Tag Archives: Switzerland

On the Wrong Side of History: Christoph Blocher on the Passing of Nelson Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela reopens the question of Swiss collaboration with South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Switzerland continued to have both diplomatic and trade relations with South Africa even at a time when the rest of the world shunned the regime. It allowed commodities traders, like Mark Rich, to use Switzerland as a base to circumvent international sanctions against South Africa. Switzerland was not a member of the United Nations then and was not bound by its sanctions. The policy of absolute neutrality served as justification for non-interference and free trade with the result that Swiss corporations were allowed to do business with the Apartheid regime and thus profit from the international sanctions against South Africa.

Christoph Blocher (b. 1940) is one of the most prominent, influential and divisive politicians in recent Swiss history. He was a Nationalrat (national councilor, member of parliament) from 1980 to 2003 and has been serving as Nationalrat again since 2011. He was a Bundesrat (federal councilor) and minister of justice between 2003 and 2007. He represents the populist-right Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party) which has spearheaded all anti-immigration and anti-EU measures of the past quarter century and which currently is the strongest party in Switzerland.

Blocher was a co-founder of the  Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group) in Switzerland–a Swiss lobby group that supported the Apartheid regime all the way to its demise.  The work of this influential but secretive group still is largely unexplored. In spite of the 2005 report by the Swiss historian Georg Kreis on Swiss relations with South Africa between 1948 and 1994, there is little public awareness of the larger role Switzerland played in support of the Apartheid regime.

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Christoph Blocher (left) in his home, discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela. (Screenshot teleblocher.ch, 12/6/2013)

For several years, Blocher has run his own webcast called Teleblocher–a weekly program where he chats with the Swiss journalist Matthias Ackeret about the issues of the week. The 25-minute program recorded on December 6, 2013, includes a segment dedicated to the passing of Nelson Mandela which lasted a total of six minutes and 42 seconds (also posted on Youtube). The conversation was in Swiss German–I transcribed and translated the entire Mandela segment, and I am posting it below. The interview has a certain oral and stream-of-consciousness quality to it, and I decided to render that in my translation even though it is is not always clear what Blocher meant to say. The transcript also does not render the tone of the conversation–for instance the indignation with which he tells us how the Swiss federal government refused to receive the South African president F. W. De Klerk in the late 1980s. The Mandela segment starts at minute 7:12 and ends at 13:54.

Rather than commenting on this interview, I want to make it available to a wider global audience. What this interview shows is a clearly Euro-centric, unrepentant racist apology in support of the Apartheid regime–and of the Swiss collaboration with it. Blocher throughout the interview idealizes the accomplishments of the Apartheid regime while showing contempt for Black liberation. But I think that the text can stand for itself. Read on.

Ackeret [7:12]: Well, our second topic is a bit more serious. This morning, an announcement which went around the world, Nelson Mandela died. What kind of a relationship did you have?

Blocher [7:21]: I did not have a direct relationship, but I followed this issue of course. Simply put, Nelson Mandela was in South Africa which had a very brutal and strict racial division between White and Black—he always fought for Black people to have the same rights. And he was banned and put into prison—that was an island just off the coast where he was put. And as the Whites were–whoever was against that, it was a question of whether the government would be toppled—they intervened quite brutally. And South Africa was part of Southern Africa.

Ackeret [8:11]: Well, you were part of this famous committee.

Blocher [8:13]: The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group); it was not just concerned with South Africa. And that was during the time of the Cold War. The Soviet Union wanted to do everything to gain control over Southern Africa. Because, this was the Cape of Good Hope, it was a very important route around Africa. And whoever strategically had control over this had an important part of global power in their hands. And thanks to the most important state in Southern Africa, South Africa, where the Whites made sure that it would not be Communist-controlled, they did not gain control over it. And the Southern Africa Working Group in which mostly higher officers [of the Swiss Army] were participating was concerned with this issue.

Ackeret [9:06]: But which supported Apartheid—that was the allegation at the time.

Blocher [9:08]: No, no, that is what they said, because we said that South Africa should resolve this problem on their own. Of course, it is clear: Russia wanted the Blacks to gain control because with them they could have turned things. So they held back in such a strategic situation. And the Whites always said that when they get this into their hands we would not come anymore. But one always has to know: Africa turned this regime on its own, and it was the Whites to be sure. And I was part of these discussions. And De Klerk who afterwards turned things.

Ackeret [9:55]: The Prime Minister.

Blocher [9:55]: He [De Klerk] came to Switzerland shortly before that. He was not given a reception, in Switzerland, by the Bundesrat [Federal Council]. They let him stand in front of the Bundeshaus [federal building] just so they would not get a bad reputation with the United Nations. So I received him with two or three other members of parliament in the Bellevue [hotel]. And then, as a White, he turned things around and received the Nobel Prize afterwards. And since then, race discrimination has disappeared. Africa is a wonderful country, this has to be pointed out, in terms of landscape, and the Whites kept very good order. But they did not grant equal rights. They did everything to integrate the Blacks. Hundreds of thousands of them, every year, came from the North, all Blacks, because they had it much better in South Africa than back home. But they did not have political rights. They also did strange things: they labeled benches, only for whites, only for blacks. And the Blacks also did not want to be where the Whites were. For us, this is a alien way of thinking.

