Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA

Switzerland and the Baltic States: what do they think of 100 years of relations?

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania: the three European countries are celebrating 100 years of bilateral relations with Switzerland and 30 years of renewed ties after the end of the Soviet era. We asked the people working daily to build these relations what this centenary means to them.

In Vilnius, visitors can examine referendum posters from Switzerland going back 100 years.

Numerous events are being held to mark the centenary in the different countries. The 'Votes and Voices' exhibition (100 years of referendum posters) depicted here was inaugurated in Vilnius in May 2021. © FDFA

There are 2000km separating the mountainous and alpine pastures of Switzerland from the colourful, verdant landscapes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Bordering the Baltic Sea, these three countries are modern, forward-looking and committed to the challenges of the 21st century. Each one has a rich culture and an identity shaped by centuries of history. A collection of messages from embassies and consulates attesting to the good relations, multisectoral exchanges and trust between Switzerland and the Baltic States.

Konstantin Obolensky
Konstantin Obolensky © FDFA

"The constitutions of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were shaped by the Swiss federal constitution": Konstantin Obolensky, Swiss ambassador to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia

"All three Baltic States still remember the fact that Switzerland never recognised the Soviet Union's annexation of their territories in 1941. Furthermore, the projects in the three countries that were funded by Switzerland in the 1990s as part of its aid programme for eastern Europe have made a tangible difference on the ground and have not been forgotten by the people or their governments.

Switzerland has very good relations with each of the Baltic States. It is seen as a reliable partner and has an excellent reputation in the region. There is also a great deal of understanding for Switzerland's policies on Europe and Swiss neutrality.

Amicable and warm, practical, forward-looking, nature-loving, constitution: these keywords sum up the relationship between Switzerland and the Baltic States. The bilateral relations are also built on Switzerland's concrete financial support after each country regained independence. Both Switzerland and the Baltic States have a great interest in climate protection, sustainability and digitalisation.

Like Switzerland, they all have an affinity with nature. The constitutions of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were shaped by the Swiss federal constitution, which was even used as a model. This anniversary marks 100 years of excellent relations between Switzerland and the Baltic States. We are looking forward to the future and to further strengthening our long-standing partnerships."

A bit of history

It all started with a decision by the Federal Council in 1921, when Switzerland ruled on the "de jure recognition of the Russian peripheral states". Within a few months of each other, Switzerland recognised each country in turn – Estonia and Latvia, followed by Lithuania.

The three states were independent and at peace with the Russian Empire for the first time. Switzerland also opened its first representations in the region. But in 1940, the USSR annexed the territories and relations were broken off. They were resumed thirty years later with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and newly regained independence of the Baltic States.

Recognition of Estonia and Latvia, historical document, 1921, Dodis

Recognition of Lithuania, historical document, 1921, Dodis

Veronika Erte
Veronika Erte © Latvian embassy in Switzerland

"Our mutual interests go back even further": Veronika Erte, Latvian ambassador to Switzerland

"I am very pleased with the excellent relations Switzerland and Latvia have in a number of fields. We value our friendship with Switzerland very highly.

2021 marks the centenary of Switzerland's de jure recognition of the Republic of Latvia on 23 April 1921 and the 30th anniversary of Switzerland's recognition of our re-established independence on 29 August 1991, which was followed by a resumption of diplomatic relations on 5 September 1991. But our mutual interests go back even further.

We are particularly grateful for the fact that Switzerland never recognised the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940.

I am extremely glad that Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis will pay an official visit to Latvia during this year of our centenary.

It has been a great pleasure and honour for me to have contributed to deepening the ties between our countries."

Rich bilateral relations

Since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained independence in 1990, Switzerland has been developing diplomatic relations with the three Baltic States and supporting them with an array of programmes and measures. The ensuing normalisation of relations and progress in the reform and transformation processes of all three has meant a specific policy for the region is no longer needed. Today, the Federal Council maintains good bilateral relations at all levels.

