably with the defeated.” Subsequently, within ten months, the victors created their direct democracy, unique in Europe, with a subtly balanced distribution of power (with built-in protection for minorities), the unity of the country while preserving its diversity, comprehensive decision-making powers for its citizens1, and fundamental equality for its four linguistic and cultural communities as its cornerstones. For 174 years, this has guaranteed us civil peace at home and peace with our neighbours abroad.
My country has made four fundamental decisions in terms of civilisation: Neutrality, peacefulness as the basis of its foreign policy, independence and conflict resolution through negotiations. I am against letting these proven principles be taken away from us by means of one-sided warmongering media campaigns. Public debate is essential for democracy, but it has its conditions: general respect for the free expression of opinions, recognition of the diversity of these opinions as well as of their sources, recognition of the weight of facts and adherence to the rules of a civilised style of debate. Ernst Bollinger, a specialist in the Swiss press, was already concerned about its negative development in the 1970s.2 He noted that since the end of 1950, no fewer than 350 opinion periodicals of the post-war years had already ceased to exist. These had covered a very broad political spectrum and thus enabled voters to form a solidly supported opinion.
As far as the events in Ukraine are concerned, for eight years now our media have mainly been disseminating, almost in unison, the information originating from the relevant NATO services. These demonise a Russia characterised by a degrading and caricature-like image of its president.
The weight of history
To understand what is happening in Ukraine, one has to go back to the post-Cold War period when the USSR was liquidated and both sides committed themselves to creating a more peaceful world.
On 31 July 1991, Presidents Gorbachev and Bush senior signed the START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement in which both countries pledged to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenal and respect the post-war status quo. Immediately after the conclusion of this agreement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States met and took note of its results: Russia’s decision to guarantee the former satellite states of the USSR their independence as well as its demand to guarantee, as a pledge of peace, that NATO would renounce any expansion towards the proximity of Russia’s borders.
In an interview with Sud-Radio on 1 March 2022, the then Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, representing France, recalled the modalities of the meeting. He also confirmed that it had been Ukraine that had taken steps to join the European Union (EU) with its military ties to NATO. It can be assumed that it did not take such a step of its own accord.
A spurious strategy
Objectively speaking, Ukraine, Russia and Europe could but have benefited from a good understanding guaranteeing peace and prosperity from West to East in Northern Europe. This is all the more true since the West is largely dependent on Russia for its gas and oil supplies. So, who had an interest in severing the chains linking the East to the West of Europe?
Barely in office, elected president with an uncertain and controversial majority, Joe Biden let himself be carried away into calling Putin a “killer”. This blatant breach of the tacit peace between the two great powers was made in view of geopolitical considerations based on the opposition to opening up Europe to the East. This included opposition to European access to a huge market and its resources reinforced by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as well as to the planning of the 4000 km Druzhba oil pipeline (Druzhba means friendship!), which was to connect Germany directly with Russia all the way to Siberia. The US government had tried everything to stop Chancellor Merkel from getting involved – without success.
Which Europe are we talking about?
Implementing the lessons of the Second World War, de Gaulle had envisaged a Europe of nations from the Atlantic to the Urals, its natural dimension, which included two great powers which had overcome Nazism, Great Britain and Russia. It was a matter of merging what united them while retaining national prerogatives, as symbolised by the United States with its 50 stars in its banner, and also Switzerland with its cantons and communes. He had no sympathy for communism, but as a visionary, he relied on a peacetime dynamic that would lead to shared prosperity, which was essential for the establishment of democracy.
It is indeed a strange picture, a European Union that allowed Russia to be amputated off it, out of loyalty to the USA, which was making every effort to exclude Russia, and under pressure from Great Britain, which has since left this Union. De Gaulle described this Union as a “contraption”. In a stroke of genius, Jacques Delors said about it in 1985, “No one can fall in love with a large market.” Its peoples have never identified with the EU: In May and June 2005, the citizens of France and the Netherlands were called upon to decide in a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which would lay down the EU’s guidelines; this was clearly rejected by 54.7 % and 61.6 % nays respectively. The European Commission then decided that it would prefer in future to do without the verdict of the peoples in whose name it acts.
A tree is judged by its fruit, a policy by its consequences
Judging by its consequences, the war in Ukraine is a real disaster for the majority of Europeans, who have already been buffeted by the pandemic crisis and are now facing an explosion in commodity prices. Europe desperately needed peace to be able to use all its resources for the recovery that is indispensable for economic and political requirements, as well as for the gradual reunification of their divided populations. But on the contrary, the heads of state and government played the brave heroes and wasted 450 million euros to supply Ukraine with “lethal weapons” (sic). In plain language: they opted for war instead of recovery.
NATO had been built up and equipped with nuclear weapons against the USSR, which dissolved on 25 December 1991. Since NATO could not be abolished (although this would certainly have been consistent and even according to its own logic!), it was agreed, in an effort to calm the situation, not to extend its sphere of action to Russia’s borders. That was a perfectly reasonable and respectable compromise. It is therefore difficult to understand the EU leaders’ strategy, which contradicts this consensus and at least lacks insight. By blindly following Uncle Sam, they fail to see that Europe is being targeted to the same extent as Russia.
Contrary to the beliefs of uninformed ideologues, those political scientists, anthropologists and other specialists who have studied Russian reality agree that Vladimir Putin has not only restored the economy ruined under Yeltsin, but has also gone extremely far in banking on peace with Europe and the USA. In contrast to the divided Europe, Russia, due to the size of its territory and rich mineral resources, has resources that give it a relative self-sufficiency; and it is doubtful whether the sanctions can bring Russia to its knees. Instead, they have strengthened the hitherto minority Slavophile far right, which seeks to reclaim lost territories and is ready to take on the EU, forcing the Russian government to reorient its strategy and forge other alliances.