Ackeret [11:08]: What was the goal of that committee?

Blocher [11:10]: The committee wanted to ensure that South Africa would not fall into the hands of Communism. Because we knew if that was going to happen the Cold War would turn in favor of the left, of the Soviets. One would not get it back once they would control that tip [of Africa]. The Americans knew that too. That is why the Americans always did both things: Apartheid, nothing at all, but simultaneously collaborated with the South Africans. And I believe that this was the merit of those groups who said, let the South Africans solve the issues on their own, we do not have to give them advice, and they did solve it themselves. South Africa is difficult now. One has to be very careful when going to South Africa, because they have a high crime rate which did not ever exist before. It is difficult to go out into the streets, and of course they are economically doing more poorly than before.  But as before,  South Africa is the state that is the strongest in Southern Africa, and all the other states profit from that as well.  And now Mandela, the representative, they had released him, and since then he has been a hero in South Africa.

Ackeret [12:35]: Rightly so or not?

Blocher [12:37]: Well, I mean, he contributed a lot to the end of racial discrimination—this is alien to us. And rightly so, we say that he fought during his entire life and went to prison—that is always a sign that one is serious about it. But perhaps he has been overrated (“überschätzt”) in many places. This is how it goes: if somebody did something well at some point, everything else he does is considered to be good. But this is all over now. Those who in the early years saw Mandela’s house—which for us almost is a palazzo—and Bishop Tutu, that was the other one…

Ackeret [13:20]: That was the neighbor.

Blocher [13:21]: […] he was on the same side. Well, they did not live in tin huts. They were well taken care of.

Ackeret [13:30]: You went to look at it?

Blocher [13:31]: Yes, look at it. I wanted to see where they lived. Well, I said, of course this is hierarchical. But in these states this has to be that way, that people of this kind and that kind live that way. And of course those in the regime made sure that they did not have to live in poverty.

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Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto before his 1964 imprisonment. Yes, I went to see it too–not exactly a palazzo. (2007)

Ackeret [13:54]: Let’s go back to Switzerland. […]

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Rhäzüns castle, part-time residence of Christoph Blocher. Why criticize Mandela for living in a simple bungalow?

 

Oprah Creates a Stir: Switzerland’s Small-State Response

In my blog post of August 9, I commented on the Oprah incident in Zurich which has been dubbed Täschligate (handbag-gate) in Switzerland. While “Oprah-Gate” has long been dropped from short-lived news cycles around the world, the story continues to unfold in Switzerland. And here the story becomes interesting: how does a small country process the scolding and humiliation by the global media?

Here is a brief synopsis: Oprah entered an exclusive Zurich boutique, asked to see a very expensive handbag, but being turned down by the sales clerk with the remark that this item would be too expensive for her. This at least is Oprah’s version of the story. The story was picked up by news outlets around the world after Oprah’s high-profile interviews with Entertainment Tonight and with Larry King, and Oprah’s interpretation of this incident as racially motivated was uncritically accepted and disseminated. In my first blog post, I concurred that there was a racial component to the story, and in spite of some unresolved discrepancies I have not changed my mind.

There have been multiple responses in Switzerland, and the bulk of them focused on discrediting Oprah on some level and thus on putting her credibility in question. One commentator bluntly claimed that she couldn’t sing nor act and that her only true skill was self-presentation. The most common response is to frame Oprah as a petulant and narcissistic star who was irritated by the fact that she was not recognized in an upscale boutique–which is used to dealing with celebrities–and that her show does not have any traction in Switzerland.

First, there was a tearjerker of an interview in the Swiss tabloid Blick with the sales clerk–who was idendified as Adriana N.–with the title “I have not been able to sleep for days!” It is a full-blown victim narrative–“I feel like I am in the center of a hurricane.” Adriana remembers that Oprah entered the store accompanied by a man (Oprah claims to have gone shopping alone). In Adriana’s version of the story, she showed Oprah a handbag from the Jennifer Aniston line and explained that they existed in different sizes and materials. In Adriana’s account, Oprah eyed the expensive crocodile skin bag on top of the shelf: “I told her that this is the same bag like the one I was holding in my hand at the time. Only that that one was much more expensive. I would be happy to show her other bags.” The uncontested fact is that Adriana did not take down the expensive bag even though Oprah showed an interest in it and that Adriana tried to steer Oprah towards less expensive bags.

