Swiss Lessons for Georgia – Neutrality, Diversity and Resource Management
26 May, 2017
Swiss Lessons for Georgia – Neutrality, Diversity and Resource Management
Today, Switzerland is considered and perceived as a very successful country politically, economically, and socially. GEORGIA TODAY, alongside the Panorama TV Show, met with the Ambassador of Switzerland to Georgia, H.E. Lukas Beglinger, to talk Swiss know-how, excluding watches and papal guard that is, and what Georgia can learn from Switzerland. At a meeting that took place at the International Black Sea University, Ambassador Beglinger addressed the crowded audience consisting of students and free listeners alike and was keen to answer each and every question posed to him.

“The Swiss worked hard to get where we are today,” the Ambassador tells us. “And that work is ongoing. Actually, Switzerland was quite a poor country until almost the end of 19th century. What brought us forward was industrialization. Switzerland was the first country on the continent after England to become industrialized. So, Switzerland, a poor country with practically no resources except water, clean air and a very beautiful nature, had to find a specialty in order to survive.

We also invested a lot in our education system, because 200 years ago we were ahead, with famous pedagogues like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who called for education for all - this at the end of 18th century! It was rather revolutionary at the time because education actually was reserved for the more to do of society. And this is the key. Even today there is no country in the world that can develop successfully without investing in education.

Let’s discuss the bilateral relations between our two countries. What are the cornerstones?


One is development cooperation, which is a major pillar of our presence here. For years, we’ve focused on helping agricultural sector development, which is really important when you consider that 50% of the population is still active in this sector. Yet, it only produces 9% of the GDP which is a huge gap that has to be filled. And it’s not appropriate that Georgia imports 70-80% of its food with the conditions that you have here. We’re also active in decentralization which is, of course, yet another Swiss feature. The other major pillar is our peace policy. Switzerland has a humanitarian tradition and for serving as a mediator thanks to its position of neutrality. Here in Georgia, and since the August 2008 war, the Swiss Embassy has been representing the interests of the Russian Federation as well as the interests of Georgia in Russia.

How was Switzerland
able to secure and maintain neutrality and could the same be feasible for Georgia?


Switzerland is a special case in many respects, including its permanent neutrality status which has been practiced for centuries, recognized at the Vienna Congress in 1815, 200 years ago; it served Switzerland well, saving us from several major wars. It first saved us from the 30 Year War in the 17th century, and that’s actually when the Swiss understood that we should keep out of such conflicts. Regarding the army – it goes without saying that as a neutral country you have to be able to defend yourself. Otherwise, any other country can encroach on you and you are a liability then in terms of security. So, Switzerland has had always its own army and always invested well in its defense.

Something that Georgia cannot afford, its own army…

The government and the new defense minister here recently decided that Georgia should urgently invest in its own territorial defense capacities rather than just send soldiers to Afghanistan. I think that’s a major policy shift and recognition of the fact that you should be able to defend your country in the first place. I served in Poland and saw the same defense policy reform happen there - now, they’ve invested in buying tanks, air defense and so on. And this is something Switzerland has been doing for centuries. We even managed to survive WWII while being surrounded by the Nazis.

The financial aspect certainly helped Switzerland to boost its army and military capabilities

I don’t think that was the only factor. It’s not up to me to give any advice to Georgia and Georgians but Swiss history certainly shows that you have to get along with your neighbors, somehow, even if it’s not ideal. I’d say it might not be a very good idea to choose one camp over another because if you attach yourself to certain allies then you may alienate your other neighbors.

Yet another famous Swiss know-how is federalism. How do you manage to unite and keep four different ethnic groups within one nation?


The Swiss system is quite unique. Switzerland is very much decentralized. We call ourselves a bottom-up country. It grew up from small entities, small cantons. And the modern Swiss confederation we have now was only created in 1848 – it took a small civil war to establish it. Otherwise, we might have been in the situation the EU is in now - a confederation of sorts, but not a federal state. Notwithstanding, the federal constitution respects the powers of the cantons. Actually, cantons have their own constitutions, own governments, parliaments, justice, etc. As a Swiss citizen, first you are a citizen of you own canton and your municipality. We’re very diverse but we don’t consider this a handicap. Actually, it’s a big advantage. Of course, we’ve had our fair share of internal conflicts and civil wars, for instance, because of religion. Switzerland could not have survived if we’d decided to have a strong central state. For countries such as Georgia, the lesson must be that diversity is something that enriches your country and you shouldn’t be afraid of giving powers to the local level.

Switzerland is famous for its direct democracy and referendums


We have referendums roughly every three months, sometimes even more frequently, at all levels – federal, canton, municipal. All important questions are decided by the people themselves. In Switzerland, people decide even on foreign policy issues. Membership of the European Economic Area, of the UN, etc.: it has to be put to the people. Direct democracy is really systemic in my country and of course it has many advantages because people really feel empowered and they are not frustrated with politics as we see in many other, even western, countries.

There’s an ongoing debate in Georgia as to whether the government should allow land to be sold to foreign citizens. Is banning the sale of Georgian land to foreign citizens discrimination against foreign investors?


Obviously, it would be. Of course, this is a delicate question in most countries, especially in agricultural countries. The important aspect in Georgia is that agricultural land must be registered in the cadaster. There isn’t even a functioning market inside Georgia, which is a huge problem. You can’t develop a competitive agriculture without the possibility of selling or buying land, otherwise people will sit on their one hectare plot and not produce anything and it doesn’t help the country.

And in regards to Switzerland? Do foreigners own Swiss land?


Yes, of course. For quite a few decades Switzerland has had a political problem with foreigners buying land and it was restricted from the 1960s onwards, but always with the exception of foreign business investments because that would have been shooting ourselves in the foot. What was restricted primarily was holiday homes. This is maintained even today. But there’s no limit on foreign business investments if they are serious. That’s important. That should also be a guideline for Georgia. But it should develop its own capacities in agriculture and not depend too much on foreigners.

Vazha Tavberidze

Source: Georgia Today
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