Swiss National day is a relatively new public holiday, having only been officially established in 1969 (despite being mooted as early as 1889). With impressive fireworks displays, massive bonfires across the country and somewhat incongruous plastic flags, the holiday celebrates the establishment of the Confederation by what are now the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden. These central Swiss communities pledged to help one another resist any threat of violence or injustice by signing the Federal Charter in early August 1291. With a pragmatic understanding of what underpins independence, the signatories agreed that foreign judges were not to be tolerated and the existing power balance was to remain intact. They also established procedures for criminal and civil cases, as well as a methodology for settling disputes between the signatories.
For centuries, this alliance of the valleys of central Switzerland received almost no mention, the document itself only being rediscovered in 1758 in the Schwyz archives. Yet reading the terms of the charter today brings into sharp focus the wisdom of the country’s founders. They based their alliance on the solid fundamentals of law and dispute resolution, not just on trade and defence. Switzerland has only benefited from this foresight.
Russia’s historical failure to do the same – be it during the rule of the Tsars, the Soviet era or Putin’s regime – is costing Russia dear in terms of political credibility, global opinion and economic stability. That its leaders can, with near impunity, intervene militarily in the affairs of its neighbours, subvert the courts to prosecute political opponents, shut down legitimate NGOs, sanction the contravention of international law and then control the media to deny or “justify” their actions is the stuff of totalitarianism.
Russia’s neighbours such as Ukraine and Moldova could also learn from the Swiss constitutional model so that their leaders are clearer about ensuring minorities’ rights and can thus better determine their own countries’ futures in the face of both internal dissatisfaction and foreign intervention. Maybe then their democracies can look forward to 720 years or so of democratic development and increasing stability and prosperity. And maybe the Swiss can do better than plastic flags to celebrate the cornerstone of their success – their ancient constitution.