Trudie Götz, the owner of the boutique, in her own interview with Blick, admits that Adriana committed one mistake by not having taken the bag off the shelf and handed it to Oprah. When Adriana mentioned the price to Oprah, she felt bad about it, according to Götz. Why would you feel bad about stating a price in an upscale shop–unless of course you believed that the item was way out of the person’s price range. So Oprah’s reaction seems justified: she indeed was profiled by Adriana and considered not worthy of being shown this very expensive bag. Was racism a factor? Götz, flatly denied that, adding: “I am sorry, but perhaps she [Oprah] is a bit too sensitive in this regard.” Götz unwittingly points to the inverse as the real problem: if you are white, you don’t have to concern yourself with issues of race.

This is the mainstream interpretation of this event in Switzerland. Even the speedy apology to Oprah by Switzerland Tourism, Switzerland’s heavily subsidized tourism office, now is being criticized in Switzerland. Rino Büchel, a member of parliament representing the populist-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), is demanding to know how this “bizarre apology” came about. Even Daniela Bär, the spokesperson for Switzerland Tourism who had tweeted the apology, is now backpedaling, stating that the apology was premature, too emotional and provided an unfortunate interpretation of the event. Büchel in the meantime increased the pressure by promising a parliamentary investigation of Switzerland Tourism’s original apology, stressing that too many outside of Switzerland were confounding Switzerland Tourism with the country itself and read this as a national admission of guilt. Unfortunately, the headline in Britain’s The Telegraph bears this out: “Switzerland apologises to Oprah Winfrey over handbag incident.” And Politico reported: “The Swiss government and the boutique apologized, trying to tamp down what had a become a worldwide story.”

One of the more bizarre commentaries by Martin Sturzenegger in the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger focuses on the object of desire: the handbag, made from crocodile skin and with a SFr. 35,000 ($38,000) price tag. For this handbag, the skins of three crocodiles were used who were raised under horrible conditions in a crocodile farm, as the linked PETA video narrated by actor Joaquin Phoenix graphically shows. Sturzenegger points out that PETA, the animal rights organization, named Oprah the person of the year in 2008 because she made her large audience aware of the systemic abuse of animals in industrial settings. Based on the handbag incident, Heinz Lienhard, the president of the Swiss animal rights organization, declared that Oprah was not a true protector of animals. So Sturzenegger’s take is that Oprah is a phony animal lover with a pathological desire for publicity. The problem with this argument: Oprah just wanted to see the bag; she never expressed the desire to buy it.

The most recent line of argumentation in the Tages_Anzeiger and in Blick is that Oprah created a big stir around this incident to promote the new movie “The Butler” in which she has a starring role. Granted, Oprah knows how to generate publicity and how to stage herself. But the article in Politico–on which this theory is based–more generally argues that “Oprah Winfrey is stepping back into politics,” mentioning her discussion of the Zurich incident as one example and only in passing.

All of these responses are typical for a small state that sees itself exposed to massive criticism from abroad. In moments like these, defending national interests trumps introspection and reasoned debate. Even Martine Brunschwig Graf, the president of the federal commission against racism (Eidgenössische Kommission gegen Rassismus), condemned the efforts by mostly foreign media outlets to turn an ego problem into a racism problem, as she put it.

But in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the response seems to be more moderate. A piece in the Lausanne daily 24 heures, entitled “Oprah Winfrey finds Switzerland racist, and our black community does as well,” takes this opportunity to reflect on racism in Switzerland. Celeste Ugochukwu, the president of the Conseil de la Diaspora africaine de Suisse (CDAS), stated in the article that racial discrimination was common in Switzerland–but more so in the German-speaking part. André Loembe, vice president of a different immigrant organization, diagnosed a rising anti-Black attitude in Switzerland since the early 2000s. The federal commission against racism in a 2010 report confirmed a rise in anti-Black and anti-Muslim incidents. Loembe further expressed his view that Swiss anti-racism laws should be used to prosecute the sales clerk. If you are black in Switzerland, it is a lot easier to see the racial component of Oprah’s handbag incident.

Some progressive politicians take a more critical perspective as well. In an interview with the German news magazine FOCUS, the social democratic politician Andreas Gross recognized a “combination of an inflated self-importance of being Swiss (Selbstüberwertung des Schweizer-Seins) and a strange provincial attitude in contact with foreigners.” In his view, this paradox between competency in foreign trade and inability to deal with foreigners in their own country is poorly understood in Switzerland and not part of a critical self-examination.

The context of increasing hostility towards immigrants in Switzerland also is hard to overlook. Most notable are popular votes against the construction of new minarets in November 2009 and for tightening asylum laws in June 2013. In July, allegations of inhuman treatment of asylum seekers in some Swiss towns became public. In the affluent town of Bremgarten, for instance, asylum seekers have been banned from the public pool and from local sports facilities–this town of 6,500 people has created a total of 32 exclusion zones where asylum seekers are not allowed to go.

