"We Want to Be a Reliable Partner": Swiss Ambassador on Projects in Lviv Region and Ukraine's Reconstruction

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In June of this year, Switzerland will host a major conference on the future peace for Ukraine, with approximately 100 countries participating. Tvoemisto.tv spoke with the Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine and Moldova, Felix Baumann, who told us more about this summit; how Switzerland envisions Ukraine's recovery; Swiss projects in the Lviv region and Ukraine's European integration.

Hello to everyone and welcome to the next edition of Lviv International Talks. And I welcome our distinguished guest today in the studio, the ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine and Moldova, Felix Baumann.

Good morning.

Good morning and welcome to Lviv. I suppose it's your first official visit here.

Thank you so much. Thank you for the warm welcome. Yes, it's my first official visit to Lviv.

We'll talk more about the projects of Switzerland in Lviv and in the Lviv region a bit later. But I would like to start our conversation with something more vital and more important for all of us, the war related issues.This summer a big summit about the future peace for Ukraine is going to happen in Switzerland, with probably 100 countries to participate. Can you tell us a few words about it?

Yes, that's right. The summit will be held in Switzerland in June, and it will be actually hosted by the president of the Swiss Confederation, Viola Amherd. And the aim of the summit will be to have a dialogue between as many countries as possible on ways how to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine, but at the same time also to create a common understanding of what should be a future framework, favorable precisely to this objective, and how a concrete roadmap for a future peace plan could look like. And of course, it is about respecting international law and the cardinal values of the charter of the United Nations.

Do you believe it will really work? Because we do have many international laws that are being absolutely  neglected by Russia. Why do you think this framework should work in the future and how?

Well, for the time being, of course, there are still many, many open issues, but that's also why it is precisely so important to gather a large group of countries to start these discussions right now.

I just came back from the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where hundreds of journalists, editors and media managers from all major publications came together. And I heard there from many colleagues from all over the world the questions like, “Are you ready for a ceasefire?”, “When do you think it's going to happen?”, “Do you think you can give part of your land to have peace?”.  It means, from my perspective, there`s some kind of fatigue from the war in Ukraine. Do you have similar feelings, observations when you talk to your colleagues, diplomats in the West? Or maybe it's different?

Well, what we see is that we live in an incredibly complex world. We have the war in Ukraine for now, going on at least in its full scale dimension for more than two years.  We have a war in the Middle East. In Europe, many countries face high numbers of migrants coming into Europe. We have climate change. We still have an economic situation that in many areas is not easy. And so I think this whole complexity is quite challenging.

But when it comes to Ukraine, and now speaking just for my own country, for Switzerland, I still see a very high solidarity in the population. We can see that we still have about 60,000 Ukrainians who are in Switzerland. It's also what we see in the media - the media is still covering widely the situation and the war in Ukraine. And at a government level, our support for Ukraine remains high.

Let`s talk about the money of Russian elites in the West. If I'm correct, around $9 billion were frozen in Switzerland,  Russian assets, as it was from the end of last year. Do you think this money might be used to help Ukraine?

Well, there are discussions going on within the EU, especially if the assets of the russian central bank should be invested and actually the proceeds then used for reconstruction in Ukraine. This is a complex discussion, and we follow this discussion closely. Then, depending on the outcome, the Swiss government will determine what action, if any, will be required from the Swiss side.

But then also, in addition, Switzerland continues also to closely monitor or to follow other steps that are taken or that are discussed in international fora on the sanctioned Russian assets. I think, for example, of particular discussions within the G7, but also within the EU with relation to the immobilized Russian state assets.

How do you see the recovery of Ukraine and do you think it's connected with the euro integration of Ukraine?

I think recovery has to be thought now. And it will be, of course, hugely important that the reform process moves on and that at the same time it will result in infrastructures and services increase. So the EU access, I think, well, Switzerland being not a member of the EU, it's not up to me to comment on this, but it's obvious that this will be a huge catalyst precisely for continuing the path of reforms. And obviously, I mean, a stable and secure European continent is a vital interest of Switzerland.