Our relationship with Europe
Switzerland maintains multifaceted relations with all European countries, from the Atlantic to the Urals.3 So far, however, no direct dispute between Russia and Switzerland has come to light that would justify sanctions, especially since our country has an economic interest in maintaining good relations with Russia. The same cannot be said of the European Union, which has allowed itself unacceptable interference in our domestic politics, combined with sanctions that penalise our scientific exchanges in the name of its notion of freedom of movement. In this area, Switzerland is more cautious than some of its neighbours and, through a series of referendums, has arrived at a balanced immigration policy that takes into account its capacity to accept foreigners under good conditions.4 Similarly, we have not sought to join the EU, in order to preserve our democratic prerogatives, and yet Switzerland has remained one partner among many. For all these reasons and more, it did not make sense for Switzerland to adopt the EU sanctions.
For world peace and recovery in Switzerland
A democratic country cannot be guided by a fervour based on emotional outbursts and demonisation, but only by rational arguments allowing for exchanges, with respect for the mandates of the people and our elected representatives, our laws and our Constitution. The time necessary for making good decisions must be allowed for. Immediately, these must be geared towards two directions.
First, very broad sections of the population – workers, small traders, the unemployed, pensioners – have slipped into precarious economic circumstances or even poverty as a result of the pandemic crisis, as they are faced with rising prices for basic foodstuffs. They must be able to benefit from our federal solidarity. In this particular situation, our country must strengthen the bonds between its citizens by mobilising them on the basis of a comprehensive economic recovery plan.
On the other hand, thanks to its neutrality and active diplomacy, “little” Switzerland has managed to be recognised on all continents as a place of peace suitable for negotiations. As the founder of the Red Cross, it hosts the UN, the WHO and other prestigious institutions of global dimension, all of which also contribute to its prosperity. With regard to the war in Ukraine, Switzerland would have held all the aces well-matched to its particular situation.
In 2014–2015, the then Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter, as the OSCE chairperson, led the negotiations with the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia that resulted in the Minsk Agreement (Minsk I). A second agreement, Minsk II, was supposed to enter into force on 15 February 2015, but remained ineffective. Switzerland should have raised its voice the very next day to call on the warring parties to comply with the agreement. It was a major omission that it did not do so. And it is a major political mistake that it imposed unilateral sanctions seven years later.
Unless working towards a world war or towards the completely illusory annihilation of Russia, one could have assumed that, some day or the other, negotiations would take place. The fact that the first conference after the failure of Minsk I and II is taking place in Ankara and under the auspices of Erdogan is a strong signal which should jolt us awake. For this conference could and should have taken place in Geneva, the seat of the United Nations, in the heart of Europe. In the frenzy of their own fantasies, the EU leaders and adulators have not even realised that they have taken themselves out of the game, and probably for a long time. With a similar blindness, the Swiss Federal Council, by going along with their sanctions, sold out our pre-eminent position on the international stage for a lentil dish, with unforeseeable long-term consequences. Can this ever be made good?
Conclusion and outlook
The least our authorities can do is to immediately renounce any sanctions against whomever or whatever. This is the first step towards re-establishing a Swiss diplomacy that is open to all sides. Strengthened by such a re-pacification of our international relations, which is more in keeping with our country’s foreign policy vocation than “solidarity” with only one side, they might then employ themselves domestically by trying to alleviate the plight of those sections of the Swiss population which were hard hit by the pandemic crisis.
Solidarity with war victims is a noble sentiment. Very many people in Switzerland have taken part in actions to take in Ukrainian refugees, in the good faith that they are thus acting in the spirit of humanity. However, truly humanitarian measures can and must never be instrumentalised for party-political propaganda punishing one of the conflict parties, as this will after all also be called upon to participate in negotiations (if indeed these take place). Negotiations can only lead to peace, if all parties are involved. The political forces that persuade well-meaning people to commit to this kind of one-sided “international solidarity” must admit to themselves that they are thereby abusing these people’s belief to be working for a worthy cause. Sanctions maintain a state of tension instead of alleviating it, they do not contribute to peace but to making the prospects of peace even more distant. This increases the number of victims with each passing day. •
1 Between 1848 and 2021, a total of 654 bills were submitted to the Swiss electorate for a popular vote.
2 Ernst Bollinger (1934–2011), La presse suisse: structure et diversité, Herbert Lang, 1976 ; La Presse suisse: les faits et les opinions, Payot, 1986. Bollinger was a recognised specialist and head of the information service of the Canton of Geneva from 1987–1993.
3 As an admirer of Charles de Gaulle, Vladimir Putin extended his formula to a Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.
4 The large influx of refugees who could not be integrated was the cause of serious domestic unrest in France (see: Les territoires perdus de la République; Emmanel Brenner, éd., 2002 Mille et une nuits). This is also confirmed by the rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty by French and Dutch voters.
(Translation Current Concerns)
* Marco Polli, author, publicist and theatre practitioner, resident in Geneva, emeritus professor of German, French and philosophy at the renowned Geneva grammar schools Collège Voltaire and Collège Calvin, has dealt intensively with cultural, linguistic and political issues and published on them.
As part of his language policy activities, the author chaired the preparatory commission “Lebendige Sprachen” (Living Languages) of the Verein Schweizerischer Gymnasiallehrerinnen und Gymnasiallehrer (Association of Swiss Grammar School Teachers) and campaigned against the reformulation of the language article in the Swiss Federal Constitution, which privileged English as an introductory foreign language in primary school at the expense of the Swiss national languages.
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