Conflict Conundrums

Conflict Conundrums

Mini Teaser: For the United States, mediating territorial crises must involve geopolitical juggling.

by Author(s): Tim Potier

Europe's unresolved disputes--Kosovo's bid for independence, the breakaway regions of Georgia, the long-festering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Greek-Turkish divide in Cyprus--present the United States and other global and regional powers with a policy dilemma: how to balance a people's call for autonomy with a desire to maintain the territorial integrity of existing states and preserve regional stability. None of these cases exists in a vacuum. A U.S. decision to support autonomy in one area, such as Kosovo, could embolden demands for independence by other groups. In turn, the manner in which Europe's frozen conflicts are resolved could have a broader impact, setting precedents that might be cited for Taiwan, West Papua or southern Sudan, for example.

U.S. policymakers have a choice: They can either apply guiding principles in brokering or mediating those disputes, or consider each case independently in light of U.S. geopolitical interests. International law falls, for the most part, on the side of territorial integrity. Washington is similarly wary of lending momentum to a potential Balkanization of the entire world. The question is whether "consistency for consistency's sake" is the best approach. To escape the quandary that the current stalemates in Kosovo, Cyprus and the Caucasus present, it may be time to utilize some creative thinking that breaks us out of the "independence versus integrity" dilemma.

Countdown for Kosovo

Ever since the ethnic troubles that rocked the province in the spring of 2004, the international community has been increasingly concerned that Kosovar Albanians--frustrated so far in their bid for independence from Serbia--could turn on the UN force that is precariously keeping the peace. Such a development would destabilize the whole region. Those concerns prompted the United Nations to commence (informally at first) status talks on Kosovo in November at Washington's behest, after the voluntary surrender of Kosovo's then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

Washington has been at pains to reassure all interested actors that the outcome of the status talks has not been determined, but it appears the United States has reconciled itself to the future possibility of an independent Kosovo. That development could have far-reaching implications for Serbia, for America's and Europe's relations with Russia, and for Europe's other aspirants of autonomy.

Most immediately, Serbia would have to be placated. An independent Kosovo could rile and give strength to Belgrade's Serbian radicals. Serbians would be particularly angered by independence for Kosovo, given Serbia's recent democratic progress. In addition, Serbia would have to be reassured with legally defined guarantees on the protection of the Serbian minority in Kosovo and its cultural heritage.

Although Belgrade publicly continues to reject independence for Kosovo, it has privately come to acknowledge that it may be unavoidable. If Montenegro moves this year towards its own independence through a referendum, Kosovo's continuing status as some form of UN-managed Serbian province will look ever more absurd.

The international community could try to induce Serbia's cooperation through the prospect of that country's entry to the European Union. Serbia might then subordinate its ethnic and cultural sensitivities to its far more vital goals of attaining EU membership at the earliest possible date, securing its position within the Western alliance (perhaps with NATO membership), and attempting to establish itself as the prime diplomatic actor in the region.

An independent Kosovo, though, would raise new demands for self-determination by the Serb minority there, highlighting just how untidy the business of partition can be. If independence for Kosovo is the option taken, an equally damned decision will have to be made as to whether it is received whole or in parts. If Kosovo itself is not partitioned, then its independence will have to be guided by an EU-led mission with reserved powers, while strenuous efforts would have to be made to persuade the Serbian population to participate in governmental structures. If such an approach is coupled with some form of (non-territorialized) Serbian self-government, including protections for elements of Serbian culture (such as linguistic and educational traditions), then such a compromise could well become the preferred option.

It is distinctly possible that Washington would view an independent Kosovo as a singular exception. The rest of the world, though, might not. With an eye on Georgia's restive areas, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference on January 30 that a Kosovo precedent would need to be applied to the other "frozen conflicts" along Europe's periphery--such as the one between Georgia and Abkhazia.

What Happens in theCaucasus

Because of the importance of the Caucasus as a transit route for Caspian energy, and because of Russia's leading role in the region, the West has discovered it has a strong interest in how local separatist conflicts are settled. Moscow's firm posturing has prevented Georgia from more forcefully reining in its breakaway regions, which have developed good political ties with Moscow. Georgia's troubles with its rebel areas have in part prevented it from more definitively entering the West's orbit by complicating a potential entry to NATO and the European Union.

