President of Swizterland Simonetta Sommaruga arrived in Kyiv on July 20 at the invitation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This was Sommaruga's first foreign visit since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, this was the first state visit by the Swiss president to Ukraine in the history of bilateral relations.
Switzerland is one of the five largest investors in the Ukrainian economy with $1.7 billion in total direct investment. Last year, direct investment increased by $163 million.
In terms of the amount of investment in Ukraine, Switzerland is ahead of France, Italy and Austria. The largest amount of Swiss investments in Ukraine (about 60%) went to industry, which helped created more than 30,000 jobs. A key area of cooperation between Ukraine and Switzerland is in the energy efficiency and home thermal insulation sectors, as well as infrastructure projects.
Switzerland also supports a large number of humanitarian projects. It is the only state that has been directly providing humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the war on both sides of the contact line in eastern Ukraine since 2015. That is why the visit to Donbas, acquaintance with the security and socio-economic situation in the east of Ukraine, the discussion of Crimean issues and the bilateral economic partnership became the cornerstone of Ms. Sommaruga's visit to Ukraine.
UKRAINE REFORM CONFERENCE
As Switzerland is an important partner of Ukraine in economic development and implementation of reforms, it is not surprising that Simonetta Sommaruga devoted the first two days of her visit to these issues.
Sommaruga's first official meeting with Zelensky, as well as face-to-face communication between the two presidents and Ukrainian-Swiss talks, took place at the Mariinsky Palace. The talks focused on peace in Donbas, countering the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rehabilitation of war veterans, the development of vocational and art education in Ukraine, decentralization, energy efficiency, infrastructure projects, urban development and more. According to Zelensky, Sommaruga noted the progress Ukraine has made in carrying out reforms and its desire to continue cooperation. Within a few hours, the leaders of the two states made a number of joint statements on the agreements reached.
In particular, Ukraine will implement the Swiss Cooperation Program for 2020-2023, which provides for the allocation of 108 million Swiss francs for humanitarian and technical assistance. The issue concerns cooperation in the implementation of technical and humanitarian assistance projects under the three-year Swiss Cooperation Program for Ukraine.
"Undoubtedly, Ukraine and Switzerland are interested in developing further partnership and bilateral cooperation. […] We have agreed to develop areas of cooperation that are of mutual interest to both countries. The memorandum of partnership on bilateral relations, which we signed today, determines those areas," Zelensky said after talks with Sommaruga in Kyiv on July 21.
The fifth Ukraine Reform Conference will be held in Switzerland in two years as part of the memorandum of partnership. The parties agreed to monitor the implementation of reforms and outline a list of institutional capacity building measures in various sectors to better implement reforms.
"Separately, we discussed two other important areas - the economy and trade. It should be noted that Switzerland is one of the five largest investors in our economy and [our important] partner in Europe in terms of trade turnover. We agreed that our countries can and should develop this potential," Zelensky said.
As for reforms in the sphere of law, Zelensky expressed hope that Switzerland would help Ukraine fight corruption and recover stolen assets.
"Switzerland has always been an example for us in combating corruption. I would like to note the signing today of a memorandum of understanding between the Office of the Prosecutor General, NABU [National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] and the Swiss side. I believe that Switzerland will help us fight corruption and facilitate the real return of stolen assets to Ukraine," Zelensky said.
The Swiss president also held meetings with Ukrainian government officials: Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Acting Energy Minister Olha Buslavets, Infrastructure Minister Vladyslav Kryklii, and Minister of Communities and Territories Development Oleksiy Chernysh.
However, Sommaruga's acquaintance with Ukraine's economic potential was not limited to formal meetings with representatives of the Ukrainian authorities. She also visited the "heart" of Ukrainian start-ups - the biggest domestic innovation park UNIT.City.
The Swiss leader was familiarized with the most interesting Ukrainian projects: electric bike manufacturer Delfast, artificial intelligence developer Aitheon, rapid prototyping laboratory Fablab Fabricator, R&D laboratory Sensorama Lab, inventors of renewable energy producing window blinds SolarGaps, etc.
"Innovation and cooperation can save thousands of lives. If we want not only to improve the current situation, but also to avoid its recurrence in the future, we need to take care of citizens. It is worth investing in them, in their education and training. Such changes will open up new opportunities for all: businesses, the state and every person," Sommaruga said.
She noted that she sees significant potential in Ukraine's digitalization. The drive behind the development of IT and the digitalization of communications around the world has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed that global problems cannot be solved in isolation.
"The coronavirus crisis could be a catalyst for digitization. Ukraine has an excellent starting position for digitalization. IT services are the country's key export product. We need to minimize the risks of digitalization. Switzerland actively supports the further development of cooperation and good governance in cyberspace to protect people and businesses from cyber threats," the Swiss president said.
Ms. Sommaruga also paid attention to the development of housing cooperatives (associations of co-owners of apartment buildings) and energy efficiency in Ukraine as Switzerland is Ukraine's longtime partner in this area. She got acquainted with the implementation of an energy efficiency project in Kyiv, funded by Switzerland, having seen with her own eyes the energy modernization of apartment buildings in Ukraine.
For the first time, the project has helped Ukraine introduce sustainable financial instruments that can help thousands of housing cooperatives reduce utility costs and improve their living conditions.
"Switzerland has been supporting Ukraine in reforming the management of apartment buildings since 2010, and we are ready to continue to provide support in this area. It is inspiring to see how we work together on solutions that are equally applicable in both Swiss and Ukrainian cities," Sommaruga said.
SWITZERLAND'S POSITION ON RUSSIAN-OCCUPIED CRIMEA AND DONBAS REMAINS UNCHANGED
The issue of the occupied territories was repeatedly raised during Simonetta Sommaruga's visit to Ukraine. In particular, she stressed that Switzerland does not recognize the annexation of Crimea and believes that the UN and the OSCE should immediately send their human rights representatives to the occupied peninsula. In addition, the Swiss Confederation is constantly monitoring the situation in Donbas and welcomes the release of prisoners in recent months.
Ms. Sommaruga also stressed that Switzerland would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, including with regard to public access to clean drinking water.
"As the conflict is a violation of international humanitarian law, we are making every effort to help the civilian population directly affected by this conflict," she said.
Sommaruga also specified that the issue is about helping civilians living on both sides of the contact line in Donbas, and Switzerland is very glad that it can do so in agreement with Ukraine.
The discussion of this topic ended with the Swiss president's visit to Donbas where Sommaruga went on the last day of her stay in Ukraine. There, she held meetings with representatives of international humanitarian organizations: the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN system in Ukraine, and the leadership of the Donetsk Regional State Administration.
Together with Volodymyr Zelensky, she also visited Voda Donbasu, the largest water supply company in the Donetsk region, which employs more than 11,000 people. Voda Donbasu supplies water to almost four million inhabitants of the Donetsk region living on both sides of the contact line.
The company's facilities have been repeatedly shelled by illegal armed groups since 2014, which periodically cut off the water supply. The technical condition of the company's infrastructure has deteriorated, and the shortage of chemical reagents for water and technological equipment purification has increased. Thanks to the new Swiss Cooperation Program, 1.4 million Swiss francs were allocated for the company's needs in 2020.
"Water should be not only a symbol of life and health but also a symbol of peace!" Mrs. Sommaruga said.
Photo credit: President's Office; Volodymyr Tarasov
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