So the Oprah incident is just the tip of the iceberg. It reveals a country that feels pressured by immigration and that is deeply troubled by the rapid demographic transformation unleashed by immigration. It also reveals just how clumsy and insecure the Swiss debate about race is. Moreover, it reveals the typical collective small-state defensive reflexes against any perceived threat from the outside that render a national debate toxic. In a more recent  interview, Oprah showed a surprising insight into this issue: “It’s not an indictment against the country or even that store. It was just one person who didn’t want to offer me the opportunity to see the bag. So no apologies necessary from the country of Switzerland. If somebody makes a mistake in the United States do we apologize in front of the whole country? No!” The Swiss would do well to take this to heart.

 

 

 

Racist Attitudes in Switzerland? The Tales of two African-American Women

Oprah traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, recently to attend the wedding of Tina Turner who has lived in the tony Zurich suburb of Küsnacht since 1995. Earlier this year, Turner made the headlines for accepting Swiss citizenship while simultaneously renouncing her US citizenship, presumably for tax reasons. The US has the questionable distinction of being the only industrialized country that taxes its citizens who reside abroad. (One would wish that the US would apply similar standards to US corporations, but that is a different matter.) Taxes aside, Turner seems to be genuinely at ease in Switzerland: “I’m very happy in Switzerland and I feel at home here. […] I cannot imagine a better place to live,” Turner reportedly told the Swiss tabloid Blick.

Oprah, her wedding guest, had a different story to tell to Entertainment Tonight. Oprah apparently entered the exclusive boutique Trois Pommes (which Oprah refused to identify) in downtown Zurich by herself, without any of her handlers. She asked to see a handbag with a SFr. 35,000 ($38,000) price tag. According to Oprah, the sales person replied, “No, it’s too expensive!” When Oprah further insisted on seeing that bag, the woman at the store replied, “No, no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one would cost too much and you would not be able to afford that.” The employee then proceeded to show Oprah other, less expensive handbags. After three unsuccessful attempts, Oprah apparently left the store without making a scene and without pulling “the black card,” as she put it.

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Upscale shopping street in the historic heart of Zurich

In the interview, Oprah was clearly annoyed because her star power apparently has not reached tiny Switzerland yet: “I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had my little Donna Karan skirt and my little sandals. But obviously The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich. So this does not happen to me unless somebody obviously does not know it is me.”

It is unfortunate that this narcissistic display of injured vanity obfuscates the matter. It has allowed commentators in Switzerland to focus on the hissy fit by a narcissistic international entertainer–as a commentary entitled “Die verletzte Narzisstin” (the injured narcissist) in the respected Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger did. This line of argumentation enables commentators to deny that there is any racism at issue in this scandal that now is referred to as “Täschligate” (handbag-gate) in Switzerland. As in the cases of the Nazi Gold and the bank secret, Switzerland again sees itself exposed to a barrage of international accusations, and the gut reaction is to circle the wagons–a posture that is common when small states see themselves exposed to massive criticism and pressure from abroad. And Oprah delivered all the arguments for this defensive posture.

This also is unfortunate because Oprah clearly has had a positive impact on young black women around the world. In a visit to South Africa some years ago, a group of young women from Limpopo province glowingly told us how Oprah is a role model for them who as a person of color and as a woman made it in a world dominated by white men.

But Oprah is right that this incident would not have happened if the sales clerk had recognized her as a celebrity. Which brings up the question why it did happen. Trudie Götz, the owner of the boutique, in an interview with the Swiss tabloid Blick framed this as a “misunderstanding” due to the imperfect command of English of her employee and claimed that her employee meant well, acted correctly and in no way displayed racial prejudices. She further stated that she sees no reason to fire her sales person. Ironically, Ms. Götz was an invited guest at the Turner wedding as well.

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Trudie Götz, owner of the upscale Trois Pommes boutique, in an interview with the tabloid Blick (screenshot Aug. 9, 2013)

If the sales clerk acted correctly by not showing a handbag to a customer deemed undeserving, business policies and practices come into focus. It is obvious that the profiling of customers in this boutique is standard procedure and that sales people are trained to profile customers–a practice that was confirmed by other upscale Zurich retailers. But what are the criteria for this profile? Obviously, the perceived ability to pay is key, and race factors into that in a major way. Furthermore, the rabid denials of racism by so many Swiss commentators imply that race indeed is a major underlying issue. Switzerland just in recent years has been forced to deal with a multi-racial society. Switzerland still lacks any authoritative mainstream voices–like Oprah–who can talk about race from a minority viewpoint. As the clumsy and insensitive commentaries in the Swiss press indicate, the Swiss have a long way to go to develop an understanding of the subtle ways of racism in our globalized world.

