Lessons for Ukraine, Russia, and the West from the divided island of Cyprus
Coup d’État and Invasion
15 July 1974. The Junta government of Greece organizes a coup d’état in Cyprus with the aim of deposing the President of Cyprus and replacing him with a stooge who would back the union of Cyprus with Greece.
20 July 1974. Turkish forces are landing in the north of the island. The Greek Junta collapses, replaced by a democratically elected government.
14 August 1974. After smaller advances, including ethnic cleansing, Turkish troops launch a second major offensive, advancing swiftly to the present dividing line. Almost no Greek Cypriots remain in the areas through which Turkish army advanced. The Turkish military occupies 37% of the island’s territory. A quarter of the Greek Cypriot population become displaced persons in their own country, with some forty thousand Turkish Cypriots also leaving their homes for the UK Sovereign Base Areas.
With Turkey concurring, unanimous UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions of 1974 call “upon all states to respect the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and non-alignment of the Republic of Cyprus and to refrain from all acts and interventions directed against it.”
Despite this resolution, a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is declared in 1983, recognized to date only by Turkey itself. Though Turkey has on a number of occasions threatened to annex Northern Cyprus, it has not in fact done so. Cyprus remains divided to this day.
Ukraine in Context
Though extensive arguments for and against the relevance of Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia have been developed, also the Cyprus question should be considered as a potentially valid historical analogy for events taking place in Ukraine today. In Ukraine as with Cyprus, we are discussing great power rivalry, the fragility of a newly independent state, invasion by a former imperial power, fatalities and refugees, the constitutionality of a change in government, ethnic conflict and majoritarianism, sanctions. In Ukraine as with Cyprus, the West’s response to the aggression has been limited. The US arms embargo against Turkey, instituted by the US Congress in 1974 against the wishes of the then Administration, was repealed at the request of the next Administration in 1978.
If Cyprus serves as a valid historical analogy, it is worth asking whether proposed solutions for the resolution of the Cyprus conflict over the last forty years provide any lessons for Ukraine. Of these proposals, the most important by far has been the “Comprehensive Settlement of the Cyprus Problem,“ commonly known by the name of the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.
An Annan Plan for Ukraine?
The first of five versions of the Annan Plan was submitted to Greek and Turkish Cypriots in November 2002. All parties considered it a serious attempt to create a functioning bizonal bicommunal federation reunifying the island. The basic model underlying the plan was a form of consociationalism, or power sharing. Only certain features of the plan, potentially relevant to the situation in Ukraine, will be highlighted here.
Constitutional arrangements: the executive organ of the United Cyprus Republic would be a Presidential Council made up of six members with at least two from each of the component states. The support of at least one of the two minority members would be necessary for any decision. Cyprus would have two federal parliaments, the first with members elected proportionately according to the population of the relevant communities, the second split equally between the two communities. A Supreme Court would serve as the final arbiter, resolving constitutional differences. This would be made up of three judges from each of the two communities and three foreign judges.
External guarantees: the Annan Plan stipulated that “Cyprus maintain special ties of friendship with Greece and Turkey, respecting the balance in Cyprus established by the Treaty of Guarantee.” It also stated: “Until the accession of Turkey to the EU, the United Cyprus Republic shall not put its territory at the disposal of international military operations other than with the consent of Greece and Turkey […].”
Security: the Annan plan would have dissolved all Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot units. Turkish, Greek and British troops on the island would however have remained for a considerable duration, and in small numbers indefinitely. A UN contingent would also have remained on the island. There were no provisions to balance Turkey’s natural dominance in the air.
As with all potential historical analogies, there are both similarities and differences between Cyprus and Ukraine. Cyprus had been a component part of the Ottoman Empire between 1571 and 1878, which is for not much longer than Ukraine of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. On any possible count, the percentage of Russian Ukrainians (let alone Ukrainians speaking Russian as a first language) is higher than that of Turkish Cypriots. The latter constituted 18% of the population of Cyprus in 1960. Further, there can be no doubt about boundaries of a Republic of Cyprus, as these are determined by the sea.
At the same time, the Annan Plan was built upon a series of negotiations stretching back to the Zurich agreement of 1959. Though the Zurich agreement was never put to a referendum, it did stipulate that a future independent Cyprus would be a bicommunal federation. No agreements comparable to those of Zurich apply to Ukraine today.
However, three further differences are much more relevant and deserve consideration.
First, communal identities on Cyprus are set and determined to a considerable extent by religion. In Ukraine, identities are not clearly entrenched and have been in a state of considerable flux. Religion plays no significant role. Still, the increase in nationalisms on all sides as a result of the current conflict has brought Ukraine closer to the situation in Cyprus.
Second, a system of parallel power focused on oligarchs constitutes a very important element in the crisis in Ukraine. Individual oligarchs have supported both sides of the conflict, though their support for the Ukrainian state constitutes part of the reason for separatists’ inability to expand beyond core areas. These systems of parallel power and the more general lack of a legal culture in contemporary Ukraine mean that constitutional and legal proposals along Annan lines would have little traction in the current Ukrainian context.
Finally, the de facto annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation clearly differentiates Crimea from the similarly self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This annexation means Russia has rejected the possibility of a federal Ukrainian state. It also makes it impossible for Ukraine to accept federalism as a political principle, because of the real danger that other federated regions would separate from the Ukrainian state and be annexed by Russia.
The Lessons of Cyprus
And yet, all parties would do well to draw on the lessons of Cyprus.
