Cyprus State of Denial: Nothing Like Peace To Keep CNN Away

Lessons of the conflict? Better to keep refugees in squalor; indulge radicalism.

Cyprus hasn't been grabbing news headlines lately. Sure, there is concern about the possible derailment of Turkey's EU-accession process because Ankara still won't deal with the government of the Republic of Cyprus, which it chooses not to recognize as being legitimate. But other than that, it's not on the list of the hotspots of the world's "frozen conflicts"-waiting for war to break out in the Caucasus is much more interesting.

It is an indictment, however, of the "squeaky wheels get the grease" approach to conflict resolution. The United States and the Europeans have not put a great deal of effort behind efforts to get Cyprus "solved" because there is no pressing urgency, or so it is said.

But the failure to take advantage of a number of windows of opportunity to get a workable bi-zonal, bi-communal federation up and running on the island (and to get Turkish troops out, and to remove the Cyprus question as a roadblock for Ankara's EU aspirations) has not gone unnoticed in the region.

There are four lessons to be "unlearned" from Cyprus-all of which will make our task of ending other regional conflicts all the more difficult.

Lesson number one: Don't resettle your refugees. After the 1974 invasion of the island, the government in Nicosia made a tremendous decision. Refugees would not be permanently confined to squalid camps and kept in perpetual limbo (guaranteeing the emergence of second and third generations of refugees), as had happened with the Palestinians. No, resettlement would occur by creating new neighborhoods (with refugees acquiring the ability to eventually own property) and by directing investment to create job opportunities (rather than have people on a perpetual dole). The end result: no "showcase" camps filled with desperate, radicalized people. The international community, however, has interpreted this to mean that there is no problem at all. This is why in more recent conflicts governments have quite cynically allowed and encouraged refugees camps to develop and become permanent; nothing better than to parade before international observers the dispossessed. And usually, the refugees-encouraged to vote as a bloc-give their ballots to the political forces most disinclined for compromise or moderation. The "refugee factor" is an important reason for the lack of progress in settling the conflicts in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Lesson number two: Highlight ethnic conflict. When the "green line" separating the Greek and Turkish areas of Cyprus opened in 2003, the world media was prepared to televise the predicted violence; that once Greek and Turkish Cypriots encountered each other, "age-old" ethnic hatreds would flare up, leading to dramatic clashes. For the last three years, millions of cross-zonal visits have taken place with almost no incidents. There's nothing like peace to keep CNN away. The Kosovar Albanians, in contrast, have adopted a more successful strategy-by having extremists continue to target the minority Serbs, the argument is made that accommodation is impossible and independence (and separation) the only solution.

The third lesson: Don't compromise. The government in Nicosia could have used its veto to prevent EU accession talks with Turkey from ever starting, on the grounds that Ankara's refusal to recognize the government of an EU-member state and its continued deployment of 40,000 troops on the island constitute an illegal occupation of European territory. It didn't. It signaled that it would even support Turkish membership in the EU and wouldn't act as the proxy for those central European states who don't want Turkey in the EU but don't want to provoke Washington by scuttling Ankara's European bid. Nicosia gambled that its moderation would lead to some reciprocal gestures on Turkey's part. Those hopes have been, so far, dashed.

The lesson the rest of the region is learning is that might makes right and that compromise is a sign of weakness. Nowhere in the region are rivals prepared to make the concessions necessary to move forward on long-term peace arrangements.

Finally, the Cypriot case shows that the vaunted "European approach" is, so far, zero for one. This thesis is that the incentive of joining the EU-with all the economic benefits entailed plus the protections provided by EU institutions-can motivate political leaders to reach a settlement. (The "EU approach" is the one advocated by former secretary of defense, Frank Carlucci, in these pages http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=11962 "The Crucial Final Step", rests on the assumption that competing Serb and Albanian interests in Kosovo can be reconciled via EU membership for both Serbia and an independent Kosovo state.) So far, that approach has not worked to reunite the island nor caused Turkey to modify its stance. And the extent to which the EU backs away from its commitments (to recognize the territorial integrity of the island under the government of the Republic) only erodes confidence that any EU-based settlement can in fact be trusted to be implemented.

Failure to reach a final settlement for Cyprus, with all of its positive conditions, makes it that much harder to believe that the more difficult cases-Kosovo, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and even Iraq-will prove easier to resolve, especially when leaders in those states and entities conclude that there's no benefit to be gained from being moderate and reasonable.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.