From 4 to 8 July 2021, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis will pay an official visit to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. He will also take part in the Ukraine Reform Conference being held in Vilnius from 7 to 8 July. Bilateral talks during this trip will focus on European policy, effective cooperation and current international challenges.

Find out more

Paavo Järvi
Paavo Järvi © Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

"We take the unifying power of music out into the world through the friendship between our two countries": Paavo Järvi, chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

"My name is Paavo Järvi and I come from Estonia. I am the music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and I also conduct other orchestras around the world.

Music is Estonia's calling card, and it makes me very proud that here, in Switzerland, we have been able to contribute to this partnership which has reached its centenary this year. It is both fulfilling and a great honour for me to build bridges between people from all over the world through this orchestra, which is steeped in tradition and one of the very best worldwide.

Maintaining close musical contact with our compatriots and friends like Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür and the Estonian National Male Choir (RAM) while being here in Switzerland makes us mutual ambassadors. We take the unifying power of music out into the world through the friendship between our two countries." 

Toomas Kukk
Toomas Kukk © Estonian embassy in Switzerland

"First ever! - We will have a direct flight connection between Estonia and Switzerland": Toomas Kukk, Estonian ambassador to Switzerland

"Since the establishment of diplomatic relations 100 years ago, and especially during last 30 years, since Estonia has regained its independence, Estonia and Switzerland have developed excellent bilateral relations.

Our countries have also fruitful cooperation in the international organizations, our entrepreneurs are increasingly interested in making business in each other´s countries. Our cultural ties are developing well, the best example for this is the fact that currently the chief conductor of world-famous Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra is an Estonian Paavo Järvi.

Switzerland is a great home for about 1000 Estonians, who study or work in Switzerland or have married to Swiss partners. They make their everyday contribution to the development of Switzerland, but at the same time they also actively preserve and cultivate Estonian language and culture in Switzerland.

On this background it is very positive that starting from this summer - and first ever! - we will have a direct flight connection between Estonia and Switzerland, namely between Zurich and Tallinn, operated by Swiss.

Entering to the second century of our diplomatic relations, Estonia is determined to further strengthen and deepen our mutually beneficial relations with Switzerland."

Culture diplomacy

When people move beyond their national borders, cultures spread and relations between countries grow. Native lands and new host countries become places where people can express their talents and exhibit their works.

Estonian-born Paavo Järvi, chief conductor of the world-famous Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, summed this up very well: "Music is Estonia's calling card... It is both an achievement and a great honour to be able to build bridges between people from all over the world."

The same can be said of Latvian writer and poet Janis Rainis, nicknamed the Latvian Goethe. To escape the occupation of his country, Rainis and his wife Azpazija spent 14 years in Castagnola near Lugano from 1906 to 1920. This period in Ticino was Rainis' most fruitful in terms of his poetry. It was also here that most of his key literary work, which shaped Latvian nationalism, was born.

In collaboration with the Association of Memorial Museums of Latvia, in 2018 the city of Lugano opened an exhibition dedicated to Rainis' and Aspazija's exile in Switzerland. (Museo Rainis e Aspazija)

Laimonas Talat-Kelpša
Laimonas Talat-Kelpša © Lithuanian embassy in Switzerland

"The Lithuanian embassy will be happy to inaugurate the exhibition of Lithuanian contemporary art in Locarno during this year’s Locarno Film Festival": Laimonas Talat-Kelpša, Lithuania's designated ambassador to Switzerland

The centenary of the Swiss-Lithuanian diplomatic relations offers a good opportunity to take stock of our accomplishments. Today we cooperate as two equal partners, who share values and interests in Europe and beyond. Our trade stands at the level of CHF 250 million and has the potential of growing. The Swiss investment in Lithuania amounts to nearly CHF 500 million. The exchange at the academic, scientific and cultural levels is thriving. The numerous success stories of our current bilateral cooperation will hopefully inspire future generations to pursue an even more ambitious agenda.