First, minority rights. Like Cyprus in the period between 1960 and 1974, the Ukrainian state has fallen short of certain minimum norms in its treatment of the rights of minorities within its territory. Unlike Cyprus where the Turkish language was and is an official language of state, in Ukraine’s case the question of equality of Ukrainian and Russian was only treated belatedly by President Viktor Yanukovych. The relevant law allowed Russian to be an official language only on a regional level, thus falling short of the obligation that states treat their citizens with equal respect.
Second, constitutional government. Any constitutional settlement for Ukraine will, it should be hoped, look very different from what the Annan Plan envisaged for Cyprus. Nonetheless, constitutions serve as pathways legitimizing and delegitimizing political behavior, and should command respect. A partially devolved and democratic (i.e. not majoritarian) system of government including checks and balances would be the best way to achieve this in a Ukrainian context. The alternative may be a centralized state that ends up mirroring the constitutional defects of the Russian Federation.
Third, security. In both Cyprus and Ukraine military intervention by a former imperial power has destabilized a newly independent state. Any security arrangement for Ukraine will, however, have to be very different from those envisaged by the Annan Plan for Cyprus—which were in any event the main reason for rejection of the fifth plan by Greek Cypriots voters. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, and it is provocative for third parties to encourage Ukraine to apply for membership. As with Cyprus, it is not possible to conceive of a military solution leading to the reunification of Ukraine. But Ukraine can strengthen its position through the reorganization of its army with the help of its Western allies.
Fourth, legal approaches. Though Ukraine is militarily the weaker party, legally it has Russia by the neck. It can challenge Russian actions in the European Court of Human Rights and also in the UN Security Council (where Russia has and will veto) and General Assembly. Over time it should be able to obtain financial compensation and create obstacles to Russia’s integration into international fora, much as Cyprus has done vis-a-vis Turkey. Inevitably, this is a slow process, requiring the development of a legal culture within Ukraine itself.
Finally, creating a unified state requires political will. Ukraine must differentiate between Russian Ukrainians and the policies of the Russian state, with long term policies aiming to increase the loyalty of Russian Ukrainians to the Ukrainian state (both those within territories currently controlled by the Ukrainian state and those within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders). To achieve this, Ukrainians will have to be honest in discussing their own mistakes, including open discussion of the (unconstitutional?) deposition of a legitimately elected president. Above all, building bridges means taking the concerns of other citizens seriously.
It should be noted that, with the notable exception of the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s demands for the rest of Ukraine have so far fallen well short of anything envisaged for Cyprus in the Annan Plan. Ever since Ankara opened the barriers between the two communities in 2003, one of the major issues in Cyprus, within both communities, is whether a Cypriot identity should over time become more important in relation to the Greek and Turkish ones.
Ignoring the Precedent
The reasons why the Cyprus question is being ignored as a precedent for Ukraine today may by now have become clearer.
The Greek government is seeking Russian economic and political support, and any comparison between Russian actions in Crimea and Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus is unwelcome. An additional factor influencing Greek public opinion is that much of the Greek minority in Crimea (and perhaps, but not certainly, in Mariupol) is Russian-speaking and broadly pro-Russian. Apart from close cultural and economic ties, the government of Cyprus has depended on Russian veto power in the United Nations.
With both Turkey and Russia positioning themselves as bulwarks against perceived threats emanating from further West, Turkey seems keen to brush differences with Russia under the table. In May 2013, Tayyip Erdogan had to survive Turkey’s similar home grown maidan, centered on Taksim Square in Istanbul, and it is not impossible to imagine the outcome of the two maidans reversed. Despite being a NATO member, Turkey has not participated in any of the sanctions against Russia, and has barely raised its voice in support of the Crimean Tatars (in sharp contrast, say, to its defense of Palestinian rights).
Finally, in the West, only Ted Galen Carpenter writing for the Washington D.C. based Cato Institute has drawn attention to the Cyprus issue in order to attack “the West’s hypocrisy” on Ukraine.
Anger and Legality
Anger at the Russian invasion of Ukraine is justified. A sense of bitterness at the West for instigating a set of policies that have led Ukraine to its current dead-end, and then not following through with anything like adequate support, should be expected. As the weaker party, Ukraine, like Cyprus, must stand firmly for the principles of international law, both internally with regard to its own Russian and other minorities, and, externally, with regard to its territorial integrity and state sovereignty.
Ukraine faces many challenges today. There is the danger of more Russian incursions (especially around Mariupol), of majoritarianism, and of the country splintering as oligarchs create personal fiefdoms. Economic collapse and the ever present threat of a third Maidan would undermine such constitutional order as still exists.
But even though Cyprus has not been reunited, it does offer reasons for hope. The second and third versions of the Annan Plan were rejected by the then leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Rauf Denktash, in collaboration with Ankara; the fifth version, amended to obtain Ankara’s support, was accepted by the Turkish Cypriots and rejected by the Greek Cypriot community in simultaneous referendums. Ukrainians can be thankful for the 76% of Greek Cypriots who voted against the Annan plan in the referendum of April 2004, and, paradoxically, for Russia’s support for the Greek Cypriots in the UN Security Council at that time.
All in all, the work of building a functioning modern Cypriot state has been successful, despite—but also because—of the difficulties the island has faced. And where the UN’s secret diplomacy has failed, Cypriots’ own public diplomacy continues. Both Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been reaching out to one another in an ongoing effort to build trust and cooperation on issues that affect their common home. Most recent in a long list of initiatives is an announcement on the formation of a common football league. Last but not least, and despite ongoing division, Cyprus has become a member of the EU, with all the benefits and obligations associated with that organization. The EU considers that part of Cyprus which remains under Turkish military occupation an integral part of its member state.
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