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"We saw the East as much too homogeneous"

Thirty years ago, Switzerland recognised the independence of the states of the former Soviet Union. As it set about supporting these countries, it recognised that this was far from a uniform bloc. Switzerland's aim was to support them on the road to democracy and a market economy. A complex challenge and one that Switzerland is rising to: a look back at 30 years of cooperation with Eastern Europe.

Timeline showing cooperation with Eastern Europe in post-Soviet states.

The eventful history of the former Soviet states and Swiss support. © FDFA

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, had actually planned to reform the Soviet Union into a confederation of sovereign states. The Union Treaty on the creation of the union of sovereign states was accepted by a large majority in the first and only referendum in the Soviet Union in March 1991.

But, as is often the case, the plans of politicians were out of sync with reality. On 19 August 1991, a day before the signing of the new treaty, rioters attempted to seize power in Moscow.  Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest at his holiday home in Crimea. But there was something the coup plotters had not reckoned with: widespread resistance from the public, and a lack of support from large parts of the police and military.

The coup failed, but still led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as general secretary of the Communist Party and therefore as head of state.

Barricades in front of the government building in Moscow.
Crowds in Moscow barricade the government building, causing the coup to fail. © David Broad - Wikimedia

Recognising the independence of the former Soviet republics

Federal Council decree on recognition.
Federal Council decree on the recognition of the former countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States CIS and Georgia. © Federal Chancellery

Former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic states, had already declared their independence before the collapse of the Soviet Union, while others joined the Commonwealth of Independent States on 21 December. Shortly afterwards, Switzerland recognised the independence of the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Republics of Belarus and Moldova, and Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

What had previously been perceived by the West as a uniform bloc behind the Iron Curtain, suddenly emerged as a tapestry of multi-ethnic states. "We saw the East as much too homogeneous," said former head of the Cooperation with Eastern Europe department, Remo Gautschi, in 1999.

These countries, some of which were unprepared for independence, faced considerable challenges, as the collapse of the Soviet Union also meant the collapse of a centralised government and economic structure.  There were barely any national state institutions. The economy shrunk by 50-60%. Meanwhile, minority conflicts that had been simmering below the surface boiled over into bloody clashes. 

Supporting self-initiated development processes

In 1993, Switzerland allocated financial resources for cooperation with Eastern Europe in Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia.  Its aim was to support these countries in their transition from a one-party government with a command economy to a pluralist democracy with a social market economy.  Owing to its independence and neutrality, Switzerland was well placed to do so, and was the first European country to obtain a cooperation agreement with Russia in 1996. It quickly became clear that expanding infrastructure and advancing economic development made little sense if steps were not taken towards pluralism and democracy. In addition, peacekeeping played an increasingly critical role from the late 1990s. 

Switzerland's aim was to support these countries in their transition from a one-party government with a command economy to a pluralist democracy with a social market economy.

It is key that parties to a conflict are willing and able to pursue the path to peace on their own.  The same applies to tasks of development cooperation in other areas: Switzerland's contribution involves supporting countries with development processes that they have sought and pursued on their own. The processes of change set in motion 30 years ago require time and a change of mindset. The key to the success of Switzerland's activities in these countries has always been developing and maintaining relationships of trust. The human factor is crucial, as shown by selected projects from 30 years of cooperation with Eastern Europe.

Insight: The prison system in Ukraine, 1999–2012

The playground in front of the prison building.
The prison was also structurally altered so that young mothers would no longer have to be separated from their children while incarcerated. © SDC

Ludmilla Nestryliai has worked for the SDC in Kyiv since 2001 and has overseen many projects during her career as a local staff member. As she explains, there was a desire on the part of the Ukrainian authorities to make prisons more modern and humane, which amounted to a breakthrough in terms of human rights.  This coincided with a growing realisation that in order not to reoffend, inmates would have to be successfully rehabilitated. In Bila Tserkva, a large prison near Kyiv, a wide range of reforms were carried out and it is now considered a model institution in Ukraine.

Young women who gave birth while in prison could only see their child twice a day.  This meant that breastfeeding was impossible. The children were housed in a children's home adjoining the prison. Thanks to Swiss support, the buildings were converted so that mothers could live with their children during their sentences. However, the Swiss support was not limited to the conversion of buildings. Staff received training, work was coordinated between different actors and offenders received support after completing their sentences, for example in vocational skills development. This ensured a successful return to normal life after prison, both for mothers and for their children.

Insight: Peacebuilding in Central Asia, 1999–2005

A canal in the southern Fergana Valley.
Canals from the Soviet era zigzag across the borders of the three countries, irrigating ethnically diverse regions. © Neil Palmer - Flickr

Johan Gély started working as a regional adviser on water management in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 2001. Alongside Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Uzbekistan is one of the three post- Soviet states in Central Asia where the SDC has been providing assistance since the late 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed, suddenly there were no centralised government structures, and therefore no joint management of water resources. This lack of political structure was particularly serious in the Fergana Valley, where there were many conflicting interests.

