Switzerland suspends eased visa scheme for Russians

Switzerland on Friday suspended a simplified visa regime with Russia, aligning itself with the European Union which has taken a similar step in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. 

Switzerland suspends eased visa scheme for Russians
Switzerland suspends eased visa regime for Russians (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The government said it has “completely suspended” a 2009 agreement easing rules for Russian citizens to enter the Alpine country.

“This does not mean that a general visa ban has been imposed on Russian citizens,” Switzerland’s Federal Council said in a statement, adding the normal visa regime remained in place.

The move mirrors a decision taken by the EU, which in late August agreed to suspend a visa facilitation deal with Russia but stopped short of a wider visa ban.

“It is in Switzerland’s interest to contribute to a common and harmonised visa policy in Europe,” the Swiss government said.

“Otherwise, it risks facing an increasing number of visa applications submitted to its representations abroad by Russian nationals seeking to circumvent EU rules.”

Traditionally neutral, Switzerland broke with its usual stance in the days after the start of the war by aligning itself with European Union economic sanctions — angering Moscow.

The decision has faced some opposition in the wealthy central European country, with right-wing politicians calling for a national vote to reaffirm Swiss impartiality.

But last week, the government said the Swiss policy of neutrality remained “valid”, adding it left “sufficient room for manoeuvre” to respond to events happening across Europe since the start of the Ukraine war.

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Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia’s Lavrov

While attending the opening week of the 77th UN General Assembly in New York this week, Switzerland’s president Ignazio Cassis was photographed shaking hands with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia's Lavrov

Though Cassis announced beforehand that he would address “President Putin’s recent provocations” and that he would “condemn the nuclear threat”, Russia used the photo for its own propaganda purposes, with Lavrov publishing the picture of the two smiling diplomats in his tweet.

Cassis quickly reacted with his own post, explaining that his meeting with Lavrov was for a good cause.

“I called on Russia to refrain from organizing so-called referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Switzerland is also very concerned about the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Neutrality and good offices remain our instruments of dialogue”.

However, some in Switzerland and elsewhere have not accepted this response.

While the Foreign Ministry said “it sees no problem” with this photo, Swiss media Blick noted that “no head of state or minister of a Western democracy has allowed himself to be represented with Sergei Lavrov in such a posture”.

“This image would reflect an apparent normality in relations between the two countries, while Switzerland is still one of the countries hostile to Russia”.

It added, however, that Cassis might have had a noble motive in shaking Lavrov’s hand.

“In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s announcement to mobilise the reserve troops of the Russian army against Ukraine, this somewhat tense grip is more due to the contingencies of diplomacy than to a reconciliation”.

Others were less understanding of Cassis’ action.

“Our President is shaking hands with a war criminal… I can’t believe it”, said Bernhard Guhl, former national adviser to the Center party.

For Thierry Burkart, president of the Liberal party, “it’s unfortunate that this photo exists. But sometimes you just can’t avoid it…”

As for other social media users, one commented that Cassis “looks proud standing next to a genocide instigator… ashamed of my government”.