The dissolution of the USSR and the recognition of the successor states

Exactly 30 years ago, on December 23rd, 1991, Switzerland was one of the first states at all to recognize the successor states of the Soviet Union. «Apart from the early recognition of the Peoples Republic of China on January 17th, 1950, this is one of the few deviations from Switzerlands usual policy of diplomatic recognition», explains Sacha Zala, Director of the Research Centre Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (Dodis). According to the almost sacred guideline of «not counting among the first and not among the last», the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) was usually reluctant when it came to recognition issues. «It is even more astonishing», says Thomas Bürgisser, the managing editor of the volume Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland 1991 – soon to be published, «that on that December 23rd Switzerland acted on the spur of the moment and was one of the very first states to recognize the independence of the former Soviet Republics». Until the year 1991 the Soviet Union consisted of 15 Union Republics which, de jure, enjoyed far reaching sovereignty rights but were actually subject to the centre in Moscow.

Kick-off in the Baltic countries

In 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet empire was happening at a breath-taking pace. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had marked the beginning, the central power violently opposing these aspirations until the August putsch in Moscow ( On August 28th, the President of the Swiss Confederation Flavio Cotti was able to inform the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania about the decision by the Federal Council «that Switzerland is going to establish full diplomatic relations with the three independent Baltic republics» ( Between September 3rd and 6th, a delegation headed by Ambassador Jenö Staehelin, the Head of the Political Department I of the FDAF, went on a trip to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius to formally confirm the reestablishment of diplomatic relations by way of an official exchange of letters (

The founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States

The erosion process of the Soviet empire went on unrestrainedly. On December 8th, 1991, by the Minsk Treaty the Presidents of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine founded the «Commonwealth of Independent States» (CIS). On this occasion they curtly stated that «herewith the Soviet Union as a subject of international law and as a geo-political reality terminates its existence» ( Shortly afterwards FDFA discussed Switzerlands official stance. In the course of the meeting «the opinion pushed through that the recognition should not be postponed any longer if it becomes obvious that the point of no return has been reached. In this case, however, not only the Slavic republics would have to be recognized but also all others striving for recognition, at least as far as such a recognition is uncontentious.» (       

A telephone conference before Christmas

On December, 21st, almost all other republics of the former USSR joined the Alma-Ata (Almaty) declaration by the CIS. The point of no return seemed to have been reached. On Monday, December 23rd, at 1:30 p. m. the Federal Council discussed an EDA motion, faxed by the Federal Chancellery at noon, on the recognition of the Russian Federation as well as the Republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan ( «It is important that Switzerland will establish contacts with the new republics as soon as possible», the Federal Council affirmed the motion by the head of FDFA, René Felber ( After a discussion of 15 minutes the Federal Council, by Decision No. 2518, passed that years last decision.

Appreciation of early recognition

On that same evening, by telex via the Swiss Embassy in Moscow, the FDFA notified the recognition to Presidents Karimov, Kravchuk, Niyazov, Nabiyev, Yeltsin, Snegur, Akayev, Nazarbayev, Shushkevich, Ter-Petrosyan, and Mutallibov ( «For practical reasons» the Federal Council was hesitant with notifying the recognition of Georgia which had not joined the CIS and where the situation was unclear. Recognition at an early state was to pay off: «When travelling through the successor republics of the USSR», wrote Switzerlands ambassador to Moscow, Jean-Pierre Ritter, to then go on: «I am always impressed by the satisfaction, indeed gratitude, expressed towards us for having been the first in Europe to notify our recognition of the new independent states, and also for having been the first to appear personally to formalise the establishment of relations» (

The establishment of diplomatic relations

As early as in January, 1992, the continuation of the relations with the Russian Federation as the legal successor of the USSR was stated by way of a simple exchange of notes between Berne and Moscow ( and Subsequently, at first Ambassador Ritter went to Yerevan and Baku as a special envoy, to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan ( and In early February, the FDFA sent the head of the Directorate of Administration Matters and Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Johann Bucher, on a special mission to Kiev and Minsk, to formalise the relations with the Ukraine and Belarus (  In June, once again Ambassador Ritter went to Alma-Ata, to establish relations with Kazakhstan ( After Berne, on March 23rd, 1992, had also notified the recognition of Georgia which, like the three Baltic republics, did not join the CIS (, in June Ambassador Ritter also paid a visit to Tbilisi, where he established relations and handed over his letter of accreditation to the new President, Eduard Shevardnadze ( Finally in July it was time for Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan) (

Contacts at the Presidential Level

In early February the participation of high-ranking delegations from the CIS states in the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos was an opportunity for Foreign Minister Felber, Federal President in 1992, to meet Presidents Karimov (Uzbekistan), Snegur (Moldova), Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan), Shushkevich (Belarus), Ter-Petrosyan (Armenia), and Mutallibov (Azerbaijan) as well as to have a more thorough exchange with Ukrainian President Kravchuk ( and On the occasion of a visit, scheduled on short notice, by President Askar Akayev to Federal President Felber in Berne, once again in February the establishment of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan was decided (  In Berne on September 2nd, 1992, Felber exchanged letters on the establishment of diplomatic relations also with Moldovan President Mircea Snegur (

Various missions and contretemps

Making contacts to the Soviet successor states happened via different channels. In April and June, for example, high-ranking delegations of the Federal Financal Administration paid visits to the CIS states. With regard to the passing of the additional dispatch by the Federal Council on continuing the increased cooperation with states in Central and East Europe (, which earmarked an extension of development loans to the CIS, in August and September the FDFA sent two missions to all Central Asian and Trans-Caucasian republics. The former was once again headed by Ambassador Staehelin, the latter by his deputy, Daniel Woker. Also representatives of the Federal Office of Foreign Economic Affairs were members of the delegations ( and It was not always easy to coordinate the various missions, and there were contretemps and struggles for competences (, and

«Helvetistan» and Heidi Tagliavini

«The lively interest by the Swiss authorities opens up prospects towards two developments», Dodis historian Thomas Bürgisser has it: on the one hand Switzerland, after having joined the Bretton Woods institutions, wanted to make sure to get a seat in the Executive Boards of the World Bank and the World Monetary Fund, and for this purpose it had to found its own voting group. Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan as well as Poland could be one over for this project, later also Kazakhstan and Tajikistan joined the so called «Helvetistan Group». «Due to its commitment in Central Asia, Switzerland was able to make sure to have an influential position with these international financial institutions», says Bürgisser. It is also remarkable that Ambassodor Ritter on his trips was in each case accompanied by his associate, who was a fluent Russian speaker. Heidi Tagliavini was the name of the young diplomat who, on later occasions, was repeatedly entrusted with difficult missions to conflict regions, such as in 1995 as a member of the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnia, as a special envoy of the EU to research the causes of the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, or as an OSCE representative for Ukraine in 2014.