As water is a precious commodity that can spark conflicts, the Fergana Valley is a tinderbox: densely populated, ethnically diverse, and covered by seemingly nonsensical borders that date back to the Stalin era. The tributaries in the valley originate in the surrounding mountain ranges in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and in winter are used to generate electricity. However, the agriculturally dependent population of the plain which belongs to Uzbekistan need the water in the summer. To preserve peace between the countries and ethnic groups, the SDC supported the creation of new political structures for water management. Johan Gély helped the local population set up water networks that work together to ensure water is fairly distributed. The aim is for goodwill ambassadors from various groups and authorities in the different countries to seek amicable solutions.

As the name suggests, this calls for goodwill from all involved. These schemes have now come to an end, but they consistently led to workable solutions at local level. The insights obtained have been crucial to modern Swiss water diplomacy, such as the Blue Peace initiative, which Switzerland launched.

Insight: Emergency medical care for children in the Republic of Moldova, 2008–21

Trainer shows women resuscitation techniques.
Young mothers and caregivers attend a training session on first aid for young children. Here, they learn how to perform cardiac massage. © SDC

Imagine that a child has been hit by a car and urgently needs help but neither the police nor the ambulance staff are trained to deal with this type of injury, and even the regional hospital is lacking specialist staff and the necessary emergency medical equipment. This fictional example illustrates how paediatric emergency services were in the Republic of Moldova before local authorities asked for support.

The resulting project was overseen by Valeriu Sava, the SDC programme coordinator in the field of health in Chisinau.  The project sought to improve the survival chances of seriously injured children and to reduce the likelihood of accidents occurring. This involved training emergency responders, so police officers, fire fighters and ambulance workers, but also of course the staff treating children in hospital emergency departments. The necessary infrastructure was modernised, from ambulances to the creation of regional emergency centres. This also included a functioning alarm system which allowed swift communication between the responders involved.  In a subsequent step, an awareness campaign was launched on preventing and dealing with the most common accidents involving young children.  Finally, training and administration in hospitals were improved, which on the one hand guaranteed further training for staff, and on the other, resulted in an improved return on funding.

The results of all these measures are clear: child mortality in the Republic of Moldova fell by over 20% between 2009 and 2017. Or, to put it another way, the lives of thousands of young children were saved.

Insight: Building a value chain in Armenia, 2006–21

Cows at a water trough.
Water stations were erected in the pastures so cattle no longer have to walk for miles. © SDC

In remote regions of Armenia, people rely on agriculture – particularly cattle breeding – for their livelihoods. There is high domestic demand for dairy products, and neighbouring Iran is a growing export market. The problem was getting the milk from producers to consumers due to a lack of expertise, transfer and refrigeration technology, and processing factories. In addition, farmers often used to produce just enough milk for their own consumption.

The SDC worked with Armenian NGO, the Strategic Development Agency, to develop solutions. For example, milk collection points were set up, where farmers could bring their milk, and from where it would be dispatched in refrigerated vehicles. Both farmers and processing factories were equipped with expertise which allowed them to increase the quantity and quality of their products.  Work was also done around animal welfare, and a network of vets was set up to care for the animals and perform artificial insemination. This led to farmers producing more milk and receiving a steady income. Loans facilitated by local authorities made it easier for all involved to grow.

This and many other measures allowed the creation of a production chain on the one hand, and the production of more and better dairy products on the other. This has benefited all involved in what is now a functioning value chain, from the cow to the cheese consumer. 

Cooperation with Eastern Europe in post-Soviet states today

The SDC has developed its capacity to respond to different conditions and needs in post-Soviet states. In collaboration with its partners, Switzerland has played an important role in developing bespoke solutions to complex problems and reforms. Swiss support, coupled with its long-term commitment, is therefore held in very high regard in the post-Soviet states.

The goal is to strengthen the rule of law, democracy, the social market economy and civil society, with an emphasis on particularly vulnerable groups and gender equality.  With slight adaptations, Switzerland continues to work in areas where it can bring added value:

  • Good governance, public services and combating corruption
  • Economic development, strengthening the private sector and vocational education and training
  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation, and water and energy management
  • Health

The objectives and strategy of cooperation with Eastern Europe in post-Soviet states are consistent with the major strategic frameworks of action set out in Switzerland's International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24.  In line with Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy and the UN's 2030 Agenda, Switzerland works to create decent jobs, address climate change, promote the rule of law, and reduce the causes of forced and irregular migration in four geographical focus regions.