Olga (2021) // Switzerland x Ukraine (Active and Passive Neutrality)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Elie Grande’s Olga is a very timely film. After an emotional first viewing I was driven to discover more about Switzerland’s attitude to Ukraine in recent years. So, after the main review, I look back at the Swiss and the 2014 Crimean crisis, what’s different in 2022, and what “neutrality” really is.

What does “belonging to a nation” really mean?

Kyiv, 2013, and Olga, a teen gymnast, is in training for the European championships. While she busies herself with parallel bars, her mother, a journalist, is more concerned with pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. According to her, Yanukovych is a corrupt dictator operating a surveillance state. That stance endangers both mother and daughter.

So Olga is sent to Alpine Switzerland, where she has family ties. The headstrong teen can train in safety here; she’ll switch nationality and sporting allegiance. (But what will she lose along with her Ukrainian passport?)

In the movie’s Narrative A, Olga must perfect the Jaeger technique on the uneven bars. It demands her total control, discipline and integration in a Swiss team whose language she hardly speaks.

Narrative B, though, is totally outside Olga’s control. For in the winter of 2013, President Yanukovych rejected trade agreements and loans with the European Union in favour of a massive loan from Russia. Many Ukrainian citizens disagreed. The result was a series of massive, increasingly violent protests centred in Kyiv – the “Revolution of Dignity”, which led to the ousting of Yanukovych and the installation of a “pro-West” government.

Olga watches Narrative B pan out on smartphone, safe but alone in her swish Alpine sports complex. The young, first-time director Elie Grande intersperses real, brutal footage of the protests with video calls between Olga and her friend and mother in Kyiv. Not subtle, but highly effective filmmaking.

The chaos of revolution is balanced with the tight Narrative A – basically a sports movie, not my favourite genre, but spectacular for two reasons. Firstly, Anastasia Budiashkina is jaw-droppingly good in the title role. She’s a real-life gymnast with barely any internet footprint in English, French or German. Even if the screenplay is sometimes a bit clunky when it comes to exposition, I never stopped believing her for a moment.

Secondly, the gymnast scenes with Budiashkina and her young colleagues – apparently all professionals, or former professionals – are visceral, extraordinary to an outsider like me. Watching international sport, we accept the idea of young bodies “belonging to” a certain identity, be it “Swiss”, “Ukrainian”, “European” or “human being. In a story like Olga’s, such limits fail to compute, because the boundaries are infinitely complicated, outside the control of sports professionals, their trainers, politicians and spectators.

And yet another complication is Narrative C: the viewer, me, watching Olga at a Zurich cinema on 25th February 2022, less than two days after Russia invaded Ukraine.

I’d known the gist of the film, and that it had pretty good reviews (it’s up for the the Swiss Film Prize in March along with La Mif and Azor). I thought I’d do my civil duty and write a piece about the Swiss reaction to Russia’s war. Learn a bit along the way. A sensible move for a hobbyist film writer.

Watching Olga at that precise moment, though – my imagination charged with images of death, injustice and the threat of nuclear war – was the most emotional experience I’ve ever had with a movie. At two moments in particular – a video call back home, and a stunning moment at an gymnastics event – I couldn’t stop crying. (I almost never cry!)

Yes, the movie suggests, the times of the Maidan revolution were hard, but by 2020 (when Olga‘s final scenes are dated) something approaching stability had arrived in Kyiv, in the form of its sought-after liberal democracy and proximity to the EU.

But after 24.02.2022, we know better. Simply turning on my phone after the end credits – seeing the death tolls and awful threats and editorials on the grave consequences of war – provided the terrible coda to a dark but ultimately hopeful film about belonging.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate).
Language: French and Ukrainian.
Availability: Out in Swiss cinemas at time of publication. Hopefully a wider release on VoD with English subs is on the cards; the film has won quite a few awards.

Swissness Lab Report:
Switzerland x Ukraine – Active and Passive Neutrality

The Switzerland of Olga is passively neutral – think pragmatically, don’t interfere. It offers our heroine refuge and sympathy, but holds her back from actively demonstrating, and tells her not to go back home and fight in Maidan Square.