In the meantime, Switzerland Tourism, Switzerland’s official tourism office, showed outrage over the scandal, apparently fearing damage to its brand. International tourism in Switzerland has been in decline over the past few years, and the perception is that this scandal is not helpful. Daniela Bär, the spokesperson for Switzerland Tourism, offered a speedy apology to Oprah, reducing the issue to a clumsy salesperson who acted inappropriately. This also seems to be the view of other retailers in Zurich–again denying any systemic issues this scandal seems to have revealed. It is evident that Switzerland Tourism and other commercial interests would like the world to see Switzerland through Tina Turner’s eyes rather than Oprah Winfrey’s.

 

Note: see my later post, published on August 13, 2013, entitled Oprah Creates a Stir: Switzerland’s Small-State Response

Marc Rich and Switzerland: An Uneasy Relationship

By sheer coincidence, I arrived in Zug, Switzerland, a couple of days after the passing of Marc Rich (1934-2013) who was one of the world’s foremost commodities traders. It just so happens that this is the city where in 1974 Marc Rich and friends founded Marc Rich + Co AG which specialized in commodities trading. It is no accident that Rich set up his company in Zug which is a business-friendly tax haven cloaked in secrecy, located in a small country that specializes in tax shelters and bank secrecy. Rich sold his company in 1994 which then was renamed Glencore and today is one of the biggest traders in commodities–still based in Zug.

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Zug, Switzerland. Humans: 25,000. Corporations: 30,000.

Marc Rich traded with anyone, and he pursued commodities even in countries with very difficult political situations where other traders stayed away. His company also traded with countries under US or international sanctions, such as Cuba, Iran, and South Africa during Apartheid, and with ruthless dictators like Pinochet, Ceausescu, Qaddafi, and others. A congressional investigation revealed that Rich for instance delivered Soviet and Iranian oil to South Africa and traded uranium from Namibia, which then was a South African protectorate, back to the Soviet Union in return. The Shipping Research Bureau in Amsterdam documented 149 oil deliveries to South Africa set up by Marc Rich between 1979 and 1993 in violation of the embargo. These oil deliveries were vital as oil was the only major raw material South Africa did not possess on its own.

Ken Silverstein in his well-researched 2012 profile of Marc Rich in Foreign Policy states that “the real secret to Glencore’s success is operating in markets that scare off more risk-averse companies that fear running afoul of corporate governance laws in the United States and the European Union.” Daniel Ammann, who wrote a Marc Rich biography entitled The King of Oil, in a 2010 interview with Reuters stated that Rich “went where others feared to tread – geographically and morally.” According to CNN Money, Rich was “one of the world’s most famous white-collar criminals,” and the Financial Times more bluntly called Rich a “buccaneering oil trader.”

Marc Rich was indicted in the US in 1983 on more than 50 counts of fraud, racketeering, evading income taxes, and breaking US and UN trade embargoes. At the time, he was considered the biggest tax evader in US history, and dealing with outlaw regimes had turned into his specialty. The FBI put Marc Rich on its most wanted list. In response, Rich renounced his US citizenship in 1984 and hunkered down in Switzerland which proved to be a reliable place of exile. Rich maintained his primary residence in Switzerland, first in Zug and then in nearby Meggen, until his death earlier this week. His exile only ended when President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich on his last day in office on January 20, 2001–an act that left a stain on Clinton’s legacy. The record shows that influential politicians of another small state, Israel, had lobbied on Rich’s behalf, including Ehud Barak and Schimon Peres. In spite of Clinton’s pardon, Rich never dared to return to the United States out of fear that US officials would file charges not covered by the pardon.

But the question of interest here is why Switzerland offered Marc Rich a safe haven during his years as a refugee from the law. I see four major factors. Perhaps most importantly, Switzerland makes a distinction between tax evasion and tax fraud. Only tax fraud is considered a felony, while tax evasion, no matter the amount and degree of criminal intent, remains a minor civil offense not unlike a parking ticket. While most of the civilized world sees this as an artificial and self-serving distinction, it prevented Marc Rich from being extradited to the United States. This issue, by the way, is at the core of current taxation conflicts between Switzerland and the outside world, most notably the United States and the European Union. This quirk in Swiss tax law, in conjunction with bank secrecy laws, provides legal cover for tax evaders who hold accounts in Switzerland but whose tax home is elsewhere.

A second factor is the Swiss policy of absolute neutrality which the country implemented after WW II and was only softened when Switzerland joined the UN in 2002. In this strict interpretation of the 1907 Hague Convention on the “Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers,” Switzerland abstained from international actions against other countries, even trade embargoes. Therefore, Switzerland continued to trade with the Apartheid regime in South Africa , including the sale of war materials. Swiss corporations thus were free to engage in trade with countries like South Africa or Iran. Switzerland offered a safe home base to Marc Rich who had free hand to trade commodities with renegade countries like South Africa and thus to circumvent UN trade sanctions and embargoes and profit from them.

