Top NGO calls Switzerland ‘safe haven’ for Russian oligarchs

LUGANO, Switzerland — A leading Swiss nongovernmental group today called out Switzerland as a “safe haven” for Russian oligarchs and as a trading hub for Russian oil, grain and coal.

Public Eye urged the Swiss executive branch to “use all levers at its disposal to stop the financing of this inhuman aggression,” in a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine that has killed thousands of people, driven millions from their homes, and rippled through world economy by driving up food and fuel prices.

The group spoke out on the day that the Swiss president opened a conference on Ukraine’s eventual recovery from Russia’s war involving government officials, advocacy groups, the private sector, academia and U.N. organizations.

Ignazio Cassis was hosting leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by video message, at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in the bucolic lakeside town of Lugano. Swiss diplomats say the meeting aims try to map out a way forward for the world to help the war-battered country to recover and rebuild when Russia’s war ends one day.

Cassis and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, co-hosts to the meeting, welcomed a parade of envoys including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

The conference builds upon a multi-year, multi-country discussion about reform in Ukraine — even before the war began — but this time the focus is “recovery” from the war. Scores of Ukrainian ministers, lawmakers and others were also on hand.

Environmental groups want to help Ukraine build back better. Lobby groups Solar Power Europe and Wind Europe, together with their Ukrainian counterparts, urged Ukraine to set a target of producing at least 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, bringing it in line with European Union targets.

According to the International Energy Agency, Ukraine generated less than 10% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2019, the last year for which data was published. Most of Ukraine’s electricity comes from nuclear power and burning coal.

A small group of Greenpeace activists staged a media stunt by pretending to set up a fake wind turbine on the banks of Lake Lugano, as part of a call with Ukrainian NGOs to support sustainable energy development in the country whose infrastructure has been widely damaged.

In its call for transparency and better regulation in Switzerland, Public Eye said that “as a safe haven for oligarchs close to the Kremlin and as a trading hub for Russian oil, grain and coal, Switzerland bears a big political responsibility.”

It said Switzerland has been over the years a “popular refuge” for Russian business magnates to park their assets. The group said firms use Switzerland as an “unregulated commodity trading hub” and exploit a lack of transparency about financial dealings in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Swiss government.

The group welcomed Switzerland’s “humanitarian engagement” for Ukraine through the conference but called on the government to strictly implement international sanctions on Russian elites and their government, and better regulate its trading hub.

Switzerland is a major international financial center and its government has traditionally touted Swiss “neutrality” — which is enshrined into law — and Switzerland’s role as an intermediary between hostile countries and as a host of many international and U.N. institutions.

The Swiss Bankers Association has estimated that the assets of Russian clients deposited in Switzerland’s banks total 150-200 billion Swiss francs (about $155-$210 billion), making the country a key repository of Russian money abroad.

Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, has largely joined the bloc’s sanctions against Russia. The website of the Swiss federal economics department says that as of May 12, a total of 6.3 billion francs have been frozen in Switzerland in connection with Russia’s war in Ukraine.