Coincidentally, the only Ukrainian I ever met in Switzerland was also a teenage girl and (presumably) a political exile. Iryna* was likeable: tall, blonde, and rather goofy and chipper, despite exam stress. At the time, you see, I was doing a stint as English oral examiner at a private boarding school, and Iryna was a candidate. This particular exam included a monologue on the topic of “a time somebody helped you”. Iryna, in her posh school uniform, calmly described how she was almost kidnapped in Ukraine: “dragged into a black car, but one of my dad’s friends was walking by, he intervened and they drove off.” Just like Olga, one speculates, she was sent to Switzerland for safety.

Other than that, various Swiss-based friends have reported Ukraine to be cheap, very welcoming, and great for hiking. Someone said the clubbing scene in Kyiv was phenomenal, “the new Berlin”.

Positive vibes, the spectre of political instability, and almost total lack of everyday presence. So much for how the Swiss see Ukraine.

So how should Bundesrat react when this faraway place is suddenly on every front page of its citizens’ media feeds?

The vast majority of the “West”, of course, responded to the 2022 invasion with sympathy for Ukraine, condemnation of Russia, and rapid, extreme sanctions on the latter’s financial operations and trade. Officially neutral countries like Ireland, Austria and Sweden, all of which are EU, also took part in the sanctions. Military equipment is being sent.

But the Swiss, constitutionally neutral and non-EU, dragged their feet. On the same day I saw Olga – immediately after the invasion began – Bundespräsident and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis came out with a vague statement in support of some of the EU sanctions, but not all [1]. Importantly, we hadn’t frozen the accounts of the EU hitlist of Putin-associated Russians.

This reaction had an immediate precedent.

Switzerland and the 2014 Crimea crisis

The annexation of Crimea occurred immediately after events in Olga. For some context, I found this Vox article very helpful [2]. In short, the US and NATO “won” the Maidan protests depicted in the movie, in that the Russian-supported President Yanukovych was ousted and a pro-“West” figure elected. But Russia responded immediately by first annexing Crimea, the diamond-shaped peninsula sticking out into the Black Sea to the south of Ukraine, and then stoking things up in the Russian-sympathizing states in the East.

Back then Switzerland sat on the fence, but clearly dangled its feet in fields marked “EU/US/NATO”. Statements of condemnation were made; the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych had his Swiss accounts frozen; the Swiss stopped selling arms to Russia [3]. While the US and the EU froze accounts and stopped certain people from travelling within their zones, Switzerland held back a while, finally deciding in favour of preventing the sanction-hit people from opening new Swiss accounts. But it wouldn’t close or freeze existing ones.

A tricky balancing act.

Above all, the Swiss wanted to avoid being seen to openly profit from the situation [3]. After eighty years of well-founded Nazi gold clichés (see my Frieden review), it didn’t make sense for Switzerland to start profiting from those stinking rich Russians suddenly in the market for a new European base. Such nefarious games wouldn’t be profitable in the long run – Switzerland has too many interdependencies with an EU it needs to keep onside.

One party, the populist right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), declared even this 2014 compromise to go too far – that it went against the Swiss principle of neutrality [4]. The left-wing WOZ newspaper wasn’t impressed:

[The SVP] accuses its political conterparts of “active neutrality”, which according to them is actually nothing like real neutrality. Real neutrality should somehow be passive.

“Active” and “passive” neutrality? At this point, before moving to events of this week in 2022, let’s get down and dirty with some definitions.

What is neutrality in international law?

The website of the Swiss government is helpful on the subject of neutrality (more so if you know German) [5]. Here we find out that for a state to be counted as “neutral” in any given conflict they have certain legal duties according to the Hague convention of 1907:

The main obligations [for a neutral state] are as follows:
– refrain from engaging in war
– ensure its own defence
– ensure equal treatment for belligerent states in respect of the exportation of war material
– not supply mercenary troops to belligerent states
– not allow belligerent states to use its territory.”

In a nutshell: Switzerland shouldn’t fight, it should give everybody guns equally, and it definitely shouldn’t harbour war-botherers in the Alps.

However, this international “neutrality law” is different from a country’s individual “neutrality policy”. And Switzerland have made a rare old sacred cow out of the latter.

What is Swiss neutrality?

That same Foreign Affairs website has this wonderful happy-clappy vision of how the Swiss justify their neutrality:

Switzerland attributes its neutrality to its humanitarian and peaceful inclination, in keeping with its tradition of providing good offices and humanitarian aid. Switzerland manages its neutrality according to the needs of international solidarity, and places it at the service of peace and prosperity.

