* Swiss hold off adopting EU, US sanctions against Russia
* Those on EU list unable to apply for Schengen visa
* Geneva an important trading hub for Russian oil
(Adds quote from foreign minister, context, background)
By Caroline Copley and Oliver Hirt
ZURICH/BERN March 26 Switzerland said on
Wednesday it would not be "abused" by those wanting to
circumvent Western sanctions against Russia but stopped short of
adopting its own measures.
Transparency campaigners say it is taking a cautious stance
to help protect its role as a global commodities hub that earns
revenue from trade with Russia, although the government said it
had no intention of allowing the sanctions to be bypassed.
The United States, European Union and Canada have already
imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a group of Russian
officials over Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
But Switzerland, also a hub for private banking and a
popular destination for Russia's wealthy elite, is reluctant to
take measures it fears could compromise its cherished neutrality
or damage closely nurtured trade relations with Moscow.
However, if Switzerland itself does not target rich Russians
with interests in Switzerland, it runs the risk that further
U.S. or EU sanctions could do so, with the Swiss economy
potentially suffering collateral damage.
"The government has decided that Switzerland where
appropriate will take necessary measures so that it is not
abused to avoid present and future sanctions by the
international community," the government said in a statement.
This means some of the sanctions imposed by the 28-nation EU
will also apply in Switzerland due to its participation in the
bloc's passport-free Schengen zone, it said.
Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told reporters the
33 Russians and Crimeans on the EU's sanctions list would not be
able to apply to Switzerland for a Schengen visa, but stressed
there was no blanket ban for Russian citizens.
The government said it left open the possibility of more
fully adopting the EU or U.S. sanctions as the crisis unfolds.
The Group of Seven leading industrialised nations, which
includes the United States, four EU member states, Canada and
Japan, have threatened to impose harsher economic measures
against Russia if the standoff over Ukraine escalates.
Switzerland was among the first countries last month to
freeze assets of Ukrainians linked to the ousted government.
Some 75 percent of Russian crude oil is traded through
Geneva, according to a government report on the commodities
sector. The commodities sector as a whole contributes around 3.5
percent of Switzerland's gross domestic product.
Last week the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Gennady Timchenko,
the co-owner of Gunvor, a leading Geneva-based trading house.
Had Timchenko not sold out of the firm just before the sanctions
were announced, Gunvor - and Switzerland - could have been hit.
"Russia is vulnerable in only a few ways, but Switzerland's
role as a commodities trading hub would be one of them," said
Oliver Classen of Swiss NGO Berne Declaration which campaigns
for greater oversight.
"Switzerland is conducting symbolic political measures
instead of making use of what would be a good opportunity to
collaborate with the EU and the U.S. and use the leverage that
Russian assets in Swiss banks stood at nearly 13.8 billion
Swiss francs ($15.6 billion) in 2012, with another 2.5 billion
held by fiduciaries according to the most recent data from the
Swiss National Bank. This does not include private banking funds
or other assets such as precious metals and real estate.
Although Switzerland has yet to impose any of its own
restrictions, its banks, such as UBS and Credit Suisse
have to be mindful of sanctions levied elsewhere.
Burkhalter countered suggestions that Switzerland could
profit from the situation.
"We don't want to be a place to bypass the sanctions of
others," he said, adding that any potential Swiss bank accounts
of those named on the EU and U.S. sanctions lists would be
affected without giving further details.
As well as profiting from Russian exports and investment,
Switzerland has been expanding into the Russian market and
exports have risen threefold over the past decade to 3.1 billion
francs last year.
Switzerland holds the chair of the Organisation for Security
and Cooperation in Europe and some politicians have warned
imposing sanctions could undermine the body's credibility as it
deploys a monitoring mission in Ukraine.
(Additional reporting by Katharina Bart in Zurich; Editing by