TCS Daily

Cyprus, the EU and Borderland Theory

By Stephen Schwartz - July 15, 2004 12:00 AM

European Union leaders professed disappointment earlier this year when Greek Cypriots, just prior to entering the EU, cast a 3-to-1 majority of their ballots against a United Nations plan to reunify the island. Most Turkish Cypriots voted for UN-designed reunification. The outcome was that only the southern, Greek-majority area of Cyprus now functions within the EU, while the northern, Turkish region remains outside it.

Other diplomatic considerations enter into discussions of Cyprus. The Greek Cypriot government is internationally recognized as the legitimate authority on the island, while the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" or TRNC, which operates under the protection of Turkish military forces, has official relations only with Ankara.

The EU has cast an unfriendly gaze on arguments for the entry of Turkey itself into their political community, with right-wing French and German politicians declaring that Europe cannot accept the country's teeming population -- almost 70 million -- as equal partners. Opponents of Turkish EU entry claim that the Muslim country will swamp a Europe some of them define as exclusively "Christian."

At the same time, Europe's conscience is clearly confused, since the EU has responded to the Greek Cypriot "no" vote on unification by pledging some $320 million in aid to the Turkish Cypriots. The aid grant was obviously a reward to the Turkish Cypriots for approving the reunification plan that the EU strongly supported in hopes of avoiding the importation of the decades-old Cyprus problem.

Had the Greek Cypriots accepted the UN unification plan, and had the Turkish-ruled part of Cyprus acceded to the EU in May, both Greece and Turkey would have enjoyed hidden benefits. Although it may not be accurate, many Europeans believe Greece could now have, in effect, two votes in the EU, since Cyprus may be expected to support Athens politically. On the other hand, some observers believe the main benefit to Greece in Cyprus entering the EU will be that it will permit Greece to end its political commitment to Cyprus in Brussels.

Still, no other EU member can be expected to bring a political or cultural satellite into the organization with it, unless, after Romania joins the EU in 2007 or shortly afterward, it succeeds in bringing impoverished Moldova with it. These are the unspoken secrets of ethnic politics: sometimes the division of a people into two states, although bemoaned by nationalists, offers benefits on the global level. Moldova was forcibly torn away from Romania in 1940, as a detail in the Stalin-Hitler pact. An eastern frontier zone, which calls itself Transnistria and is inhabited mainly by Slavs, long insisted on its desire to remain separate from Moldova, and continues to play host to Russian troops. (Romania and Moldova are Latin in language but Orthodox in religion.) But the Transnistrian political leaders are currently involved in negotiations to federate with Moldova.

As for the Turks, one benefit of single Cypriot membership in the EU was obvious, even if nobody would say it out loud: Turks may attempt to illegally move from the mainland to the island, in defiance of serious resistance from the Greek Cypriot authorities, and get a head start on participation in Europe. A unified Cyprus inside the EU will likely attract thousands of Turkish migrants; even now, Cyprus' full EU membership will probably result in numerous Turkish Cypriots heading towards Europe by first crossing the Green Line dividing the island. Turkish Cypriots, if they resided on the island before the Turkish invasion of 1974, have the right to go to Nicosia in the Greek Cypriot zone and obtain an EU, i.e. a Republic of Cyprus, passport which would allow them immediate entry to the continental EU states.

All over the Eastern Mediterranean geopolitical zone, since the mid-1970s, countries have split between rival ethnic groups, as national identity has proven stronger than borders drawn on maps -- often, as in the case of Moldova, on maps in places far from the ground where people are encouraged to settle their differences and live together. When Yugoslavia fell apart in horrific waves of violence, few political experts or journalists saw the precedent of Cyprus, which had been a cockpit of ethnic contention for decades, with many of its Greeks demanding full union with Athens from the 1950s to the disaster of 1974. When the former country of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, with no bloodshed at all, even fewer such observers saw a parallel with Yugoslavia, or imagined that, in retrospect, that like Prague and Bratislava, the competing elites in Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Ljubljana could have negotiated an amicable separation.

The emergence of new states and new borders in the Eastern Mediterranean continues to produce ironies. The "former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia" still labors under that weighty title, in international bodies, mainly because the opponents of its claim to the historic name of Macedonia, associated with Alexander the Great, were to be found in Athens, not in Belgrade. And throughout the series of massacres in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosovo, when Serbian apologists in the West screeched at the "illegal secession" of those lands, nobody in Washington or Brussels pointed out that Milosevic and his henchmen had charitably overlooked the very same secession process when its was carried out by the Macedonians.

