In Geneva, timepieces take precedence over peace talks.
Enthusiasts coveting $50,000 Cartier watches at the Swiss industry’s annual fair bumped opening meetings to resolve the three-year-old Syrian civil war out of the lakeside town.
Instead, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will join about 1,000 delegates and journalists forced to relocate to Montreux, 58 miles (94 kilometers) to the east, for the first day of the Geneva II talks on Jan. 22. United Nations organizers failed to check that hotels in Geneva, home to Rolex and Patek Philippe SA, were block-booked by 16 of Switzerland’s most expensive watch brands to showcase timepieces to 13,000 attendees.
The move to Montreux, straining security forces policing the World Economic Forum in Davos that starts the same day, is the latest complication to efforts to end a war that has claimed at least 100,000 lives and forced more than 2.3 million Syrians to flee the country. The disruption attests to the weight of Switzerland’s $50 billion watchmaking industry, which provides a tenth of the nation’s exports.
“It’s nothing new that the fair would take place in Geneva in the third week of January, it’s been the case for five years now,” said Fabienne Lupo, Managing Director of the Foundation of Fine Watchmaking, which organizes the fair. “At least, that’s known in Geneva.”
Diplomats from more than 30 different parties represented at the Syria talks will converge on Montreux’s Palace hotel, whose guests have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Miles Davis and David Bowie. On Jan. 24 the negotiations will relocate to Geneva from the 25,000-person town, best known for its jazz festival and the site of the fire that inspired Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
Switzerland’s government has approved as many as 500 military personnel to provide security in Montreux, in addition to forces deployed by the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. Airspace around the town will also be restricted.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the date for the talks in consultation with the U.S. and Russia, according to Corinne Momal-Vanian, a UN spokeswoman in Geneva. Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs alerted the UN to the scheduling conflict and suggested Montreux as an alternative, she said.
Ban’s previous attempts to hold the talks in November were foiled as the opposition groups refused to sit down with the Syrian regime. The main Western-backed coalition opposing Assad has suspended its participation, which was agreed two days ago, over the UN Secretary-General’s invitation to Iran to take part, making the outlook murkier.
“They don’t seem to have much of a hope for a negotiated solution,” said Paul Vallet, who has taught international relations at Sciences Po in Paris. He said the most that might be achieved is agreement on some humanitarian access corridors and exchange of prisoners.“We’re still not sure that the Syrian opposition is going to budge and actually come.”
The conflict has raged since March 2011, when Assad’s government cracked down on popular uprisings against his regime. Similar protests toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
The shift to Montreux illustrates the challenges for Geneva trying to maintain its historical position as a center of global diplomacy while catering for the 900 multinationals that support the local economy. The canton’s population expanded every year from at least 1989 to 2012, increasing 24 percent to 470,000.
“People are spoiled in Geneva,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the moderator of the talks, who took over as the UN’s special envoy to Syria after former Secretary General Kofi Annan quit in 2012, said in a Swiss television interview in December. “If you have to go to New York, you know it’ll take an hour or two to arrive in the city, and you accept that. In Geneva, you’re used to being 10 minutes from the airport. So if you tell people they’ll need an extra hour and 15 minutes, they go ‘oh la la.’”
To be sure, if the talks fail, the diplomats may have an alternative destination, said Lupo, the watch foundation’s head.
“If one of the diplomats involved in these discussions would like to come, we will be pleased to welcome him,” she said. For all others, attendance is by invitation only.
Lavrov wears what appears to be a Patek Philippe, according to watch-blogger Ariel Adams, suggesting the Russian politician has more expensive tastes in timepieces than Kerry. The former U.S. presidential candidate has been known to wear a Freestyle Tide sports watch, which helps windsurfers find the best conditions based on the tides, sunrise and sunset. A spokeswoman for Lavrov declined to comment on his choice of timepiece.
Assad’s wife Asma has appeared in photos wearing a blue Jawbone UP, a $129.99 activity-tracking watch that helps people improve their sleeping habits and lose weight. A Rolex commissioned by Assad’s late father Hafez and featuring Arabic script was sold by Sotheby’s for $25,000 in 2010.
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