The third factor is that Marc Rich was good for business in Zug. Marc Rich and his corporation brought wealth into the community, and he enjoyed the protection of local politicians in return, particularly during the 1980s when he was a fugitive. Ties to then Zug mayor Walther A. Hegglin and to Georg Stucky, the cantonal minister of finance from 1975 to 1990, appear to have been particularly close. Hegglin allegedly coined the saying, “Was gut ist für Marc Rich, ist auch gut für Zug.” (What is good for Marc Rich is good for Zug as well.) In an interview with the Neue Luzerner Zeitung this week, Hegglin stated, “We owed a lot to Marc Rich,” explaining that tax revenue from Rich’s company created a windfall for the city. Stucky served on the board of the Marc Rich Group and of some of his charitable foundations from the early 1990s onward and has remained a close business associate until now–even though he simultaneously was a member of the National Council (lower chamber of the Swiss national parliament) from 1979 to 1999. In an Associated Press article by Clare Nallis from 2001 he is quoted as saying about Rich: “The whole picture of him has been completely distorted. He is an extremely generous man and he’s done an incredible amount of good.”

The fourth factor is that Marc Rich after his 1983 indictment in the US stepped up his philanthropic efforts which benefited Switzerland, other European countries, and Israel. According to his own official biography, his foundations have donated over $150’000’000 to various charitable causes. The Swiss Foundation for the Doron Prize, founded in 1986, recognizes Swiss “individuals and institutions that devote time, energy and/or financial resources to the fields of social welfare, education, arts and culture, and science.”  The Marc Rich Foundation for Education, Culture and Welfare, chartered in 1991, seeks to promote education, art, culture and scientific research in Europe and Israel. And in 1989, Rich donated his extensive photography collection to the Kunsthaus Zürich, the premier art museum in Switzerland. Furthermore, he was an important sponsor of the EVZ, the local hockey club and one of the top teams in Switzerland. Through his philanthropy and a public relations campaign, “he achieved a level of social respectability in Swiss society not usually afforded to those facing 325 years in an American prison if the feds had had their way,” as the obituary in The Economist cheekily points out.

The story of Marc Rich shows how easily a wealthy renegade can sway the public opinion and achieve respectability by cleverly catering to small state sensibilities. But even in Zug, Marc Rich was not without detractors. Josef “Jo” Lang of the Green-Alternative movement created a political career out of his opposition to Marc Rich and his business practices, as he told the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger this week, and his party tends to garner around 20 per cent of the popular vote. In a small state, colorful and controversial figures like Marc Rich quickly can rise to a level of notoriety not seen in large states, but this also true for their equally colorful detractors.

News from Appalachia: UBS Is not the Kind of Bank the Swiss Think It Is

Few outside of Switzerland know what UBS stands for (or used to stand for): Union Bank of Switzerland. Few inside of Switzerland know that it is not really a Swiss bank.

Before English ruled the world, the bank was called Schweizerische Bankgesellschaft (SBG), or Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) in its international business operations–its logo worked for both English and German.

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When the Schweizerische Bankgesellschaft merged with the Schweizerischer Bankverein (Swiss Bank Corporation, or SBV for short) in1998, it became the second-largest bank in the world and simply called itself UBS, keeping the three interlocked keys of the SBV as its logo, but dropping the pretense that UBS stands for anything.

HAUPTSITZ SCHWEIZER BANK

Two things are noteworthy: first, the acronym was based on the name of the bank in English, not German. And second, the fact that UBS does not really stand or anything anymore detaches the name from Switzerland–the origin of the “S” in the corporate name. Both indicate that UBS is downplaying its Swissness: with the merger and name change in 1998, they were positioning themselves as a global financial conglomerate that happens to be headquartered in Zurich. In positioning themselves as a global player, UBS clearly was interested in shedding any references that point to any national origin.

Most people outside of Switzerland do not see UBS as a Swiss bank–they see UBS as a global financial conglomerate, and in some places there have been protests against UBS because it was at the heart of a local conflict. One example is this demonstrations against UBS during a labor dispute involving cleaning staff in London in 2010:

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Protests against UBS in London in 2010. (Source: demotix.com, accessed 6/1/13)

In December 2012, global protest against UBS even hit home base: as the banking giant was negotiating a settlement with US and British authorities regarding its manipulation of interest rates, protesters gathered in the Paradeplatz in Zurich, where both UBS (center) and CS (right) are headquartered, and formed a giant red fish.

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Protests against UBS in Zurich, December 2012 (nyt.com, accessed 6/1/13)

More recently,  on May 24, 2013, activists entered the Knoxville, TN, branch of UBS wealth management services and refused to leave. (By the way, the web site of the Knoxville branch in no way communicates that UBS is a Swiss bank.) They protested against UBS because it is financing coal mining operations in Appalachia which is leading to mountaintop removals and extensive environmental destruction.

