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UKRAINE

‘A weapon of war’: Swiss politician calls for neutrality referendum

Swiss politician Christoph Blocher, known as the father of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, has called for a referendum to preserve Switzerland’s neutrality.

Voters line up to vote in a referendum in Switzerland
Will Switzerland hold a referendum on neutrality? Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Blocher said the vote was necessary after Switzerland decided to join the European Union’s sanctions efforts, which he said were “a weapon of war”, echoing the language of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Blocher also said that Switzerland had decided to go to war with Russia. 

While Blocher said he was currently examining whether or not to launch the referendum himself, it was crucial that Switzerland “takes care of (neutrality) now” to preserve it for the future. 

The SVP has been heavily critical of Switzerland’s sanction efforts, saying it is an erosion of the country’s long-held principle of neutrality. 

Switzerland’s President Ignazio Cassis and a range of independent commentators have disagreed however, with the former arguing that “playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral”. 

Blocher has been a hugely influential figure in Swiss politics through his work with the SVP, Switzerland’s largest party, which Reuters described as “the dominant force in Swiss politics”. 

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

In order to launch a referendum, Blocher, the SVP or any other interested party or citizen would need to collect 100,000 signatures. 

Is Switzerland no longer a neutral nation? 

International law professor Oliver Diggelmann, from the University of Zurich told The Local on Tuesday that although Switzerland’s announcement was significant, it did not represent an end to Swiss neutrality. 

“Switzerland remains a neutral country,” Diggelmann said. 

“(Neutral) states have a legal obligation, which comes from their status as permanent neutrals, to not participate militarily in an armed conflict between states and to not support a conflict party with arms.”

Diggelmann emphasised that being committed to neutrality did not mean a commitment to doing nothing. 

UPDATE: How Switzerland could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

“Yesterday, the Swiss government recognised that not fully sanctioning such a blatant violation economically would make (Switzerland) an indirect accomplice of the aggressor. It openly positioned itself against a great power, even though only economically, which also marks a cesura in the Swiss political culture.”

Swiss historian and former diplomat Paul Widmer agreed, telling Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes on Tuesday “the policy of neutrality means that Switzerland does not take sides in a conflict.” 

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POLITICS

‘Colossal’: World leaders meet in Switzerland for Ukraine recovery conference

Leaders from dozens of countries, international organisations and the private sector gathered in Switzerland Monday to hash out a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild war-ravaged Ukraine.

‘Colossal’: World leaders meet in Switzerland for Ukraine recovery conference

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will take part virtually, warned Sunday that the work ahead in the areas that have been liberated alone was “really colossal”.

“And we will have to free over 2,000 villages and towns in the east and south of Ukraine,” he said.

The two-day conference, held under tight security in the picturesque southern Swiss city of Lugano, had been planned well before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24.

It had originally been slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine, but once the Russian bombs began to fall it was repurposed to focus on reconstruction.

As billions of dollars in aid flows into Ukraine, however, lingering concerns about widespread corruption in the country mean far-reaching reforms remain in focus and will be a condition for any recovery plan decided here. 

‘Roadmap’

Lugano is not a pledging conference, but will instead attempt to lay out the principles and priorities for a rebuilding process aimed to begin even as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to rage.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland Artem Rybchenko said ahead of the conference that it would help create “the roadmap” to his country’s recovery.

Zelensky had initially been scheduled to come and co-host the event alongside his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis, but now he is due to give his address Monday afternoon via video link.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has however made a rare trip out of Ukraine since the war began to attend, and was met at the airport Sunday by Cassis and regional leaders.

Five other government ministers were also among the around 100 Ukrainians who made the long and perilous journey, although Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reportedly had to cancel at the last moment due to illness.

In all, around 1,000 people were scheduled to participate in the conference, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, several government chiefs and numerous ministers. 

‘Marshall Plan’

Questions have been raised about the value in discussing reconstruction when there is no end in sight to the war.

But Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the RTS broadcaster that while the reconstruction itself could only happen fully after the bombs have stopped, it is vital to give “a positive perspective to civilians who have lost their homes, and who are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty for the future”.

Others stress the need to begin laying the groundwork well in advance, as was done with the wildly successful Marshall Plan, a US initiative that pumped vast sums in foreign aid into Western Europe to help the continent rebuild and recover after World War II.

The task is daunting.

Rebuilding Ukraine, which four months into the war has already seen devastating destruction, is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The effort will require “colossal investments”, Zelensky acknowledged at the weekend.

Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) has estimated the damage done so far to buildings and infrastructure at nearly $104 billion.

It estimated that at least 45 million square metres of housing, 256 enterprises, 656 medical institutions, and 1,177 educational institutions had been damaged, destroyed or seized, while Ukraine’s economy had already suffered losses of up to $600 billion. 

Could last decades 

Simon Pidoux, the Swiss ambassador in charge of the conference, said that it was too early to try to estimate all the needs, insisting Lugano instead should provide “a compass” for the work ahead.

“I think the effort will last for years if not decades,” he said.

While not a donor conference, a number of participants are expected to make new pledges and propose frameworks for providing more funds.

The European Investment Bank will for instance propose the creation of a new Ukraine trust fund, which with investments from EU and non-EU states could eventually swell to 100 billion euros, according to sources familiar with the draft plans.

The proposal, which is due to be announced Monday afternoon, aims to create a platform able to generate investment towards reconstruction, and also towards Ukraine’s EU accession goals, they said.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is meanwhile due to set out her country’s vision for the rebuilding, according to a statement. In her comments to the conference Monday, she is expected to highlight the importance of Ukraine’s full recovery from “Russia’s war of aggression”. That, she will say, will be “a symbol of the power of democracy over autocracy.”

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