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Swiss embassy opens in Kosovo

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey opens the new Swiss embassy in Kosovo

(Keystone (Steffan Schmidt))

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey opened an embassy in Priština on Friday, a month after Bern recognised the independence of Kosovo.

"Only an independent Kosovo can develop economically and politically, and Switzerland is contributing to the stability of the region by helping the construction of this state," she said.

As a state, Kosovo could be a "true partner" with whom Bern could negotiate agreements. There are about 60 bilateral accords that were made with the former Yugoslavia which need to be renegotiated.

She described the 170,000 Kosovars living in Switzerland as a "strong link" and said it was important to make it easier for them to obtain travel documents.

"For all these reasons Switzerland did not want to wait before opening an embassy in Priština," she explained.

Switzerland is the fourth country to have an embassy in Kosovo, after Germany, France and Britain. It replaces the liaison office.

More than 30 countries have recognised the independence of Kosovo, which was announced on February 17.

Bern announced its decision supporting independence of the Serbian province ten days later, a move that immediately led to Serbia recalling its ambassador to Bern, arguing that it was an attack against Serbia's sovereignty.

Meetings

Earlier in the day Calmy-Rey met Kosovar leaders, and discussed with them the development of relations.

"This is the time to build bilateral relations to help Kosovo's development," said Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. He pointed out that his country offered plenty of opportunities to Swiss companies, although only one was currently active there.

She also met President Datmir Sejdiu, who thanked Bern for its "long-standing" support of Kosovo.

Calmy-Rey said Switzerland wanted to develop its support for Kosovo but warned the authorities in Priština they had an obligation to respect the country's different minorities.

She met representatives of the Serb minority, and called on them to join in the institutions of the new state.

Controversy

The minister's five-day visit to three Balkan countries - she has already visited Bosnia-Herzegovina and will go to Macedonia on Sunday - has sparked criticism that Bern has deliberately omitted Serbia from the itinerary.

However, Calmy-Rey said Switzerland had a "very balanced" policy towards the area.

"We intend to have strong relations with all the Balkan states," she stated, describing Serbia as an "important partner", and saying that she hoped to visit Belgrade soon. But she admitted that relations were currently "a bit difficult."

Some parliamentarians in Switzerland have expressed disquiet at her visit to Kosovo.

Dick Marty, the head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said there was no reason for the country's foreign minister to go there so soon.

However, Mario Fehr, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, said the opening of the embassy in Priština was an "important political signal" that Switzerland was taking an active part in trying to secure peace and stability in the region.

The western Balkans have been a priority for Swiss foreign policy since the 1990s.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has a budget of SFr 13.9 million ($14 million) in aid to Kosovo for 2008.

Calmy-Rey said Bern is considering ways of increasing the money available in time for an international donor conference to be held in Brussels in June.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Calmy-Rey began her five-day visit in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on Thursday.

She is spending Friday and Saturday in Kosovo, and Sunday and Monday in Skopje, Macedonia.

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Switzerland and the Balkans

Switzerland is home to a sizeable community of people from the Balkans, of which 270,000 come from the three countries included on this official visit – Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. There are also about 40,000 Serbs in Switzerland.

Switzerland has a peacekeeping unit in the area, known as Swisscoy.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17 after internationally led talks to reach a mutual agreement on status failed.

Switzerland recognised Kosovo's independence ten days later on February 27.

Calmy-Rey had been an open and long-term supporter of independence for the country.

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