Preventing Parallel Paralysis: Cyprus and Crimea

in SAIS Speaks

PAUL STURM
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON

Elias Crazukopoulos presses his forehead against the chain link fence, gazing at the abandoned hotels in the distance, badly decayed in the years since they were hurriedly left during the Turkish assault in 1974.  The only people currently enjoying the Mediterranean breeze and seascapes are the hard-faced Turkish soldiers patrolling the empty streets, frozen in a moment in time now four decades past. The ghost town of Varosha near Famagusta on the eastern coast of Cyprus used to be the island’s most popular holiday destination, but inhabitants fled when the Turkish warships and transports appeared on the horizon. It has been sealed off since, a pawn to be played at some point in the future. Foremost on Elias’ mind is whether he will ever be able to revisit his childhood home and see, against all likelihood, if his family’s heirlooms have survived the lapse of so many years.

With a high human cost, the Cyprus problem has persisted through decades of near-constant efforts by the UN and major powers with a stake in security in the Eastern Mediterranean to resolve it. Families have lost their homes and property; the economic potential of an important part of the island has gone unrealized; an acute irritant has been created between Greece and Turkey; and relations between NATO and the EU have been complicated unhelpfully.

Recent events have given people hope that a resolution is more likely now than in the past. The painful financial collapse in the Republic of Cyprus last year, combined with attempts to exploit hydrocarbon reserves off the eastern coast of the island and the increasing international isolation of northern Cyprus, has given a renewed impetus to peace and reunification negotiations, which resumed in early March. Despite strenuous efforts for decades, it is the confluence of seemingly coincidental factors that has given policy-makers and the people of Cyprus hope this time around.

This last point is revealing when considering how conflicts start and how they end. Events in the Crimean peninsula today may foreshadow another frozen conflict – a thorn in the side of Europe and global security, just as divided Cyprus has been.  Might the crisis in the Crimea, and in the Ukraine more generally, evolve into another such frozen conflict?  With time,  political proposals by one side or the other slowly take on the character of non-negotiable demands; popular attitudes become hardened, incompatible narratives grow settled and unquestionable by dint of constant repetition, enmity becomes entrenched and the outlook for generations poisoned. In these circumstances, political leaders become hostages to hard-liners, compelled to insist on maximalist positions in order to maintain their own positions.  Peace, indeed even modest efforts at amelioration, become unattainable.

One mitigating dynamic in this comparison is that The Ukrainians and Russians are not divided, as the Greeks and Turks have been, by centuries of conflict and bad blood, nor are they separated so completely by language, history, religion, and culture.  So it has arguably been more difficult to solve the Cyprus problem for those reasons.

Consider that sustained efforts at the highest level have failed to produce any meaningful results in Cyprus over the course of two generations and that only random events beyond prediction or human control have given any hope to the process of late. This holds important lessons for the EU and the US as they struggle to grapple with behavior in the Crimea that is reminiscent of the 19th century. De-escalation and a return to the status quo ante without further harming their fraught yet important relationship with Russia seems to be the preferred way forward. Decisions being taken now – particularly in Moscow, Kiev, Washington, Brussels and Simferopol  –  will do much to determine whether we are witnessing the creation of another frozen conflict, with all that implies for continuing human suffering, lost economic opportunity, and the permanent risk of collapse into outright conflict.

Unfortunately, those decisions are likely to be taken with immediate advantages in view, not long-term consequences.  But avoiding permanent changes in political structures, constitutions and borders may help to prevent the Crimea from joining the world’s list of frozen conflicts. Troops can be withdrawn and inflamed constituencies in Russia can be mollified, whereas permanent political changes create much more daunting challenges and unleash reinforcing and toxic forces.

As the Europeans and Americans seek effective measures from their seemingly inadequate toolboxes to restrain Putin and his cohorts from further aggression, preventing such permanent changes must be a foremost objective. Otherwise, 40 years from now, we may find an Eliasz Krawczuk this time around, staring forlornly through a fence at a land that used to be his.