Several decades ago, Lithuanian archeologists discovered the Schaffhausen 3 Kreuzer during their expedition near Kaunas. Dated 1596, this is the oldest Swiss coin ever found in Lithuania. It signifies the longstanding commercial ties between our two nations. However, today the transactions could also make use of Lithuania’s fintech sector. According to Global Fintech Index 2020, Lithuania is the fourth most powerful fintech hub in the world.

In the 16th to the 18th centuries, Swiss academic establishments were attracting the young generation of Lithuanians. Thus, the University of Basel had become the seventh most popular destination for the knowledge-hungry youth. The tradition continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 21st century, it has all the possibilities to evolve into vibrant cooperation in such areas as life sciences, biotech, and artificial intelligence.

In the early 1600s, Lithuania’s chief architect was a Swiss, Matteo Castelli. Together with his contemporaries, mostly from the Ticino area, he has produced an entire school, to this day called ‘the Baroque of Vilnius’. The output of this school has significantly shaped the landscape of Lithuania and present-day Belarus, including its most precious gems in the city of Vilnius. Continuing this tradition, Lithuanian and Swiss professionals and artists could engage even more actively in the development of new urban and cultural projects which are sprouting today in our countries thanks to the robust economic development. With this idea in mind, the Lithuanian Embassy will be happy to inaugurate the exhibition of Lithuanian contemporary art in Locarno during this year’s Locarno Film Festival.

Markus Roduner
Markus Roduner © M. Roduner

"Cultivating exchanges depends a lot on the initiative of individuals" : Markus Roduner

I am Swiss and have been living in Lithuania since 1992, with a short 3-year break in between. This has allowed me to follow the history of the relationship between Switzerland and Lithuania in the three decades following Lithuania's independence at the other end of the story. In this context, I would like to refer to my esteemed colleague Judith Lewonig's highly recommended book on the subject – a chronology of Switzerland and Lithuania's 15000-year relationship entitled "Schweiz und Litauen. 15000 Jahre Beziehungsgeschichte. Eine chronologische Übersicht" – also because it shows to what extent the cultivation of exchanges depends on the initiative of individuals, particularly in the field of culture which, being a literary translator and, more recently, a publishing director, is the area I am most familiar with.

During this time, a lot of things have become easier. These days, there are no problems being one of the few Swiss people in Lithuania, which is probably also the case for Lithuanians living in Switzerland. Things have come a long way since the somewhat chaotic conditions of the early 90s to today's normality and almost routine way of life. If I do a reading in Switzerland or Germany, for example, I do not have to explain where Lithuania is any more.

Although Lithuanians are studying and carrying out research in Switzerland, the exchange is not at all balanced, particularly when it comes to culture and education. My impression is that Swiss cultural activity in Lithuania is often successful, whereas the situation for Lithuanian literature is rather unsatisfactory – also due to the fact that the works of Lithuanian authors are not published by the major publishing houses, of course. This makes the initiative of the small Swiss publishing house BaltArt in Langenthal, which has published Lithuanian classics that would not otherwise have appeared in German, even more important.

In future, I would like to see a more lively and balanced cultural exchange between my home country and my adopted country, and for more Swiss students and artists to take advantage of the opportunities to come to Lithuania, not just for a short visit but to get a more in-depth insight into the local way of life here.

6 key dates

1921

Switzerland recognises the three Baltic States – Estonia and Latvia (22 April) and Lithuania (16 August).

1991

All three countries regain independence after 50 years of Soviet occupation. Diplomatic relations with Switzerland resume in September 1991. Switzerland supports the three states with an array of programmes and measures.

2004

The three Baltic States join the EU and free trade area.

2006

The Swiss electorate votes for the billion euro cohesion fund for the EU's eastward enlargement. Projects in the Baltic States are implemented until 2017.

2017

Relations between Switzerland and the three countries normalise thanks to progress in the reform and transformation processes.

2021

Centenary of the recognition of the three Baltic States by the Federal Council and 30th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations.

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