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Relations boosted by visit of Russian president

(Keystone)

Switzerland's role as an international mediator and as a major financial centre has been praised by the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev.

He was speaking to journalists on the first day of his historic state visit to Switzerland, after talks with members of the Swiss government, during which they discussed the global economy as well as international security.

The two countries signed accords on visa regulations for diplomats, the repatriation of failed asylum seekers, technical cooperation and sport in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations.

Medvedev described the discussions as "productive" and stressed the common interests and historical and cultural links between the two countries.

He praised Switzerland as a neutral country which is not a member of the European Union or the Nato military alliance, and said he hoped to win Switzerland's backing for a Russian initiative to set up a new European security pact.

It is a reliable economic partner in times of crisis and has a role to play as an international mediator, notably in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, he added.

He said he would seek to speed up negotiations for further treaties, particularly on research and intellectual property and promised to support Switzerland during its presidency of the Council of Europe, to boost human rights and democracy.

Medvedev also said Switzerland as a major financial centre had a role to play in helping to define international rules for the financial markets. He described banking secrecy rules and the protection of the private sphere as a basic right.

Medvedev, who is also holding talks with Swiss business leaders during his visit, said he was convinced that a legal case pending against Russian investor Viktor Vekselberg would receive a fair hearing. Vekselberg has been accused of secretly buying up shares to gain control of the Swiss engineering company Sulzer.

Strategic

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz told the joint media conference that both countries shared common security interests in Europe and added that Russia was of strategic importance to Switzerland.

"Good relations with Russia are crucial for a small country like Switzerland," he said.

He said Medvedev had hinted at a possible free trade agreement with Russia via the four-nation European Free Trade Association (Efta).

"Such a deal would be most welcome from our point of view."

He said the four new cooperation accords were part of a continuing effort to strengthen bilateral ties.

He pointed out that there are about 600 Swiss companies active in Russia and that an increasing number of Russians are investing in Switzerland.

Historic links

Ahead of the talks in the capital, Medvedev was welcomed with full military honours at Zurich airport and later travelled by train to the government guest house outside Bern for a reception by a delegation of the Swiss government.

In their welcoming speeches both presidents highlighted the cultural and historical links and stressed the importance of the first-ever official visit by a Russian head of state to Switzerland.

"Russia has always had a special fascination for many Swiss people. Today Russia is one of the most important growth markets for many Swiss businesses," Merz said.

Medvedev stressed the importance of Switzerland as a reliable and independent partner.

"Your country is a constructive partner for all – in Europe as well as on a global level – to create security and stability, trust and cooperation."

Security

His visit is taking place among unprecedented security in Bern. The area around the government buildings and parliament was solidly fenced off and shops in the immdediate vicinity were advised to close for the day.

Numerous checkpoints were set up along the street from the government guest house to the city centre and helicopters were circling above – a rare event in Switzerland.

Police and other security personnel easily outnumbered the 60 or so representatives of media in Bern, who included a strong contingent of Russian journalists.

On Tuesday Medvedev will visit a monument dedicated to the Russian general, Alexander Suvorov, in central Switzerland.

Suvorov battled his way across the Swiss Alps from northern Italy in an attempt to drive the occupying French troops out of Switzerland in 1799.

Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch

Human rights protest

The Society for Threatened Peoples says it is disappointed with the talks between Medvedev and the Swiss government.

The group staged a protest in the streets of Bern to draw attention to human rights violations notably in the Caucasus region.

The organisation said police only allowed a small demonstration ahead of the arrival of the Russian head of state in the city.

Nothing was said at the news conference about the issue of human rights, although Merz had promised to raise it during the talks.

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Swiss Russian relations

Regular contacts between Russia and Switzerland go back to the 18th century. In the 19th century Russia was one of the great powers which guaranteed Swiss neutrality.

In the 19th and early 20th century Switzerland attracted Russian artists, students and dissidents, including Lenin who spent several years of his European exile in different Swiss cities.

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Switzerland broke off diplomatic relations the next year, and they were only restored in 1946.

In the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, relations were quickly stepped up, not only on the political and economic level, but also in science and culture.

Switzerland has been providing technical and financial support and humanitarian aid to Russia for ten years, particularly in the northern Caucasus.

Between the late 1990s and 2007 a number of issues caused strains in relations including the 2002 Überlingen air crash in Swiss-controlled airspace which killed 71 people, mostly Russian children.

The refusal of the Swiss authorities to grant judicial assistance for legal actions linked to the Yukos affair and the arrest of Russian ex-nuclear energy minister Yevgeny Adamov also strained the relationship.

In the wake of the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Switzerland has represented Russia's diplomatic interests in Georgia and Georgia's interests in Russia.

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