December 4, 2023

LUGANO, Switzerland (AP) – A leading Swiss non-governmental group on Monday described Switzerland as a “safe haven” for wealthy Russians and as a trading hub for Russian oil, grain and coal.

Public Eye called on the Swiss executive to “use all means at its disposal to stop funding this inhuman aggression,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine that has killed countless thousands of people, displaced millions from their homes and rippled through the global economy from by raising food and fuel prices.

She spoke on the day the Swiss president was due to host a conference on Ukraine’s eventual recovery from the Russian war, bringing together government officials, advocacy groups and UN institutions.

Ignacio Cassis was hosting leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by video message, at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in the rural lakeside town of Lugano. Swiss diplomats say the meeting is aimed at trying to chart a way forward for the world to help the war-torn country recover and rebuild when the Russian war ends one day.

Cassis is scheduled to receive Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal, at the head of a delegation that includes dozens of Ukrainian ministers and lawmakers and others.

Public Eye said that “Switzerland, as a safe haven for the oligarchs near the Kremlin, and as a trading center for Russian oil, grain and coal, Switzerland bears a great political responsibility.”

Over the years, she said, Switzerland has been a “people’s refuge” for Russian businessmen to turn off their holdings. The group said the companies were using Switzerland as an “unregulated center for commodity trade” and taking advantage of a lack of transparency about the country’s financial transactions.

There was no immediate response from the Swiss government.

The group welcomed Switzerland’s “humanitarian engagement” for Ukraine through the conference, but called on the government to strictly enforce international sanctions on Russia’s elites and its government, and to better regulate its business hub.

Switzerland is a major international financial centre, and its government has traditionally promoted Swiss “neutrality” – enshrined in law – and Switzerland’s role as a mediator between hostile states and as host to many international and UN institutions.

The Swiss Bankers Association has estimated that the assets of Russian clients deposited in Swiss banks total 150-200 billion Swiss francs (about 155 to 210 billion dollars), making the country a major depository of Russian money abroad.

Swiss diplomats say hundreds of envoys from government, advocacy groups, the private sector, academia and UN organizations are expected to take part in the Lugano gathering, which is based on a multi-year, multi-country debate on reform in Ukraine – even before the war began. Diplomats say the conference is the first to bring disparate groups together to unite to meet Ukraine’s needs now.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are expected to attend the conference. More than six heads of state and more than a dozen ministers are expected to participate in the government, in addition to the heads of about six international organizations.

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