Frozen Conflicts in Eurasia: The Cyprus Analogy

Samuel Charap explains what Western policymakers can learn from Cyprus in dealing with Georgia’s secessionist conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its inter-state conflict with Russia.

Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias addresses reporters during a news conference on long-running negotiations with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to reunify the war-divided island at the Presidential Palace in the divided capital Nicosia, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (AP/Petros Karadjias)
Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias addresses reporters during a news conference on long-running negotiations with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to reunify the war-divided island at the Presidential Palace in the divided capital Nicosia, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (AP/Petros Karadjias)

This was originally published as a chapter in: Frances G. Burwell and Svante E. Cornell, eds., The Transatlantic Partnership and Relations with Russia (Stockholm and Washington: Institute for Security and Development Policy and the Atlantic Council of the United States, 2012).

An underlying assumption in much of the Western approach to Georgia’s secessionist conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its inter-state conflict with Russia is that Moscow is the primary source of “the problem” (however defined). Certainly, throughout the post-Soviet period, and especially after the August 2008 war, there is ample evidence to support this argument. But regardless of one’s assignment of blame for the status quo, the question for Western policy makers is a different one: how to change it. Since the war, the Russia-centric approach has led to Washington’s emphasis on, on the one hand, a policy of push-back against Moscow’s attempts to convince others to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia — a drive coined “sovereign diplomacy” — and, on the other, a push to gain transparency on and drastically reduce the Russian military presence in the two breakaway autonomies (in line with the ceasefire agreement and subsequent implementing measures), if not completely eliminate it. Prominent voices in Washington have denounced “creeping normalization” of the status quo, and asserted that only a policy that puts the screws on Moscow has a chance of achieving success.

The emphasis on achieving resolution of these three interrelated conflicts by raising the temperature surrounding political-level disputes about status, borders, and foreign military presence, by coercing one or more of the parties into changing positions, as opposed to providing them incentives to do so, and through a near-exclusive focus on elite decision-makers (as opposed to societal reconciliation), does not seem like a strategy that could plausibly achieve a successful outcome.

Indeed, a comparison with another “frozen” conflict in Europe, Cyprus, is instructive in this respect. The political-level disputes are quite similar. According to the U.S. (and EU) official position, since its 1974 invasion of the island, Turkey has illegally occupied the sovereign state of Cyprus. Since the north’s 1983 declaration of independence as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), Turkey recognized it, and it remains the only state to have done so. To this day, Turkey maintains between 30,000 and 40,000 troops on the one-third of the island controlled by the TRNC despite numerous Security Council resolutions since its initial 1974 invasion calling for immediate withdrawal.

The parallel between Turkey’s and Russia’s respective roles in the two conflicts seems clear. So too does the situation on the ground among the communities. As a Council on Foreign Relations report put it, “Since the beginning of the conflict in 1963, mutual recriminations and hard-line positions have characterized both the Greek and Turkish sides of the Cyprus dispute. Turkish Cypriots have stoked fears that there would be ethnic cleansing if they were not protected by Turkish forces and have concentrated on breaking their international isolation (with little success). Greek Cypriots have demanded the withdrawal of Turkish troops and the reunification of the island under a single Greek-dominated government.” One could easily replace “Turkish Cypriot” with “Abkhazian”, “Turkish troops” with “Russian troops,” and “Greek Cypriot” with “Georgian” and these statements would remain accurate.

One critical distinction has been Turkey’s declared willingness for almost a decade to endorse and facilitate a settlement of the Cyprus dispute that would result in a state with a “single international personality” and thus entail the withdrawal of its recognition of the TRNC. Therefore, despite continued Cypriot displeasure about the Turkish military presence, international efforts have been largely focused on achieving a broad settlement among the communities and reestablishing a central government.

Until 2002, these efforts yielded little progress. That year, UN secretary general Kofi Annan presented a draft document called The Basis for Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Cyprus Problem, commonly referred to as the Annan Plan. The plan called for, among many provisions, a “common state” government with a “single international legal personality” that would participate in international affairs, similar to Switzerland. Two politically equal component states would address much of the daily responsibilities of government in their respective communities. The Plan also addressed a wide range of humanitarian and economic issues. On April 24th, 2004, the population of the divided island cast their votes in a referendum on the Annan Plan. While the referendum passed in the Turkish North with 64.9% voting yes, it ultimately failed in the Greek South with 75.8% voting no.

The failed referendum has privileged a view of Cyprus as a failed conflict resolution process. This is all the more palpable for the EU and the U.S. because of the tensions it causes in Turkey’s engagement with them. Ankara blocks Cypriot cooperation with NATO on diplomatic, intelligence, and military matters, and Cyprus continues to prevent Turkey’s participation in the European Defense Agency — an EU body — and is said to be preventing many chapters of Turkey’s EU accession talks from proceeding.

