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Mediation role behind focus of Swiss-Russian talks

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, left, had multiple mediation roles to discuss with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Keystone

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter has emphasised Switzerland’s mediation role at talks with his Russian counterpart in Moscow focused on resolving conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia.

This content was published on April 11, 2016 - 15:52 and agencies

Burkhalter’s working visit with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mostly revolved around Switzerland’s dual mandate of protection for Russia and Georgia, the fighting in Ukraine, and the five-year civil war in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those trying to topple him.

They also spoke about a possible customs agreement between Russia and Georgia, and approaches towards counter terrorism.

Emphasis on Ukraine

The Swiss minister stressed the need the strengthen the ceasefire in Ukraine, in particular by withdrawing heavy weaponry under the control of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Burkhalter chaired in 2014.

He also told Lavrov that the Swiss will send a fourth convoy to both sides of the front line in eastern Ukraine's Donbas in May. Previous Swiss Humanitarian Aid (HA) convoys have been sent bearing critical supplies such as medicines, chemicals and apparatus for cleaning drinking water Switzerland is the only country organising humanitarian convoys across the so-called contact line to rebel and government-held zones. 

Their discussions also extended to Russian-Swiss bilateral relations, which the Swiss foreign ministry described both as “good and developing among political, economic, scientific and cultural spheres”.

Last working visit in 2013

The two men held their most recent working visit almost exactly three years ago in Neuchâtel. They also met last September in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

“We do not agree on everything, to say the least,” Burkhalter summed up on Monday at a news conference in Moscow, where he described their dialogue as positive and constructive. “We discussed what is going well and also differences.”

"Our relations are strong, multifaceted and useful," he said in a statement provided by the Swiss foreign ministry.

In Neuchâtel, Lavrov had said his nation would support renewed talks on Swiss soil over North Korea’s nuclear programme if Pyongyang were to agree. Burkhalter had said Switzerland would host such talks but they never materialised.

North Korea

Russia and China told North Korea last month that its nuclear ambitions were unacceptable and urged Pyongyang to resume talks over its nuclear weapons programme and heed a UN Security Council resolution banning ballistic missile tests.

The added pressure on Pyongyang came after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea. North Korea was not mentioned as a priority topic at Monday's talks between Lavrov and Burkhalter.

The Swiss, whose foreign policy priorities include serving as neutral international mediators, hold several mandates to broker relations between countries, such as with the US and Iran. The UN’s European headquarters is located in Geneva, where peace talks, disarmament efforts, human rights meetings and other negotiations occur regularly.

Switzerland also has offered to mediate between the United States and North Korea. Switzerland and Sweden help monitor the demilitarised zone created after the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice – not a peace treaty – leaving the peninsula still technically at war.

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