A landlocked, majestically scenic country, the Swiss Confederation's long-standing neutral status has given it political stability that has helped it become one of the world's wealthiest countries where banking is a key industry.
Formally neutral since just after the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century and informally for about 300 years before that, Switzerland joined the United Nations in September 2002.
Although it is situated close to the geographical centre of Europe the country is not an EU member. A referendum in 2001 went against opening talks on joining. Membership of the European Economic Area was also rejected by referendum in 1992 and Swiss-EU relations are now based on an extensive range of bilateral agreements.
Ties became closer in 2005 when a referendum backed membership of the EU Schengen and Dublin agreements, bringing Switzerland into Europe's passport-free zone and increasing cooperation on crime and asylum issues. A further referendum the same year opened the job market to workers from the 10 newest EU member countries.
Frozen shores of Lake Geneva, Europe's largest Alpine lake
A European cultural and linguistic crossroads, about two-thirds of the population speak German, around one-fifth French and about 7% Italian. Rumansch, the country's fourth national language, is spoken by less than 1% of the population.
Uniquely in Europe, important policy decisions often rest on the results of national referenda. A referendum can be initiated by any citizen able to muster 100,000 voters' signatures in support of holding one on a given issue. In practice, it is relatively rare for initiatives without government backing to win support when it comes to the vote.
The army tradition, which in Switzerland has come to be seen as an essential part of neutrality, runs deep into the life of the nation. During the cold war years, the Swiss maintained one of Europe's largest land-based armies. The country's extremely costly militia system under which every adult male was conscripted and remained in the reserves until middle age has been slowly streamlined.
The government expressed its regrets over the country's behaviour in World War II following a report by an independent panel of historians on Swiss relations with the Nazis. The report found that the authorities had known what consequences lay in store for the Jewish refugees to whom they closed the borders in 1942 and had assisted the economy of Nazi Germany, although not to a degree that prolonged the war.
- Population: 7.1 million (UN, 2005)
- Capital: Bern
- Area: 41,284 sq km (15,940 sq miles)
- Major languages: German, French, Italian, Romansch
- Major religion: Christianity
- Life expectancy: 76 years (men), 82 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Swiss Franc = 100 Rappen
- Main exports: Machinery and electronics, chemicals, precision instruments, watches
- GNI per capita: US $54,930 (World Bank, 2006)
- Internet domain: .ch
- International dialling code: +41
President: Moritz Leuenberger
Under Switzerland's system of a rotating, non-executive presidency, heads of state are drawn annually from among the seven federal ministers.
Moritz Leuenberger, Swiss head of state for 2006
Under the constitution the make-up of the government is not determined by parliamentary majority but in accordance with a four-party power-sharing agreement, established in 1959 and known as the "magic formula".
Until late 2003 the seven posts in government, or Federal Council, were shared between the Free Democrats (with two), the Social Democrats (two), the Christian Democrats (two) and the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) (one), regardless of how many seats each party had in parliament.
General elections in October 2003 put paid to all that. Christoph Blocher's SVP, which campaigned on an anti-foreigner and anti-EU platform, increased its share of the vote to almost 28% and became the largest party in parliament. The party was quick to demand a second Federal Council post.
After weeks of heated debate, parliament voted to meet this demand. The centrist Christian Democrats, who were among the biggest election losers, forfeited one of their government seats to the SVP which, like the Free Democrats and Social Democrats, now has two.
Broadcasting is dominated by the public Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG/SSR) which operates seven TV networks and 18 radio stations. Most of its funding comes from licence fee revenues; a smaller proportion comes from TV advertising.
Private radio and TV stations operate at a regional level.
Television stations from France, Germany and Italy are widely available, thanks in part to the very high take-up of multi-channel cable and satellite TV. Some German commercial broadcasters provide tailored versions of their channels for the Swiss market.
Switzerland's press has full editorial freedom and mainly operates along regional lines which reflect the country's linguistic divisions.
The pressNeue Zürcher Zeitung - Zurich-based daily
Tages-Anzeiger - Zurich-based daily
Le Temps - Geneva-based daily
La Tribune de Geneve - daily
Corriere del Ticino - Lugano-based daily
TelevisionSF-DRS - German-language public broadcaster, operates three channels
RTSI- Italian-language public broadcaster, operates two channels
TSR - French-language public broadcaster, operates two channels
RadioSR-DRS - German-language public broadcaster, operates five stations
RSR - French-language public broadcaster, operates four stations
RSI - Italian-language public broadcaster, operates three stations
RR - Rumansch-language public radio station
News agency/internetswissinfo - news portal operated by public broadcaster, pages in English
Swiss News Agency (SDA/ATS)