Progress on the ground

The failure of the Annan Plan, and ongoing lack of progress in attempts to revive a similar deal through direct negotiation between the north and the south, has led to a great deal of pessimism about the prospects for resolution. As a CRS report to Congress put it, “the harsh realities of almost four decades of separation, mistrust, misunderstanding, and in some cases, indifference to the need for a final settlement and unification of the island” have soured views on all sides.[1] But the West’s focus on bringing the communities together has indeed remained a constant — a marked distinction from current policy on the Georgia conflicts.

However, while international resolution efforts in Cyprus differ from those in Georgia because of the focus on the communities, they were until very recently quite similar in their elite-centric approach. In other words, mediation efforts in both places seek to produce a settlement among political leaders, with little regard for the opinions of their electorates.

Indeed, it was the failure of the Annan plan — and the realization that whatever the desires of elites or the international community, Greek Cypriots didn’t want a settlement — that sparked the first real attempts at inter-community reconciliation and interaction. Real progress to bridge the divide between North and South can be seen in the continuing efforts to open crossings along the buffer zone. There are currently seven crossings with the most recent opening October 14, 2010.[2]

In addition to the border crossings, there are numerous projects underway in Cyprus to promote interaction and understanding between the two sides. In 2006, a law was passed that allowed Turkish Cypriots to vote and hold office in the South. In 2008, seven technical committees working with the UN put together a list of confidence building measures to facilitate integration of the island. Overall, of the 23 measures formulated by the technical committees, six have been implemented to date, including the establishment of a joint communications room for the exchange of information on crime and criminal matters, the facilitation of ambulances through crossing points and the implementation of a project to establish an inventory of immovable cultural heritage in Cyprus.[3]

Through the Participatory Development Project, the Cyprus Scientific and Technical Chamber and the Union of Chambers of Cyprus Turkish Engineers and Architects came together in April of this year to engage people on both sides in the planning of shared spaces and the promotion of social inclusion in decision-making in the settlement process.[4] The UNDP Action for Cooperation and Trust (ACT) works to educate and enable Cypriots on both sides to actively participate in the reconciliation process.[5] There are also several joint projects focused on protecting the island’s limited water resources. As one observer put it, “Ironically, in the case of Cyprus, the more reconciliatory climate has not emerged from EU action or policy, but through a domestic dynamic that has recaptured a spirit of cooperation between the two communities.”[6]

International presence and the threat of use of force

One striking difference between the Cypriot and Georgian conflict resolution processes is the current lack of a perceived threat of the use of force in Cyprus. In Georgia, all sides regularly claim that one or more of the others are poised to launch unprovoked aggression. The calmer situation in Cyprus is, at least in part, a function of the confidence building measures described above, but a robust international monitoring mission clearly has been key as well. The UN Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was set up in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. While it clearly failed in that mission, after the Turkish invasion, the mandate was expanded to include supervision of ceasefire lines, maintenance of the buffer zone and humanitarian assistance. The buffer zone between the lines varies in width from less than 20 metres (21.87 yards) to some 7 kilometres (4.35 miles), covering about 3 percent of the island. UNFICYP monitors the area through a system of observation posts, and through air, vehicle and foot patrols. It frequently leads humanitarian convoys that provide welfare services to Greek Cypriots living in the North as well as Turkish Cypriots residing in the South. The mission also facilitates the movement of electricity and water across the buffer zone.[7] The United Nations has assumed the role of facilitator for all aspects of the negotiation structure, from formulating ideas to helping the sides overcome challenges. No aspect of the elaborate negotiation structure, which includes the six working groups, seven technical committees and the full-fledged high-level negotiations, has functioned without the constant support and presence of the United Nations.[8] And in 1997, Turkish and Greek non-use-of-force pledges were made in the Madrid Declaration, which declared both sides’ "commitment to refrain from unilateral acts on the basis of mutual respect and willingness to avoid conflicts arising from misunderstanding" and "commitment to settle disputes by peaceful means based on mutual consent and without use of force or threat of force."[9]

The financial benefits of settling the Cyprus problem are substantial for both Turkey and Greece. Aside from saving the hundreds of millions spent each year by Turkey to support the northern part of the island, Turkey also stands to save EUR 24 billion, spread over ten years, from reducing expenditures on property litigation. With settlement of the issue, Turkey could also see FDI increase by EUR 33 billion per year.[10] Greece, Cyprus and Turkey would gain from increased trade and tourism.

U.S. policy and assistance on conflict resolution

Immediately following the 1974 invasion, the U.S. Congress placed an embargo on U.S. military grants and arms sales to Turkey, which lasted from 1975 until 1978, despite the executive branch’s strong objections. Turkey responded by closing U.S. defense and intelligence installations on Turkish territory until the lifting of the embargo (except for those installations that had a purely NATO function).

