The Swiss decision to deny visas to Zimbabweans planning to attend a meeting in Geneva has led to presidential threats against Swiss properties in the African state.
An angry President Robert Mugabe warned: “We are not without means to reciprocate.”
Mugabe has taken offence because Switzerland refused visas to some of the Zimbabwean delegation expected at Telecom World – a summit of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which was held from October 24 to 27 in Geneva.
Among those to miss out on the event were Mugabe’s wife, the foreign minister and the telecommunications minister.
"Now they [the Swiss] are showing that they are vicious and we will reciprocate because they have their properties here," said the elderly president, as reported in Zimbabwe’s state-controlled The Herald newspaper on Monday.
In a written response to swissinfo.ch, the Swiss foreign ministry explained its actions: “The decisions taken by Switzerland in relation to visas are taken in the light of the law in force and particularly take account of Switzerland’s obligations as the state hosting the ITU.”
“With regard to an official delegation at a conference held by an international organisation with which Switzerland has concluded a headquarters agreement, the questions that can potentially be raised in this context are if necessary discussed with the organisation concerned. In this context, Switzerland has to reconcile its obligations under international law and the requirements issuing from sanctions taken against a particular person.”
According to the foreign ministry, 284 Swiss, including 120 dual nationals were resident in Zimbabwe at the end of last year. The ministry adds that to its knowledge seven Swiss companies are present in the country.
The most visible is Nestlé Zimbabwe and its factory based in the capital Harare, which produces soups, powdered milk and cereals for the local market.
“Nestlé Zimbabwe has not been approached by the local authorities on this subject. We are in permanent contact with the Swiss authorities,” Nestlé spokesman Chris Hogg said in a written response to swissinfo.ch.
Last year Nestlé Zimbabwe, like other multinationals, was obliged to cede 51 per cent of the company as part of an economic “indigenisation” policy.
“Nestlé Zimbabwe presented a plan relating to the indigenisation in November 2010. We also responded to a letter received from the Ministry of Indigenisation on August 18, 2011 and we have been in contact with the authorities concerned with this subject since then,” Hogg added.
Mugabe’s spokesman refused to confirm to local media that Mugabe was seeking to accelerate a potential nationalisation of the Nestlé factory. Instead he asked: “If you don’t want to welcome visitors from Zimbabwe, why do you want to make money in Zimbabwe?”
Stephen Smith, Africa expert who criss-crossed the continent in his career as a journalist, questions the indigenisation policy.
“This policy is equivalent to the seizing of the lands of the white farmers launched in 2000. But it leads to even more pointed practical questions than with the farms: how can they be run without the old owners?”
Since the seizing of the white farms and the severe reaction of Western countries, Mugabe has shown himself to be more and more inflexible towards them, so much so that the European Union, followed by Switzerland, adopted a series of sanctions almost ten years ago, in reaction to election manipulation and a bloody repression.
Zimbabwe’s attorney-general recently announced that Harare had engaged a team of lawyers to file a lawsuit against the European Union for imposing illegal sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle since 2000.
Johannes Tomana told The Herald newspaper: "We are done with the paperwork and what is only left is to get the necessary travel documents to [travel to] Europe."
Is this just the posturing of an elderly president (87) and a regime at the end of the road, isolated by the international community? On the contrary, according to Smith. “The thunderous declarations and the resolutions of the international community against the regime have not had much effect.”
“With its security forces, it [the regime] rules the country with an iron fist,” he added. “What happens in the West is nothing but a fraction of the regime of terror that the Zimbabweans have been subject to these past years.”
Officially the country is run by a government of national unity, the result of negotiations with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, brokered by South Africa.
“This government has no real power. Furthermore, Robert Mugabe is seeking to provoke the anticipated elections to get rid of Tsvangirai," Smith said.
"This election could happen during the first half of 2012 and the result is hardly in doubt. Robert Mugabe will no longer even have to pretend to share power.”
Relations with Switzerland
Switzerland refused to recognise the independence of Rhodesia in 1965. Bern, like other states, backed UN sanctions against the regime but banned the export of military materiel.
In 1980 Switzerland recognised the independence and constitution of Zimbabwe and opened a consulate in Harare.
Since the late 1990s the country has been experiencing a serious political and economic crisis. In the past decade Switzerland has frozen bilateral relations with Harare and joined the European Union and other nations in imposing sanctions for electoral fraud and human rights abuses.
The Swiss embassy supports limited projects to promote human rights and the environment.
(Translated from French by Clare O'Dea), swissinfo.ch