Curating A National Image: The Career Of A Swiss Diplomat

(MENAFN- Swissinfo)
  • Deutsch (de) schweizer spitzendiplomat im unruhestand (original)
  • Italiano (it) johannes matyassy, un ex ambasciatore che di pensione non ne vuole sapere
  • Français (fr) un diplomate de haut vol à la retraite

    Amid a veritable onslaught of anecdotes about his life and work, Johannes Matyassy pauses, and drops his hands onto the table.“I could fill books,” he says.

    One of his many stories is about a 78-year-old Swiss priest who was caught in Hong Kong with 2.8 kilograms of cocaine in his luggage. After several months in prison, the priest was released.“An unbelievable case,” Matyassy says.

    Another story he shares is of the two young girls from Geneva who were abducted by their mother, a supporter of the Islamic State terrorist group, and taken to Syria. They eventually ended up in a detention camp run by Kurdish militias. After years of negotiations, Switzerland brought the girls back – but without their mother.

    A letter to Lukashenko

    The recent high-profile case of Natallia Hersche was another he was involved in. The Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen was arrested in Belarus during protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2020. She spent over 500 days in prison before being released.“The breakthrough came with a letter from [Swiss Foreign Minister] Ignazio Cassis to Lukashenko,” says Matyassy.

    There are many crazy, entertaining, but also tragic stories of Swiss people who got into trouble abroad. It was Johannes Matyassy who, as a top diplomat within the foreign ministry, was confronted with how to bring them home safely.

    After 17 months in Belarusian prison, Natallia Hersche (left) was released in February 2022. Johannes Matyassy welcomed her at the airport in Zurich. © Keystone / Michael Buholzer Not universally loved

    Matyassy's job as deputy state secretary in the foreign ministry was the 65-year-old's last position before retiring in March. It was one of many positions he held within the federal administration. After the turn of the millennium, he became the director of Presence Switzerland: a position which, to a certain extent, made him a national image cultivator, a director of the Swiss national brand abroad. The PR organisation, affiliated with the foreign ministry, was created with the goal of strengthening Switzerland's external image. To do this, parliament approved for it a six-figure budget.

    “No sooner had we started, the criticism came pouring in,” Matyassy recalls. Certain circles, especially from the Swiss People's Party, saw Presence Switzerland as expensive and unnecessary. The vice-president of the Swiss People's Party at the time, Christoph Blocher, backed neither the organisation nor Matyassy.“Christoph Blocher even asked the government to fire me,” says Matyassy.

    When Presence Switzerland was set up, he adds, everyone in the organisation wanted to be the expert in all areas.“Everybody knew exactly what had to be done, and they knew better than the others.” Today he can laugh about it.

    Matyassy led the PR organisation for 10 years, during which he developed many insights about Switzerland's image abroad:“Foreign countries' image of Switzerland is much better than Switzerland's perception of itself,” he says.“Events such as the recent Credit Suisse debacle are generally perceived more negatively at home than abroad.”

    That said, the collapse of a bank with the word“Switzerland” in its name is not good for the country's reputation. There are also controversial issues such as arms exports and the related question of Swiss neutrality in connection with the war in Ukraine. These issues are shining a negative light on Switzerland.“Parts of the image are currently at risk of erosion,” Matyassy notes.

    Swiss ambassador in Argentina

    In 2011, he took over from Carla Del Ponte as Swiss ambassador to Argentina. Matyassy describes his time in Buenos Aires as“very exciting, but a bit off the beaten track. In four years, I didn't receive a single Swiss minister,” he says with a smile. The country was simply too far away for high-profile visits. But he said this also gave him more time to promote Swiss interests.

    However, his time as ambassador was not without controversy. He made headlines after a car accident in Buenos Aires. The family of the alleged accident victim demanded compensation, taking the case to the Argentinian media and to court – but without success. Today, Matyassy does not want to comment more on the matter.

    Restorer of reputations

    Even though the 65-year-old could write volumes about his eventful career, he doesn't want to.“I have other plans,” he says. Namely, he has applied for the position as president of the house of religionsexternal link in Bern.

    His long career as a diplomat and skills in image management could be an asset for the intercultural institution, recently battered by a scandal when it was revealed that forced marriages had taken place there. Imam Mustafa Memeti resigned. Soon after, the president of the association, Regula Mader, also resigned for other reasons.

    For Matyassy, the House of Religions is a“pioneering institution with great charisma”. It is important for mutual understanding between different religions and cultures. But what does he think of how the scandal was managed?“In my view, the issue has been dealt with well,” he says. If anything, he sees the incident as an opportunity to raise awareness in the future.“The dialogue of cultures is not a one-way street.”

    Local politics

    Despite having retired, not only does Johannes Matyassy want to return to work – he also wants to return to local politics. He recently became president of the Radical-Liberal Party in the Bern municipality of Muri.

    Now, instead of working at the international level and meeting foreign leaders, the former top diplomat will deal with school renovations and other issues at the local level.

    For him, it's a return to his roots, says Matyassy. He previously sat in the municipality parliament almost three decades ago and now lives in Muri with his partner after his many years abroad.“The most effective politics takes place locally,” he says.

    Critical public servant

    The Radical-Liberal Party has, however, has lost influence over the past few years. Matyassy has also been openly critical of the politics of his town – a frankness at odds with a diplomatic character. But he says he is simply advocating for an efficient and focussed public administration. Ultimately, as the new party president, his goal is to maintain Muri's reputation.“We have to take care of it,” he says. Once again, the cultivator of images is getting back to work.

    This article first appeared in the berner zeitung/der bund on may 22, 2023. external link



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