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Protests against Knoxville UBS branch in May 2013 (mountainjustice.org, accessed 6/1/13)

Protesters also staged a sit-in in front of the UBS Knoxville branch, locking themselves to the effigy of an investment banker. The UBS Hands Off Appalachia campaign even has its own Facebook page. Protests against UBS also occurred in other parts of the Appalachia region, such as in Lexington, KY.

This UBS appears to have little in common with the UBS most Swiss still see as one of their national brands. Citizens of small states see major corporations that grew in their countries as national treasures. Nokia in Finland is the textbook example. No American seriously would identify with Bank of America, and if it were to go out of business (which it won’t because it is too big to fail) few would be upset about it (except for those who lost money). If UBS, on the other hand, were to go out of business (which it won’t because it is way too big to fail–and already was bailed out once in 2008) it would be regarded as the demise of a national symbol and a national humiliation. The demise of Swissair in 2001 is a textbook example: thousands demonstrated against “United Bandits of Switzerland” because UBS failed to make cash available to Swissair before its grounding–one national symbol betraying another. More on that in a different post.

Big corporations in small states fill citizens with pride. The message is that even small states and their economic institutions can be global players, and the well-being of these corporations has great symbolic (as well as economic) value for small states. Global corporations fill citizens of small countries with pride and give them a sense of importance in a globalized world that otherwise has little regard for them. The Swiss still see the two large Swiss banks UBS and CS (Credit Suisse) as national institutions even though this is not how the two banks see themselves.

UBS has been the eye of the storm in the ongoing taxation conflict between Switzerland and other countries, most notably the United States–more on that in another blog. Many Swiss resent the fact that Swiss banks are cooperating with the US government to prosecute large-scale tax evaders and thus, in their view, are selling out the Swiss bank secret–this also will merit another blog entry. UBS increasingly sees the Swiss bank secret as a PR debacle that is bad for prestige and business. For the Swiss, and particularly for conservatives, the bank secret still is a matter of national identity.

UBS profits greatly from its Swiss home base: Switzerland offers unparalleled political stability, a highly developed infrastructure, and a good quality of life, and he Swiss government pursues market-friendly policies from which the financial sector profits greatly–never in its modern history has the Swiss government restricted the flow of capital. But in the age of globalization no financial institution with a global reach wants to be defined in terms of national origin. In short, in times of globalization large corporate conglomerates do their best to de-nationalize themselves. So the story of UBS in Switzerland tells of a growing conflict between a post-national financial conglomerate and a public that still largely regards UBS as a national treasure.

When Second Place Is as Good as Winning

During the hockey World Championships in Stockholm and Helsinki in May 2013, the Swiss team won all seven group games, beat the Czech Republic and the United States in elimination games, but finally succumbed to Sweden in the final game in Stockholm on May 19. While the rest of the world barely took note, the Swiss public went absolutely nuts. The Swiss tabloid Blick even printed a free special issue—to celebrate second place.

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Who won? Hint: not the Swiss team. (Blick.ch, accessed May 20, 2013)

“Weltmeister der Herzen” (world champion of the hearts) was the big headline in gold letters on the cover of the 16-page edition. It also promises a “Poster unserer Helden” (poster of our heroes) as a centerfold. Even the more reserved Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Swiss newspaper of record, wrote enthusiastically: “Die Schweizer schrieben in Stockholm Eishockey-Geschichte, ein Märchen vom unbeirrbaren Kampfgeist, von Einsatzbereitschaft und Selbstbewusstsein.” (The Swiss wrote hockey history in Stockholm, a fairy tale of unwavering fighting spirit, dedication and self-confidence.) Even international news outlets took note of the exuberant Swiss celebration of defeat, like the German cable news channel n-tv whose headline read “Schweiz feiert Silber wie Gold!” (Switzerland celebrates silver like gold!) The advertisement on the back cover of the Blick special free edition, sponsored by major Swiss newsstand operators, says it all: “Being vice world champion is totally okay, too.”

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(Blick.ch, accessed May 20, 2013)

While in large countries, like the US, only victories count, expectations in small states are considerably lower, and Switzerland is a textbook example for this. The Swiss are happy if their team can keep up with the international competition. Losing is fine as long as the loss is not humiliating. Winning against teams from large countries is not expected, and when it does happen the Swiss fans are ecstatic. A good example is the victory against Spain in group play at the 2010 soccer World Cup. While losing the other two group games was disappointing, the Swiss team could return home with their pride intact. Just qualifying for and participating in a major tournament fills fans with pride. Being there was more important than winning, and having beaten the eventual world champion was just a bonus.

A notable example is the 2006 Soccer World Cup where the Swiss were eliminated by the Ukraine in a penalty shootout in the second round. The Swiss tabloid Blick wrote: “Our heroes have to go home. Without conceding a single goal. Yes, Switzerland even wrote a piece of World Cup history. They are the first team ever to have been eliminated from a World Cup tournament without conceding a single goal!” Being eliminated from the tournament in a penalty shoot-out without losing a game and without conceding a single goal during regular play was a moment worth celebrating: in defeat, the Swiss team just had set a new FIFA World Cup record. This is a fine example for how small states can tease out small victories out of what everybody else would see as a defeat. As winning the tournament was elusive, this small moral victory was worth celebrating.

