It’s cold in Kiev. No, this is not a weather report, though it is freezing here. Rather, it is a reflection on the current political turmoil since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovitch, did not sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU) at the end of November in Vilnius. Protesters are braving the weather to gather in squares in the center of the city to express their clear desire to have Ukraine become an official part of Europe rather than join a customs union with Russia. European Union flags are being sold by street vendors, Ukrainian flags on cars are another sign of support, although the manifestations are very limited to a specific area in downtown Kiev.
On top of the continuing assault on Switzerland’s bankers and its banking secrecy tradition, outcries are now being raised against lawyers, many in Geneva, who have helped clients place their assets offshore to avoid paying taxes. Because of the financial crisis, officials in various countries are trying to find ways to recover money sitting in virtual companies in tax havens around the world.
The lawyers defend themselves by saying that they have done nothing illegal; the movement of money to properly registered companies does not break the law in either the sending country or the receiving one. Their spokesmen, often quite eloquently, make the simple case that there is a distinction between something that is illegal and something that is immoral. “I have done nothing outside the rules,” they plead, “and morality is highly relative. You can change the laws in the future, but for the moment we have done nothing wrong.”
Switzerland was invited to attend the recent G-20 meeting in Moscow. Perhaps as a payback for its creative diplomatic efforts to help the Russian Federation become a member of the World Trade Organization, or perhaps for its role in hosting the ongoing Georgian-Russian talks in Geneva, the Russian Government invited Switzerland to participate in the gathering of central bankers and finance ministers from the world’s largest economies for the first time. While Switzerland’s relations with the United States and some European neighbors are tense over banking secrecy, there is reason to be proud to see Mme. Widmer-Schlumpf, Swiss Federal Councilor and Head of the Federal Finance Department, sitting at the table with representatives from major powers.