Washington's priority vis-à-vis Georgia should not be to preserve its territorial integrity at all costs, but rather to ensure that Russia withdraws its military forces by 2008, the date Moscow has committed to under a Russian-Georgian agreement of May 2005. America can do little to alleviate the hostility of the Abkhaz and Ossetian people towards a return to Tbilisi's rule. Moreover, there may be nothing that Washington can offer Moscow in return for its full cooperation with the reunification of Georgia. Consequently, Washington may seek to trade the independence of those areas for the removal of Russian forces and Georgia's eventual entry into NATO.

The Georgian government would not welcome such a deal--but Tbilisi's maximalist position may not be in line with larger U.S. interests. The United States needs Russia's continued support in the War on Terror in securing weapons-grade material and promoting stability in Afghanistan; with North Korea and Iran on non-proliferation; and via NATO's movement into the post-Soviet space. During these crucial times, Washington should not seek to push Moscow over the edge for the sake of a resolution of Abkhazia, which is marginal to U.S. strategic interests. In the past few years, some normality has returned to Abkhazia, with Russian tourists bringing much-needed rubles. With the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Washington's priority should be to maintain stability in the central core of Georgia.

In the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, pipeline politics will also prevail. Washington will favor stability, and U.S. officials will tend to support the status quo since the dispute is relatively latent. That stability could be ruptured, though, if the Aliyev regime of Azerbaijan were to crumble and be replaced by a less quiescent administration in Baku--an unlikely but not inconceivable prospect. That scenario could ratchet up tensions on the ceasefire line and endanger the long-established truce.

During talks in Rambouillet, France, in February, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders failed to agree to a resolution of the dispute. Still, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will never agree to subordination to Baku. For Washington, Armenia is the least important of the three south Caucasus states. Azerbaijan and Georgia remain much more important. Washington may therefore choose to "sacrifice" Armenia and accept the continued presence of Russian troops in Armenia in the interest of establishing some sort of security cordon in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh could be gradually absorbed into Armenia. This could be done with the return of six of the seven occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh proper (minus Lachin), the right of return for displaced Azeris to Nagorno-Karabakh, and compensation (for permanent resettlement) for those that did not want to return.

At any rate, Washington would not lose Armenia completely under such a scenario. Armenia's sizeable U.S. and European diaspora would guarantee that good diplomatic and trading relations would continue. The Armenians, meanwhile, could be reassured by a "soft" Russian security guarantee, which would also satisfy Moscow by the fact it had retained a military outpost in the south Caucasus.

What AboutCyprus?

The island of Cyprus was physically divided in 1974, following a Turkish military invasion in response to a Greek Cypriot-inspired coup to remove then-President Makarios. The Turkish Cypriots have manifested their demand for some form of separation from Greek Cypriot majority rule over a far longer period than the Kosovar Albanians have argued for a separation from Serbia. Although Turkish Cypriots govern and control a part of the island, that government is recognized only by Turkey, while the Greek Cypriot administration in Nicosia is internationally considered the official government.

The Turkish Cypriot leadership has recently gained credibility in Washington and Brussels, though, because of its cooperation with UN efforts to broker a reunification agreement. Nicosia, meanwhile, has come to be seen as the more recalcitrant party. The United Nations, via its Good Offices Mission, had engaged the two sides for nearly two and a half years, with talks concluding in Burgenstock, Switzerland, on April 1, 2004. A timeline had finally been imposed only because Cyprus was to join the European Union on May 1, 2004. When the Turkish and Greek sides held separate, simultaneous referendums on April 24, 2004, on a UN plan to reunite the island, the Turkish Cypriots approved it by a margin of 2 to 1, while Greek Cypriots rejected it by 75 percent. Yet it was the Greek Cypriot-administered side that joined the European Union, while the Turkish Cypriots were excluded and are still subject to an international trade embargo.