Critics both inside and outside the country might use other P-words to describe Swiss neutrality, such “pragmatism”, “political isolationism” or even “profit”. But to be fair, I’m living in the home of the Geneva Conventions, badass humanitarian institutions like the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Council, and of course those utopian-minded sporting behemoths the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and, er, FIFA… okay, forget the last part.

Putin, Bundespräsident Guy Parmelin, and Joe Biden in June last year (picture credit to EDA, via Tages Anzeiger)

The point is, when Switzerland refused to freeze Russian accounts during the Crimea crisis, they waxed lyrical about providing a peacekeeping function. At the time we had the presidency of the OSCE and thus some power in that regard. Reading all these 2014 articles, including the normally critical WOZ [4], most parties, commentators and Swiss citizens were happy with this compromise and seemed to believe the good intentions.

Let’s look more closely at the “nice side” of Swiss neutrality, as propagated by the Foreign Affairs Office. A jolly little governmental brochure available only in German [6] explains the four cornerstones of neutrality à la Suisse:

  1. We cooperate with other countries on security issues, e.g. exchanging information about terrorists, or sending Swiss citizens to be UN “blue helmets” in places like war-torn Bosnia or Kosovo in the 1990s.
  2. We actively promote peace, which is why “landed for peace talks in Geneva” has become standard warspeak. It also explains why Switzerland can be be part of the peace-oriented UN and the OSCE, but not in the EU or NATO, which may theoretically go to war together.
  3. We also promote a vague kind of “Swissness” involving “tradition, history and self-perception” which transcends religions and language regions. This was the most wishy-washy part of the Swiss neutrality brochure, not really a “cornerstone” at all somehow, with a distinct whiff of national spiritual defence.
  4. More tangibly, Switzerland can say if we support a war or not. So the following Strongly Worded Tweet sent on the morning of the 2022 invasion by the Foreign Affairs Office definitely didn’t breech neutrality:

They truly are the strongest terms.

Just how “actively neutral” can Switzerland be?

In Switzerland, the difference between the “passive neutrality” of “boo Russia!” and “active neutrality” of “let’s sanction Russia!” has certain political baggage.

In this old article on the Crimea tightrope walk, the Tages Anzeiger (German, paywall) reiterates that sanctions are definitely allowed within Swiss political law [7]. It reports on a committee of politicians debating the issue, concluding:

While the right-wing camp sets out the strictest definition possible of the term “neutrality”, the left advocates the most aggressive definition possible.

Right vs. left, passive vs. active, neutrality law vs. neutrality policy: These are the battle lines of neutrality which get drawn and redrawn when relations with Ukraine are on the table. The quest to find compromises and retain a peacekeeping function has differentiated Switzerland from the EU and UK, including during the 2014 Crimea crisis and the early days of the 2022 invasion.

But now things have changed.

Breaking news – Switzerland did suddenly adapt all the EU sanctions, and has frozen Russian accounts! Does that mean they’re not neutral any more?

Yes, in the course of writing this, the Bundesrat took a big step further towards “active neutrality” than it did back in 2014.

To recap, on 24th February 2022 Russia for all intents and purposes declares war on the Ukraine and invades. The vast majority of the “West” responds with extremely heavy sanctions on business operations and trade, but, true to its Crimea 2014 policy, Switzerland holds back.

Michael, meanwhile (me) watches Olga and gets sad. He goes home, checks his Facebook account and sees multiple invites to sign a Socialist Party petition in support of more comprehensive sanctions. The next day (26.02.2022) up to 20,000 people march on Bern for peace in Ukraine, many of them angry at the government for holding back. The SP, city demo folk – so far, so left-wing “active neutrality”.

But – a big “but” – the biggest centrist and centre-right parties (Die Mitte and the FDP) then also came out in favour of proper sanctions. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll see how big a deal that is.

The SVP men in the Bundesrat couldn’t hold things back, so finally they announced it [8]: Switzerland are taking part in all EU sanctions. Airspace closed to Russian planes; the EU’s hitlist barred from the country; their bank accounts all frozen. No easy work permits for Russians any more either (which they’d enjoyed since 2009).