And coming back to recovery, one precondition in many areas of Ukraine, those close to the front line will be, of course, demining - to demine agriculture land, for example, but also to render, for example, access to schools, to hospitals, safe for citizens and children.  Humanitarian demining is one of key priorities. We have a package of 100 million euro for four years, including demining efforts on the ground in the Kharkiv area. We will this year also expand to the Kherson area. It's through a Swiss foundation, but it's also about delivering much needed equipment, machines and also capacity building.

And just two weeks ago, the Swiss government decided to foresee roughly 5 billion euro for the next twelve years and of these, 1.5 billion will be allotted for the next four years, pending approval of the Swiss parliament and allowing us to continue all the efforts we already do in the country.

We are very thankful for the support of Switzerland, but I suppose it's not only about money, it's probably also about people's involvement. Do citizens of Switzerland also come here as volunteers? Are they somehow incorporated in these projects? And what are their reflections, what are their first impressions of what they do here, what they find interesting in Ukraine?

Well, let me just start with our engagement. So it did not start basically two years ago or even ten years ago, but actually almost 30 years ago. And I think thanks to that we have a large network of partners, state and civil society we are working with for all those years.

And this helped us also in the last two years to redirect a number of projects. We intend to be a reliable partner for Ukraine, providing assistance in those areas where we can really add value, but also that respond to concrete needs of Ukraine. And this is important.

And yes, we do work in our programs with state institutions, we do work with a number of NGO's and civil society partners, with volunteers of Ukraine. And you're right, there are also swiss players, swiss private players that come here. And I think that's also a testimony of people who want to show their solidarity, who want to help in different fields. There are humanitarian workers, there are, yes, the miners, there are private companies also and for example doctors also who try to help. So this people to people help is very important. I think it's also a nice testimony of the bonds between the two countries.

And are you talking with them? Do you hear any of their reflections? What they find special about Ukraine?

I think many of them are always impressed. That's what I hear by the environment they find in a war, but this resilience of the ukrainian population at large and also of the different professional groups who want to help and this commitment, this solidarity that is going on after all these months of war and that's I think what they really take back.

You mentioned also the private companies. When we went to journalism festival last week, we just prepared this special printed edition, The Untold Stories from Ukraine. And we have a conversation here with co-owner of Nova Post. Their warehouses have been bombed, but they're still operating, delivering closer to the frontline and they're also investing into new branches outside Ukraine, in the EU. And we have many other stories of resilience of Ukrainian businesses, like tech companies and others. But what about companies from outside Ukraine? What about swiss businesses and swiss entrepreneurs, are they investing in Ukraine now? And if yes, why aren't they afraid of it, actually?

Well, first of all, there are swiss companies in a very wide range of sectors of activity here, from food companies to pharmaceuticals to construction companies and so on. And I'm really glad to say that all of them remained after the start of the full scale military aggression two years ago. Of course, they had to readapt their business, and many, many suffered. Of course, that's obvious.

But they showed again an extreme resilience in adapting, sometimes even in getting into new fields of activity. They kept their workforce. They still keep on paying taxes. Many also immediately engaged into projects of assistance to their communities, or humanitarian assistance as well. And I think they also received support from their headquarters in Switzerland. And there are cases even of investments, especially, especially in Lviv area. And I think that's a testimony of these firms that they believe in the future of Ukraine and of the economic activity they can perform here.

Great. Can you talk a little bit more about these projects? What are they about?

Well, some are investments into existing companies, and others are, for example, also building new factories, actually new plants, which will in turn result in the possibility to hire workforce, creating jobs, and then in turns, again generating taxes for the authorities to be able to deliver on key services and infrastructure.

I know that the government of Switzerland is also helping by having projects of technical assistance in Lviv and Lviv region in the areas of infrastructure, health, public health and mental health.

Yes, I think, this intensity of our cooperation is mirrored also here in Lviv. For example, just yesterday I met with the governor. We had a talk about the priorities for the region. Then I signed with the first deputy mayor of the city an agreement on urban mobility and public transport. And actually, one aspect of this agreement will be the delivery of eleven trams, eleven low floor trams to Lviv from our capital, from Bern. These trams will be delivered in early autumn, hopefully. And I will be glad to be here to see when the first tram will actually drive through the streets of Lviv. I'm convinced this will be a very valuable addition to the fleet of Lviv trams.

