Switzerland's president, Moritz Leuenberger, has received a hearty welcome from the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, in Tallinn. The ensuing talks on Thursday focused on European integration and bilateral ties with the EU.
"I was so happy about this visit that my plane arrived half an hour early", Leuenberger joked after talks with the Estonian president.
After the meeting, Leuenberger added that his counterpart had "given Estonia an identity", as well as "freedom".
The Swiss president said that an emphasis on culture had enabled Meri to bring the country's minorities together. He cited as an example Estonia's integration of its Russian minority, which makes up over 30 per cent of the population.
Leuenberger also drew analogies between the Baltic state and Switzerland, which has four different linguistic communities.
He added that he was convinced Estonia would join the European Union in 2004. He pointed out that "the stance towards Europe is also changing in Switzerland".
After his talks with Meri, the Swiss president met Prime Minister Mart Laar. He then attended the reopening of a reading room in Estonia's National Library, which serves as an information centre on Switzerland and its literature.
On Friday, Leuenberger is to travel to Lithuania, where he plans to meet his counterpart, President Valdamar Adamkus, and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas.
One aim of the visit is to strengthen Swiss ties with fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, a goal Leuenberger has expressed for his presidential term this year. In April, he visited Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In addition to their relationship with Switzerland, Estonia and Lithuania want to strengthen other ties with Western Europe. Both countries hope to join the EU and Nato.
Collapse of the Soviet Union¶
Switzerland, which re-established full diplomatic ties with the two Baltic countries in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, already has close cultural, scientific and certain financial links with Estonia, Benedikt Wechsler of the Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo.
Between 1992 and 2000 the Swiss government provided technical and financial support worth SFr22 million ($12.5 million) to Estonia's health and housing system.
Several Swiss authors have travelled to Estonia or published books about the country and its head of state. A private foundation, Gebert-Rüf, is building ties with universities in the Baltic states.
Nuclear power controversy¶
As with Estonia, Switzerland has become a significant resource for Lithuanian aid. Last year, Switzerland pledged to contribute SFr3 million ($1.7 million) to a European fund to help Lithuania decommission a controversial nuclear power plant.
The Ignalina plant, which has been compared to the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine, continues to provide nearly three quarters of Lithuania's power supply.
Since 1992, Lithuania has received aid worth more than SFr25 million ($14.5 million) from Switzerland, funds which were designated for reform of Lithuania's banking sector as well as health, energy and environment projects.
Switzerland has targeted improved trade with the Baltic countries as a goal. Bilateral trade stands at a relatively modest level. Exports to both countries were SFr87 million ($48 million) last year, while combined imports totalled SFr65 million ($36 million).
Moves are underway to ratify tax agreements with the Baltic states in a bid to boost investment.
While the Swiss visit represents the first presidential-level delegation to the Baltics, the Estonian president is no stranger to Switzerland.
In 1995 he held talks with the Swiss government in Bern. Earlier this year, Meri was awarded a prize by the private Max Schmiedheiny Foundation for social and market reforms in Estonia.
swissinfo with agencies