Since the emergence of the Annan Plan, U.S. policy has settled on the formula of achieving a “just and lasting settlement that reunifies Cyprus into a bizonal, bicommunal federation.” As then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza said in 2008, “The United States remains firmly committed to offering all possible support to UN efforts to foster a just and lasting Cyprus settlement . . . We believe the two communities themselves must generate the solution to the longstanding division of the island.”[11]

In 2004, the United States initiated the “Cyprus Partnership for Economic Growth,” a $30.5 million program intended to assist Turkish Cypriot businesses in the banking, agriculture, and tourism sectors. Through the U.S. Embassy’s Bicommunal Support Program, small grants of up to $10,000 are awarded to support Cypriots in their own bicommunal endeavors.[12] Through USAID, the U.S. has offered conflict-related assistance to Cyprus since the summer of 1974, initially as a humanitarian relief operation which evolved into a multi-sector development program aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of interaction between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.[13] USAID also funds a Capacity Development Program that brings the two sides together to work with marginalized and at-risk youth.[14] Assistance is delivered through the UN and NGOs on both sides, outside of any formal bilateral agreements, so as to avoid status-related problems.

Even though Washington does not recognize the TRNC as a sovereign state, it has in place a waiver program that allows TRNC passport-holders to travel to the U.S. with a visa attached to a stand-alone form. The Embassy maintains a small representative office in north Nicosia, which is used for limited consular business and other Embassy activities to further the reunification process and boost ties with the Turkish Cypriot community. And U.S. government officials are now permitted to travel directly to the TRNC on tourist passports. In May 2005, the U.S. Congressional Turkey Study Group flew directly to Ercan Airport in Turkish Cyprus from Istanbul, conducted a series of meetings, and flew from Ercan to Ankara. In the fall of the same year, Turkish Cypriot legislators met with members of the Congressional Turkey Study Group in Washington, DC. In October 2005, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice met with the TRNC President in her office, although the U.S. government always stresses that TRNC officials are seen in their capacity as leaders of the Turkish Cypriot community.

Questions raised by the Cyprus comparison

Clearly, the Georgia conflicts and the Cyprus conflict differ along a number of matrices. And just because a method is used in one place does not mean it should be used in another. However, despite the lack of a political settlement, the situation on the ground today in Cyprus — no violence or threat of the use of force, eased restrictions on freedom of movement, inter-community reconciliation, interaction and engagement, and an effective international monitoring and humanitarian presence — is so much better than the status quo in Georgia as to qualify to be a model for it. Further, getting Russia’s position on the status dispute to be akin to Turkey’s — if the communities choose to reunite, it will reverse its recognition — would be a huge step forward. The question for Western policy-makers is why these goals are in fact not being pursued as a first order-priority, instead of the current focus on the status dispute and the Russian military presence.

This was originally published as a chapter in: Frances G. Burwell and Svante E. Cornell, eds., The Transatlantic Partnership and Relations with Russia (Stockholm and Washington: Institute for Security and Development Policy and the Atlantic Council of the United States, 2012).


[1]. Vincent Morelli, “Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive,” Congressional Research Service Report, July 26, 2011,, pp. 16-17.

[2]. Menelaos Hadjicostis “Divided Cyprus Rival Leaders Open New Crossing”, Boston Globe, 14 October 2010 [ eaders_open_new_crossing/]

[3]. “Report on the Secretary-General on His Mission of Good Offices in Cyprus” UN Security Council, S/2010/603, 24 November 2010. [ CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Cyprus%20S%202010%20603.pdf]

[4]. “Managing Shared Spaces; Building A Shared Future”, USAID, 13 April 2011, []

[5]. “It supports island-wide efforts, providing Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots with opportunities to work together on common issues and participate in a variety of peacebuilding initiatives across the divide.” “Ambassador Thanks UN Teams for Contributing to Reconciliation on Cyprus,” U.S. Embassy Nicosia, 19 July 2010. []

[6]. George Christou, “The European Union, borders and conflict transformation: The Case of Cyprus”, Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 46 no. 2, June 2011.

[7]. See information about UNFICYP at []

[8]. See “Report on the Secretary-General on His Mission of Good Offices in Cyprus.”

[9]. “Madrid communique enables direct Greek-Turkish talks, Pangalos says”, Athens News Agency, 22 July 1997. [ folder=255&article=1576]

[10]. Özlem Oğuz Çilsal, Praxoula Antoniadou Kyriacou, and Fiona Mullen, The Day After III: The Cyprus Peace Dividend for Turkey and Greece, Oslo: PRIO Cyprus Center, Paper 1, 2010. []

[11]. Matthew Bryza, “Invigorating the U.S.-Turkey Strategic Partnership”, Ninth Turgut Ozal Memorial Lecture, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 24 June 2008. []

[12]. “Bicommunal Support Program, U.S. Embassy Nicosia, at []

[13]. USAID Cyprus, “Our Mission”, []

[14]. “United in Trying to Reach At-Risk Youth: Communities That Care in Cyprus”, U.S. Embassy Nicosia, 15 October, 2010. []

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