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SWITZERLAND

Switzerland is a nation shaped by the resolve of its citizens: it is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious entity. Since 1848, it has been a federal state - one of 23 in the world and the second oldest after the United States of America. Switzerland's independence and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers and Switzerland was not involved in either of the two World Wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations, may be rendering obsolete the country's concern for neutrality.The Federal Constitution is the legal foundation of the Confederation. It contains the most important rules for the smooth functioning of the state. It guarantees the basic rights of the people and the participation of the public. It distributes the tasks between the Confederation and the cantons and defines the responsibilities of the authorities.

Switzerland is known officially as the 'Swiss Confederation' (Latin: 'Confederatio Helvetica' or CH on the licence plates of cars). Its immediate neighbours are Germany, France, Italy, Austria and the Principality of Liechtenstein. The federal capital is Bern (134,400) where the parliament, the government and the administration have their seat. The largest cities are Zurich (343,100 inhabitants of the political city), Basel (172,800), Geneva (167,700), and Lausanne (123,100). With a total surface area of 41,285 km² and a population of 7,094,000 Switzerland is commonly designated a small state. Structurally, Switzerland has evolved as a federal state with twenty-six member states, known as cantons and half-cantons, which have retained a high degree of autonomy. The municipalities and communes, which number over 3,000, also enjoy considerable rights of self-government. According to the Federal Constitution, Switzerland has four official national languages: German (spoken by about 65% of the population), French (18.4%), Italian (9.8%) and Romansh (0.8%). The first three languages listed are official languages of the federal administration. The cantons of Berne, Fribourg and Valais are officially recognized as bilingual (German and French), and Graubünden (otherwise known as the Grisons) as trilingual (German, Romansh and Italian).

Although the country has few raw materials and no direct access to the sea, it has a highly developed economy with trading and financial relations with countries all over the world. The economic importance of this small country is apparent in, among other things, the gross national product (GNP) which in 1996 amounted to 41'000 US$ per inhabitant. This is higher than that of most other states. Switzerland has a working population of over three million. The most important industrial sectors are engineering and electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the manufacture of precision instruments, watchmaking and the textile and food industries. Banks, insurance companies and tourism dominate the service sector.

Christianity is the dominant religion; 48% of the population are Roman Catholic and 44% Protestant. The remaining 8% belong to other Christian denominations or to other religions (mainly Judaism and Islam) or have no religious faith.

The heart of Switzerland is formed by the Alps. In the north, they are composed of limestone, marl and dolomite, in the centre the crystalline massifs consist mainly of granite and gneiss, and schist and rock deposits form the mountains of the south. Thus each region has its typical characteristic landscape which can be traced back to a bygone period of the earth's history, in particular to the Ice Ages. Today, the glaciers in the Swiss Alps number around 1,800 and cover an area of 1,340 km². The largest of them are the Aletsch, the Gorner and the Fiescher. Agricultural exploitation of the Alps, with an average altitude of 1,700 metres (5,100 feet) above sea level and around one hundred peaks reaching a height of 4,000 metres (12,000 feet), is restricted by the natural conditions and cultivation is limited to the valley floors and sunny hillsides. Whereas the favourable conditions of the central and southern Alps permit fruit farming and wine-growing, livestock-raising and dairy farming prevail in the other regions.

The central plateau is Switzerland's most heavily populated area, and its hills, valleys and plains are the home of the greater part of the Swiss population and the site of most of the large towns. The long basin between the Jura and the Alps, with an average altitude of 580 metres above sea level, is composed of a mass of debris which was torn from the Alps and now forms the marl, sandstone, nagelfluh and molasse rock. Much later, in the Ice Ages, glaciers formed the landscape, as well as creating the conditions for the formation of the numerous lakes. Switzerland's largest waters are the lakes of Geneva, Constance, Neuchâtel, Lucerne, Maggiore and Zurich. The central plateau is also the agricultural centre of Switzerland, for it combines good climatic conditions with fertile soil and a situation favourable to trade and enterprise. Industry is concentrated mainly in urban centres although residential and industrial areas are expanding at the expense of agricultural regions.


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