Here’s the justification from Bundespräsident Cassis:

Playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral. As the depository state of the Geneva Conventions, we are obliged to follow humanitarian imperatives [humanitäre Geboten] and are not allowed to watch when these are trampled underfoot.

Bundespräsident Ignazio Cassis

All well and good, but where was this back in 2014?

The big difference with back then seems to be not the nature of Russia’s attack, but rather an increase in international pressure. Mark Pieth at Swissinfo.ch explains that if Swiss banks themselves started soaking up new Russian business, they themselves would run a high risk of being sanctioned [9]. That would explain why the neoliberal centre-right FDP are sweating about staying too passive.

What happens now in Switzerland?

The Tages Anzeiger did a snap online poll and found 95% of its readers in favour of the new stance [8]. At an FC Winterthur football match we had the standard minute’s silence, the teams standing together behind a yellow and blue flag, just like in the EU and UK leagues. Putin is demonised, Zelenskiy idealised. It’s a scary moment of togetherness, resembling the early weeks of that first coronavirus lockdown two years ago. (How many waves this time…?)

As for Swiss neutrality – safe to say it’s still intact, for now, although the debate on its nature isn’t going away [10]. When and from whom will the first widespread dissent against the sanctions come? One obvious source is the nationalist right Swiss People’s Party; their “passive neutrality” (or, as the WOZ alternatively labelled it, “political isolationism and economic internationalism” [11]) is a natural fit:

The Bundesrat has buckled. It doesn’t have the strength to hold on to neutrality. The SVP was the only Swiss party against this violation of neutrality and contravention of Constitution Article 185, which obliges the the Bundesrat to stay neutral.

Tweet of Roger Köppel, SVP Intellectual-in-Chief. It isn’t true, of course, the constitution is much to fuzzy for that.

My own tip is to keep an eye on the “Friends of the Constitution”. You know, the ones who arose as an anti-corona measures lobbying group, whose vibe is a kind of nationalist libertarianism. They’ve only stuck one article on their website so far, but the rough sketch of future battle lines is clearly visible – firstly, that our sanctions pour oil in the fire; secondly, that they go against our constitution’s aim for a “peaceful and fair international order” [11]. And here’s an early sign of how the “Friends” will convert people to their argument: “Economic sanctions always hit the wrong target. Normal people [einfache Leute] are the ones who primarily suffer”.

(Utterly Depressing) Conclusion

One thing is sure: all this information I’ve absorbed as a (still) legal alien and Englishman in Switzerland is going to be at the forefront of the coming months’ political debate. It will characterize my first months of being Swiss, since my naturalization is due in the springtime.

If I ever make it that far, that is. Because on the day of finishing this article (05.03.2022), going against everything I’ve said, Vladimir Putin announced: “These sanctions that are being imposed [by the West] are akin to a declaration of war” [12].

Sometimes words slip away, and all that remains is an ephemeral sense of belonging to a nation…

(Remember, everything above is from a layperson trying to make sense of things, I’m not a professional journalist and until two weeks ago knew nothing about all this. I very much encourage people to do their own reading via reliable news sources, especially when info I give seemingly contradicts what they’ve read!)

*The name “Iryna” is invented, for reasons of narrative – I can’t remember her name!

[1] Tages Anzeiger on initial reaction to 2022 invasion, 24.02.2022 (paywall)

[2] Vox article, “Everything you need to know about the 2014 Ukraine crisis”, 03.09.2014

[3] Berner Zeitung on post-Crimea 2014 sanctions against Russia, 02.04.2014

[4] WOZ article on “Opportunistic Neutrality”, 03.04.2014

[5] Swiss Foreign Affairs website, accessed 02.03.2022

[6] Swiss neutrality brochure (German only, accessed 02.03.2022)

[7] An old Tages Anzeiger article on neutrality from back in the Crimea days, 28.03.2014 (paywall)

[8] Tages Anzeiger’s live ticker of the media conference in which Switzerland becomes a lot more “actively” neutral, 28.02.2022

[9] Swissinfo.ch on the possibility of sanctioning Swiss banks, 26.02.2022

[10] Tages Anzeiger article on calls for debating the nature of “neutrality”, 01.03.2022 (paywall)

[11] “Friends of the Constitution” skepticism of the new sanctions, 02.03.2022

[12] Reuters on Putin’s statement on sanctions as an act of war, 05.03.2022

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