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Swiss Mark Anniversary That Probably Isn’t One

June 3, 1991

GENEVA (AP) _ The Swiss are quietly celebrating their republic’s 700th birthday, approximately, but appear less interested in the past than in what lies ahead.

The anniversary year is imprecise. Historians agree the roots of the Swiss confederation reach back years before a documented agreement in 1291 ″renewing″ an alliance of the three founding cantons, or states.

Also, there is no evidence the alleged founding oath was ever sworn.

Switzerland decided to have a party anyway, but the tone has been subdued and public enthusiasm limited in this multicultural, multilingual nation.

There are widening cracks in the cliche-ridden image of Switzerland as an island of peace in a troubled world, the Alpine home of Heidi, chocolate, watchmakers and banks.

There are fears of isolation after the European Community creates its single market in 1993. Switzerland, dependent on exports, is not a member and the EC is its biggest trade partner.

There is growing uncertainty over whether the country can maintain its traditional neutrality in an age when the United Nations supports the use of force against an aggressor in the Persian Gulf.

There is worry about whether Swiss banks can meet what Credit Suisse chairman Robert Jeker predicts will be ″all-out competition″ from abroad.

Switzerland still has the lowest unemployment and greatest affluence in the industrialized world, but the prevailing attitude seems to be turning from industry to malaise.

Violent outbursts are rare 10 years after widespread disorders by disaffected youths in Zurich and other cities, but discontent involves more of the population.

Drug abuse is increasing. Switzerland has Europe’s highest per capita rate of drug-related deaths and AIDS cases.

Conservatives accuse the government of failing to control illegal immigration. One million of the 6.6 million residents are foreign nationals and Switzerland has the highest relative share of asylum seekers in Europe.

A recent poll indicated nearly half the men aged 20 to 39 favor abolishing the militia army, a key element in keeping the 26 cantons together. An army parade was canceled because of public protests.

Turnout often is less than one-third in national referendums, normally held four times a year under the Swiss system of direct democracy.

Distrust of authority was heightened by disclosures last year that the Justice Ministry kept 800,000 secret files on people considered to be security risks because of their political views.

Five hundred intellectuals signed a statement saying they would boycott the 700th anniversary celebrations. Max Frisch, the Swiss author, wrote shortly before his death in April that only his passport linked him to what he termed a ″dissolute state.″

In May, outside an anniversary session of Parliament, demonstrators played a speech by the late playwright Friedrich Duerrenmatt over loudspeakers. He compared Switzerland to a prison in which the inmates were their own jailers.

″The Swiss political system is seized by a much more serious crisis than generally thought,″ said Hans Saner of Basel, a philosopher. ″Swiss policy has become an endless narcissistic process focusing on the question: How can we get as much as possible from the world while giving it as little as possible?″

A monthly bulletin issued by the special government office coordinating the festivities declared: ″The jubilee year begins under bad omen. A crisis of confidence between people and state is seething under affluent society which is smoothly functioning.″

Chief coordinator Marco Solari, from the Italian-speaking Ticino region, takes the comments in stride.

″Nothing is done in Switzerland without encountering criticism,″ he said. ″That’s very Swiss. It’s good. It’s normal.″

Foreign visitors often ask him what is the main anniversary event, Solari said. He replies that, because of the Swiss federalist structure, there can be no spectacular like the Paris bicentennial celebration of the 1789 French Revolution.

In Switzerland, an ″artifical nation, a conglomerate of minorities,″ there must be a multitude of events in all cantons, featuring all aspects of past, present and future, he said.

They range from a scientific exhibition in Zurich to ballet performances in Lausanne, from folklore to rock. There will be discussions on Swiss literature and a festival of comedy. A youth week is to have participants from every European country, east and west.

Most important, Solari said, is that the anniversary be an instrument of reflection: ″It should look at the past and the present, where we are going and what keeps us together.″

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