The government based in Nicosia--known as the Republic of Cyprus--has come to believe that, with the advantage of EU membership, time and circumstances are on its side. Turkey, as an EU candidate, is required to extend its EU customs-union agreement of 1995 to the ten new EU member states (the so-called Ankara Protocol), including the Republic of Cyprus. The EU Council will review the implementation of the protocol this year. The Greek Cypriot hope is that, very soon (if not quite by the end of this year), the European Union will force Turkey to implement the protocol, allowing Cypriot ships and aircraft to enter Turkish ports, by maintaining that Turkey's accession talks are at stake.

Nicosia may be overplaying its hand, though. The Greek Cypriots have missed the opportunity they had after the 2004 referendum to convince the international community of the merits of their decision to vote "no" and are increasingly squandering their chances of gaining key concessions from the Turkish side, such as the withdrawal of Turkish troops, freedom of settlement to the Turkish Cypriot-administered side, and an adjustment or removal of the existing Treaty of Guarantee.

Ankara will continue to deal with Nicosia only through UN-mediated channels until a reunification agreement is found or the Cypriot government drops its trade embargo on the Turkish side of the island. EU countries, including France, are going to be pressuring Nicosia to come to the negotiating table with greater seriousness. Also, as the economic situation in Turkish Cyprus continues to improve, the administration there will be much less willing to satisfy Nicosia's demands.

The United States, meanwhile, has concluded that while it has finally found a future set of partners (led by Mehmet Ali Talat, current president of the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) in the north of the island, it is without a negotiating partner in the Greek-populated south. Consequently, the United States is unlikely to press for the activation of any substantial initiative towards reunification until either the tone from Nicosia is moderated or the government changes. Although talks may recommence this year, nothing will likely be achieved with the existing faces on the Greek Cypriot side. Beyond this, it appears likely that Cyprus's president, Tassos Papadopoulos, who remains popular with the Greek Cypriot people, will be re-elected in presidential elections in February 2008.

Those factors will cause the partition of the island to become more entrenched. Still, the prospects for reunification are bolstered by Turkey's EU bid and the pressure it puts on Ankara to demonstrate its commitment to the reunification of the island. Also, the Turkish Cypriots still want to enter the EU as soon as possible. Furthermore, the Greek Cypriots will probably eventually realize that Papadopoulos is not the man to secure the greatest number of changes to the UN's Annan Plan for reunification.

On balance, the eventual reunification of Cyprus still remains more likely, rather than less. The Greek Cypriots still have time to persuade the Turkish Cypriots and the wider international community that they are serious in their continued demands for reunification. Turkey's EU accession talks have only just commenced. However, the Greek Cypriots have less time than they think to reverse a broadening impression that they are not willing to share political power with the Turkish Cypriots.

Moreover, the United States may not be counted on to push Turkey on Cyprus if such pressure becomes necessary. U.S. relations with Turkey will remain paramount. Turkey's continued tolerance of U.S. policy on Iraq remains central to the Bush Administration's legacy and, ultimately, the fulfillment of many longer-term U.S. foreign policy objectives. The current Turkish government remains popular and has steered a fairly solid course, despite earlier misgivings from some Turkey watchers in Washington. The United States will be unwilling to take any positions that might anger Turkey, which is already very sensitive about a federalization of Iraq and entrenching of the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. That dynamic could jettison any remaining pressure on the imperative of the reunification of Cyprus.

Through the 1975 Helsinki Act, freezing borders was designed for a Cold War Europe divided between two superpowers; it remains a good principle, but we may need to prepare for exceptions to the rule. Managing the world is never easy. Washington will have to prioritize its dealings with Europe's territorial conflicts. Putting some disputes on the backburner can allow for workable compromises to emerge over time, leading to a better peace than might be achieved with time pressures. In addition, U.S. officials will have to carefully consider the broader effects of any given resolution, not only on other ongoing conflict-negotiations, but also on the interests of other important powers that America cooperates with over a broad range of issues.

Tim Potier is assistant professor of international law and human rights at Intercollege (University College) in Nicosia, Cyprus. He is author of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: A Legal Appraisal (2000) and Cyprus: Entering Another Stalemate? (2005).

Essay Types: Essay