How Russian-Swiss relations survived the 1990s

Andrei Stepanov with his "Bern Diary"

Andrei Stepanov was the Russian ambassador to Bern during the 1990s – a period that saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and war in the Caucasus.

This content was published on March 31, 2011 - 21:42
Emily Wright in Moscow,

Stepanov spoke to in Moscow about his recently published 700-page memoirs. “Bern diary of a Russian ambassador 1992-1999” relates discussions and events that changed the course of relations between the two countries, which re-established diplomatic ties 65 years ago.

The first Russian ambassador to Bern touches on the subject of money laundering investigations in Switzerland against top Russian officials. The investigations focused on the Mabetex company and prompted Switzerland to introduce a new money laundering law, requiring banks to report suspicious investments. The war in Chechnya marked the nineties. What did the Swiss think about the war?

Andrei Stepanov: The Swiss of course were critical about the war and we were obviously not overjoyed by this criticism. But one has to understand Swiss mentality to appreciate their reaction. It is the desire to help people whenever human rights are constrained, where there is illness or hunger. Wherever humans are suffering, the Swiss want to help. One has to understand and value this, not take their criticism badly.

The criticism was right. What human rights could there be during a war? What was the Swiss relationship with Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president who served from 1991-99?

A.S.: The relationship towards Yeltsin was an ambiguous one. There were caricatures going round, especially on the alcohol problem. But he was invited to Switzerland every year. Yeltsin had a real interest in Switzerland and he had expressed the wish to discover the country and its inhabitants. The Swiss felt that and the relations were good.

I remember [former Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio] Cotti’s discussions with Yeltsin. One thing I noticed, as a diplomat, about Yeltsin during one 40-minute discussion is that he never once looked at the files that had been prepared for him, but knew the content by heart. Of course this inspired respect in his counterparts. In 1996, you celebrated the 50th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Russia. What was special about this anniversary?

A.S.: At the beginning we invited officials from Moscow, and they did not respond enthusiastically. Andrei Kozyrev (then minister of foreign affairs) later admitted that Russia had underestimated Switzerland. He was the first minister of foreign affairs to visit Bern, in all the history of our relations. I had to break this wall. I convinced him to come and his acceptance was a victory in itself. Did the fact that the Swiss suspected Russian money was being laundered in Switzerland cloud relations between the two countries?

A.S.: I wouldn’t say so. Both governments were fighting money laundering. We helped as we could. I had very good relations with Carla del Ponte [Swiss federal prosecutor from 1994-99], who was a very professional, strict person with a sense of humour. The federal prosecutor found documents she forwarded to Moscow: it took a political turn, because the [Russian] government was involved.

I think that Yeltsin as a person and politician was not involved, but know that people working with him were implicated. We found that there were bribes for the renovation of the Kremlin, for instance. Of course this didn’t help to strengthen relations, but I think Yeltsin looked at the situation objectively. How did you personally experience the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

A.S.: By the time of perestroika [a process of restructuring that began when Mikhail Gorbachev became general-secretary of the Communist Party in 1985] we all understood that the country was heading to a dead end. We needed a change, but the way the USSR collapsed was a strategic error. They should have agreed on some kind of confederation, (like in Switzerland) with the Baltic States, at least for the transitional period.

The Soviet Union was like a body. It was not rational to get rid of essential parts, to cut it to pieces. A couple who divorce have to think about the children. What can you say about the relations between Russia and Switzerland today? Have the countries become closer?

A.S.: Relations between Russia and Switzerland are one of the best examples of collaboration two countries can have in terms of mutual interest, respect and cordiality.

The fact that the president visited Switzerland this year [Dmitri Medvedev attended the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January despite a terrorist attack at Moscow airport just days earlier] is a proof of that. We can be happy about these relations, which show that all our work during the nineties was not in vain. Relations were frozen by the Cold War, but we worked on them and now we have good relations. What did you learn from your Bernese years?

A.S.: I learnt a lot about federalism, which is an amazing achievement. The Swiss come from at least four different peoples and although the language groups can joke and laugh about each other, but they live together and have no wish to separate, because they are united by the same ideals. Could federalism be applicable to Russia?

If it worked, it would take a lot of time. We have a colonial history and the peoples are far from equal. There would have to be equal relationships between the Tatars, Russians and Udmurts.

Andrei Ivanovich Stepanov (Wikipedia)

Born February 13, 1930 in Kaluga, Soviet Union. After graduating in 1953 from Lomonosov Moscow State University, where he specialised in history, he worked in the Higher Diplomatic School of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Served in various diplomatic roles in East Germany, then Austria, before being appointed first Russian ambassador to Switzerland in 1992, following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Returned to Russia in 1999, retired from active diplomatic service, and has since held the position of professor at the Diplomatic School of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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How the diary was born

Stepanov wrote the diary after his return to Moscow as, during his time as an ambassador to Switzerland, there was, he says, barely enough time for his professional activities.

During his Bern years, he collected books on Switzerland, gathered articles and made notes on TV and radio programmes he heard. He took notes on conversations he had had, on nature, animals and his travels.

When he came back to Moscow in 1999, he went through all these materials and, with the help of his wife, wrote up his memoirs of his time in Switzerland.

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