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The Swiss role

For a Swiss-watcher, recent events in Georgia have created an unexpected flurry of excitement.  Moscow’s 18 year wait to join the World Trade Organization inched a step closer with the announcement of a Swiss mediated deal between Russia and Georgia. The latter, a member of the WTO, had all but blocked Russian entry into the organization, ostensibly over the issue of border customs controls for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who’s attempted succession from Georgia sparked the five-day Russo-Georgian war three years ago.

The Swiss-brokered deal will see a neutral company monitor trade over a border which Georgians claim to be theirs, but which hasn’t seen Georgian customs officials since they were evicted by Russian forces in August 2008.

Many small states present themselves as international mediators. Berne’s initiative in Georgia, though, is interesting in two respects. First, despite lacking the resources usually associated with ‘power’ mediators, such as the United States, Berne has expanded the disputants’ options by offering additional resources to resolve the crisis; in this case a neutral monitoring company. Second, it would appear that Berne’s intervention originated from its position as Russia and Georgia’s ‘protecting power’, a role it assumed immediately after the 2008 war when ‘special interests’ sections were opened in Swiss embassies in Tbilisi and Moscow to deal with Russian and Georgian interests respectively.

Berne has made something of a feature of this kind of activity: it currently ‘protects’ US interests in Havana and Tehran, and held dozens of mandates during the 1st and 2nd world wars. Indeed, alone amongst protecting powers in the modern era, Switzerland has held numerous ‘double-mandates’: i.e., as in the Russian-Georgian case, it has represented both sides of the conflict simultaneously.

I suggested in a recent article that scholars have exaggerated the benefits Switzerland accrued from its ‘double mandates’ during the 2nd world war. Instead, I developed an argument first explored in my study of Anglo-German relations, Barbed Wire Diplomacyand argued that the belligerents did not, ultimately, place much store in Swiss mediation, notwithstanding Berne’s obvious success in protecting western prisoners in German hands. Neither London, nor Berlin were willing to cut Berne much slack, and did so only when all else had failed. Washington has taken an equally restrictive attitude towards Switzerland’s remit in Cuba (since 1961) and Iran (since 1979), and has preferred to parley with its opponents through other channels.

Clearly the Russian and Georgian authorities view the situation rather differently. From the outset of the recent negotiations, the Swiss have played a very pertinent, and prominent, role. It was the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, who shuttled between the Russian and Georgian capitals to clinch the deal. Moreover, it was Berne’s ambassadors in Moscow and Tibilisi, Walter Giger and Gunther Bechler, who appear to have first set the train in motion when they held meetings with the Georgian foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze, in early July.

As with any high-profile mediation, Switzerland risked diplomatic humiliation, if either side had chosen to walk away from the table. At the same time, Georgia and Russia had much to lose. Had they pulled the rug from under the deal, Berne might not only have been less disposed to offer its support in the future, but more importantly, its ability to fulfil its mandate, and represent the interests of each in the territory of the other, might have been irrevocably compromised. Russia’s willingness to go through Swiss channels might, then, have been a signal of its determination to sign a deal and to commit to a negotiated settlement even before Calmy-Rey’s heels left Swiss soil.

Neville Wylie

Published inEuropean PoliticsInternational PoliticsInternational RelationsRussiaSwitzerland

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