But then also the health secto that you mentioned. That's an important area we've been working in for many years, actually, that started much before the start of the full scale military aggression. And for example, one is war trauma rehabilitation project that was redirected in the last years with swiss financing. It's about  providing rapid access to high quality service and rehabilitation services for the wounded and wounded civilians and veterans that were affected by the ongoing conflict. But another key area of intervention is mental health.

And here also it's about mitigating the effects of the war on those people afflicted by mental health, diseases, in order  to find high quality and rapid access to services. And then yesterday it was also my aim to visit one business where the biggest investor is Swiss. We had a talk about the business perspectives for the region, and especially the prospects for small and medium enterprises. That's also a domain we are involved in. And then finally, I had a talk in the late afternoon with BUR (Build Ukraine Together), with civil society. And I must say, I was really impressed by these young people, because it's about them helping, volunteering to do reconstruction in war torn communities.

It goes much, much beyond this. It's also about developing trust, I think, in cohesion in society, and also to create a community of responsible and capable youth. And I must say, I was really very inspired by this conversation.

So do you see this special force, special power of Ukraine in combination of businesses and civil society, especially at the local level?

Well, that's what I always think. For an ambassador in Kyiv, it's important to get out of the capital, to visit the different regions of Ukraine. Yes, I was in Kharkiv, I was in Zaporizhia, I was in Kherson Oblast, in  Vinnytsia, recently I was in Chernivtsi, and now in Lviv. And that's maybe what renders the situation unique in Ukraine, is the needs. Of course, they are totally different in different areas.

We're one of the few countries to have humanitarian assistance of our own. That means we directly implement our own projects with our own teams, which allows us to be fast and deliver  the kind of assistance that communities really need close to the front line.

Basically every week I have colleagues from the embassy who travel to these areas. Even this week, we have, again, two missions to these areas. In the western part, you have investments by private business, and then you have a whole range of cooperation projects from digitalization and the ones we mentioned before, health also very important. We still support governance and decentralization in Ukraine. And, yes, again, I think we work with a wide variety of partners and civil society.

What do you think should be the role of communities, hromadas, in the further recovery of Ukraine?

Well, you know, as the Swiss, we have our regions, or cantons, as we call them, and our municipalities, they have strong identities and they actually enjoy a large autonomy. And in Switzerland, this autonomy basically does not go from the federal state to the communities, but it's rather the other way around. The federal state does what the communities have delegated to the federal level. So in Swiss history, over the centuries and decades, it was always about protecting minorities, but at the same time, also to ensure that minorities are included into the political process. And that was about religions, it's, of course about national languages also.

So in a way, it was quite natural for Switzerland to support also decentralization efforts in Ukraine. And as most experts will acknowledge, this decentralization was key in communities being so resilient to address the effects of the full scale military aggression. So we will pursue this support for decentralization.  At the same time, community level organizations, NGO's, civil society, they play a very, very important role in.

Let's continue this conversation about  the local level. You mentioned the trams from Bern. As I remember, Bern is a very pedestrian city and very environmentally friendly city, because you see almost no cars there, but you see trams and you see lots of bikes. Do you think there should be a vision of how to develop the cities of Ukraine now, to have this recovery as efficient as possible? Because we often hear this quote, this message - “Let's build Ukraine back better”. I suppose it's very different for the cities that were destroyed by Russians in the east and south of Ukraine, and for the cities in the west of Ukraine, which are more or less in a much better shape, but still economically having lots of challenges. Do you think we should think of the vision and strategy of how to develop the cities, how to rebuild Ukraine back better on the local level?

Well, the agreement we signed yesterday actually goes beyond the trends. It's precisely about mobility, urban mobility in general, and about what a master plan could be in the future for mobility. And that's, of course, also the complementarity about different means of transport, from local trains to trams, buses and trolley buses, to biking to pedestrian zones. It's also about capacity building in this field. And I think here, well, probably all cities, in a way, face the same challenges.