In the recent hockey World Championship tournament, there were plenty of signs of victory in defeat as well. Victories against hockey powers like Canada, Sweden (in group play), the US, and the Czech Republic (twice) were celebrated in the media in enthusiastic headlines. Furthermore, two of the six players in the all-star team were Swiss, and the Swiss defender Roman Josi was chosen as the MVP of the entire tournament–both reasons for celebration. The message is clear: even though the Swiss team lost the big game, there is ample reason for happiness. As the tabloid Blick put it in its report on the game: “Ihr seid trotzdem Silberhelden” (You are are silver heroes nonetheless).

In the Swiss sportive world, defeat is acceptable as long as it is honorable. The sportive vocabulary is spiked with phrases that embody this spirit: terms like Achtungserfolg (respectable success [in defeat]) and ehrenvolle Niederlage (honorable defeat) are often used in the media to describe losses by Swiss teams or individuals. Wolfgang Bortlik evokes this attitude in his short 2008 monograph entitled Hopp Schwiiz! (Go Switzerland!) with the telling subtitle Fußball in der Schweiz oder die Kunst der ehrenvollen Niederlage (soccer in Switzerland or the art the honorable defeat).  As sportive successes are not abundant in a small state like Switzerland, developing rhetorical categories to make failure look like success has become a national pastime.

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(Blick.ch, accessed May 20, 2013)

This is how the Blick special edition could frame the performance of the Swiss national team as “Ein Märchen in 10 Akten” (a fairy tale in 10 acts), again using the fairy tale metaphor while completely glossing over the fact that the tenth act did not have a happy ending. Likewise, the ad by PostFinance on the opposite page congratulates the team and states that “all of Switzerland is happy about the World Championship success.” Even for the postal bank, second place is as good as winning.

Just playing in the final game in Stockholm thus ranks as one of the biggest successes in the history of Swiss team sports–the tabloid Blick ranked it second only to the victories of Alinghi in the America’s Cup in 2003 and 2007. The Alinghi victory in 2003 created an amazing surge of interest in sailing in land-locked Switzerland. If a Swiss individual or a Swiss team does well internationally–totally against all expectations, of course–interest in that sport rises dramatically. Before Martina Hingis and Roger Federer mesmerized the Swiss public with their Grand Slam victories, tennis was seen as an elitist, marginal sport with modest media attention. Now, the entire country watches when Federer plays in any tournament.

Before the final game in Stockholm, one question was discussed in the Swiss media over and over again: are we going to win? Can we win the big game? This question was also put to the players in the Swiss team. While they all answered in the affirmative, there always was a hint of doubt: if felt like the players did not really believe in the possibility of victory in spite of statements to the contrary. If you are from a small country, you know that you are not supposed to win big games. It felt like it was not the place for the Swiss to be on top of the hockey world. Being world champion in a major team sport is just unimaginable in Switzerland–it would have felt like a violation of the established order. The Swiss team had done enough to ensure a place in history and to make the Swiss proud. As winning could not really be imagined, it was okay to drop the big game. And they did.

A commentary in the Neue Luzerner Zeitung picks up this point and argues that the Swiss will never be world champions with this attitude. In their view, the Swiss now have two options. The first one is to indulge in total happiness over the best national team ever which celebrated the biggest success in Swiss hockey history.The commentary concludes, “If we do that, we will never be world champion.” The second option is to be proud of the Swiss performance, but not satisfied. When the new season begins in September, so the argument, the disappointment has to outweigh self-satisfaction–this is the only way to ever become world champion.

The Swedes did not have better players, they were not a technically better, and they were not better coached, according to this commentary in the Lucerne paper. The difference was one of attitude: the Swedes showed self-confidence to the point of arrogance: just as for the Swiss team winning was not in the realm of the imaginable, losing was not in the realm of the imaginable for the Swedes: losing in front of their own fans was not an option. They showed assertive body language, resolve in their actions, and a grim determination that signaled to the Swiss that they had no intention of losing this game.

This is a new kind kind of commentary and a new kind of language to talk about sports in Switzerland. We will see in the Olympic tournament in 2014 if and how fast the Swiss small-state-attitude towards winning can be adjusted.

One point of consolation: the Swiss success in Stockholm no doubt will have coattails. One result will be that a larger number of Swiss players will get the opportunity to play in the NHL–the undisputed top hockey league in the world. The Swiss media regularly report on the successes (and failures) of Swiss soccer, hockey, and basketball players who play in top leagues abroad. More Swiss players in the NHL means that there will be more feel-good-moments for the Swiss. So the Swiss will have more opportunity to be proud without making a real commitment to winning.