The story of Heidi is a Swiss and international classic. It is a fictional account of a young girl and her grandfather in the Swiss Alps and the virtues of living with nature. Today there are two Swiss Heidis intimately involved in real time with the real tension between Russia and Ukraine. While the idyllic Heidi finds refuge with her grandfather in mountain pastures, the two Heidis are trying to settle one of the thorniest political problems since the end of the Cold War between Moscow, Kiev and Western leaders.
Ambassador Heidi Grau is the Head of the Swiss Task Force for the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The annual rotating leadership of the 57 member consensual organization came to Switzerland in 2014 as it had in 1996. While the organization deals with frozen conflicts in Nagorno Kharabak, Transnistria and the ongoing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia as well as Georgia and Russia, the recent outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine was unexpected, as Ambassador Grau readily admitted during a recent presentation in Geneva. Originally the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the organization was established in 1975 as an important bridge between East and West. With increasing current tensions between East and West, the raison d’etre of bridge-building is back in the forefront with neutral Switzerland ideally suited to play that role as the current Chairman-in-Office.
Our second Heidi is also a Swiss diplomat, albeit retired, Heidi Tagliavini. With a most distinguished career behind her counting numerous missions in the former Soviet Union including election observations, the Russian speaker is particularly known for the report she oversaw on the origins and causes of the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. Mandated by the Council of the European Union and presented to the OSCE, EU, the UN and the parties to the conflict in 2009, the report is an outstanding example of objectivity, laying certain blame on both parties while staying above monocausal accusations. While both parties had obvious reasons to criticize the report, it was universally accepted as accurately describing what brought on the conflict and how it developed, an enormous achievement.
In the context of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Ms. Tagliavini, at the request of Ukrainian President Poroshenko, has been asked to come out of retirement to develop a pacification plan for Eastern Ukraine. She is not a mediator in the tension since there is no overt conflict, but she is accompanying the discussions based on her experience and knowledge of the actors involved.
All diplomacy is based on confidence. The uncertainty surrounding Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern border represents a simmering feud that has not yet broken out into a full-scale war. But it does represent a most serious threat to peace and security in the entire region. And the implications go beyond Eastern Europe. Russia’s displeasure with the United States and vice-versa block Security Council action in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, etc. The role of Switzerland as an intermediary therefore takes on added value at this time. Just as Switzerland was creative in helping Russia join the World Trade Organization, the role of the two Heidis, both individually and as Swiss diplomats shows how a small, neutral country can play a role at the highest diplomatic level on the world’s stage. The fact that the international community has confidence in Switzerland and that Ms. Tagliavini has been asked to be a special representative shows how creative neutrality still has a role to play well after the end of the Cold War. For those who see Switzerland’s future as retrenching behind nationalistic isolationism, the tale of the two Heidis is an excellent example of the positive role Swiss diplomacy can play.