And as far as I understood yesterday, it's a chance and a challenge fro Lviv. The number of people that came to find refuge in Lviv from other areas of Ukraine. Maybe some will go back, but some will maybe also stay. And that means there is an increase in population, and that, of course, needs further infrastructure in the mobility field. And you cannot just get that by cars. I mean, then, of course, the city will not cope with it. So it will be one of the goals and challenges in the coming years to think of how making the public transport system performant and capable to face this increased demand in mobility. And then it's certainly about the complementarity of different modes of transport. But I have the impression that's a trend that we face all over Europe. Actually, I think all cities have a bit the same challenges, especially also those that have, like Lviv, had before the war,, rely heavily on tourism with many visitors, and to have here to develop concepts that are sustainable.

I moderated recently a roundtable of the national level scale on public transport development in Ukraine and its strategies in the wartime. And some of the speakers said they rely on western expertise, support, and mainly they mentioned Switzerland. Probably Switzerland could somehow help also with this expertise of strategies, not just trams and beyond, as you mentioned, but also about bringing the minds and bringing your experience of shaping the city's infrastructure?

Yes, indeed. Switzerland has a long tradition of public transport. We're probably one of the countries most fond of our railways. I think the Swiss almost love their railways and it's probably one of the populations in Europe who travels most kilometers per year in public transport.

But beyond this, yes it's true we have a lot of expertise from planning to suppliers in all kind of fields-  from the technical level, at the infrastructure level, signalization level, hardware, software. For example, we have a project in which we supported the Ukrainian railways with rail fasteners which allow to renovate tracks. We had such a project for almost 400 tracks last year and there will be a second phase this year.  There`s something we do, for example, in Vinnytsia, there was such support of the city, of urban city planners.

Is there a possibility in the future of some bigger projects of a national scale, involving different cities and different stakeholders?

I guess. Well the mobility of the future is about interconnecting different modes of transport of having an efficient, efficient and fast railway system between the major centers and then having efficient public transport in the level of the regional and local level and then of course the complement within the urban space with biking and pedestrian zones, and I think all of this should somehow go together and be a coherent approach to a mobility.

And to come back to your former question - yes, that responds in a way to the needs of people and of the economy also,  not forget about cargo and freight.  I think for Ukraine this is extremely important and at the same time for visitors - tourists coming to visit the country or its cities.

Before this interview we had a short conversation about local food, about different local attributes. And we see that it is getting more popular in western Europe now. Do you see this as something we should develop in Ukraine? What would you recommend here from the Swiss perspective and experience?

Well, it's an interesting question. It reminds me about the very first question that you ask. Yes, we live in a very complex world with many challenges and many people feel somehow overwhelmed by the wars and the climate and the financial issues, with the kind of digitalization, the pressure on the workforce, on the work life and so on and so forth. It seems to me there is a kind of request again to value more local traditions and where one is from its identity, its culture. So yes, food is certainly a very powerful driver and Ukraine is also one of these countries in that way similar to Switzerland, very fond and proud of its culture and traditions and with a huge variety of local traditions.

For me it's always a huge pleasure to discover different traditions, including culinary traditions from one city to another.

Is there something special in ukrainian food that you already enjoyed, loved?

Well, of course there are the classicals like Varenyky and Borshch, obviously. But, for example, Lviv impressed me with this mix of different culinary influences. I was trying gefilte fish last night, I guess that's again something that you will not find elsewhere necessarily in Ukraine. So I think that each town I visit there is something new to discover.

We in Ukraine can fully enjoy all the food, all the public transport (which we hope will be better and better in Ukraine) and everything else, absolutely fully after victory. How do you see the Ukrainian victory?

Well, what we are now is still in a period of uncertainty, and it's very difficult to predict where we will be in one month, in two months, exactly. But what is important for us is to convey this message to Ukraine, that we support Ukraine. We want, as I said before, to be and to remain a reliable partner to Ukraine, also over the long run. That means also in multi year financial commitments, that means what we decide, we deliver and relying on these very different needs where in some areas you have to provide humanitarian assistance to cover the basic needs due to the war, and in others you move on to cooperation projects or you start thinking about recovery.

Thank you for support of Switzerland for Ukraine and future Ukrainian victory. We do hope to have it as soon as possible. 

Thank you also from my side, thank you so much for this opportunity and this conversation.

The interview was conducted by Taras Yatsenko

Photos by Ivan Stanislavskyi / Tvoe Misto

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