Then Macedonia blew up, in a conflict involving its large Albanian minority. Greece, nervous about its own domestic Albanian-speaking and indigenous Muslim minorities (which are not the same thing, although they overlap), was hostile to both the Albanians and the proponents of Macedonian self-identification. Still, nobody noticed how long Macedonia had remained peaceful, the only island, except for Slovenia, of apparent sanity in the ex-Yugoslav territories, even while neighboring Kosovo was in flames.

What secret did the Czechs and Slovaks, and -- bizarre as it may seem, the Serbs and Macedonians -- possess that allowed them to go their differing ways without strife? Mainly, their economic development was sufficiently balanced that neither felt the other was robbing them of something by leaving a "common house" in which not a few residents had been unhappy. Slovaks had viewed Czechs as imperialist usurpers since the formation of the joint "nation" after the first world war, and Czechs were deeply resentful that, following the Soviet invasion of 1968, Moscow favored Slovak authorities. But neither saw departure from their former embrace as an economic problem.

Economic disparities were, in the end, the real issue in Yugoslavia, and also explain why Serbia did not restrain Macedonia from declaring its independence. Through the Yugoslav capital in Belgrade, Serbia had taxed incomes in Slovenia and Croatia, which were better developed and more entrepreneurial, for decades. Giving up Yugoslav unity meant giving up the power of taxation, and that was a far more serious incentive for war than claims that Serbs would suffer atrocities under Croatian rule. Serbs had also enjoyed economic advantages in Bosnia-Hercegovina, that were far more compelling than even the fear of Islam.

Macedonia, by contrast, was a poor tax producer, and Serbia's only asset in that country was control of the Orthodox Church, which remains a source of friction, as Macedonian Orthodox believers (and, let it be known, Montenegrin Orthodox Christians) seek independence (autocephaly) and control over their churches and related properties. These remain in Serbian hands, even though Serbs are a small minority in Macedonia and Serbian ecclesiastical rule has always been challenged in Montenegro.

While it may be absurd, and unnecessary, to imagine that artificially-created countries, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, can be reunited, Cyprus presents a different picture altogether. Its borders were not drawn on a map, but by God, who willed that a massive island should lift its peaks from beneath the sea. In the final accounting, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots cannot really and truly break off parts of the country, regardless what politicians may say. Nor can either community accept the domination of the other.

There is, however, another factor that lurks, barely visible, in the history of many Mediterranean communities, Western as well as Eastern. That is what I have come to call the "borderland effect." Samuel Huntington and other American political scientists have fostered concerns about "bloody borders" associated with Islam, but in reality the history of borderlands, all over the globe, is one of economic and social interchange, and of some quite remarkable successes.

California is a borderland, linking the Eurocentric east of the U.S., and English-speaking North America, both with Asia and with Latin America. Herein lies the real secret of California's immense economic and social power. Similarly, Malaysia and Singapore are border nations, which have grown rich as trading centers for their region. South Korea is, in a peculiar way, a borderland between ancient China and dynamic Japan, although most Koreans remain so filled with justified resentment over Japanese colonialism they are reluctant to admit it - yet the success of the South Korean automobile industry is directly related to the unwillingness of Koreans to buy Japanese cars! In Central Asia, Kazakhstan, which I recently visited, is a successful borderland, trading with Russia and China.

In Europe, Switzerland is the most obvious example of a happy borderland with a diverse population. The most interesting, and perhaps the most successful, European borderland has been Catalonia, with its capital in the great and historic business metropolis of Barcelona. And here emerges another aspect of the phenomenon: Catalonia, with its distinct language and traditions, has not suffered culturally from Spanish entry into the EU, or from globalization. Far from submerging the Catalans in Spain, EU membership supplanted centralism with regionalism; rather than crushing Catalonia under the weight of an invading Americanism, globalization has further enabled the Catalans to gain all the benefits of national independence with none of the disadvantages, such as a military budget.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the country that most resembles Catalonia may be Slovenia, which has glided effortlessly into the European economy as well as, lately, EU membership. It may give us pause to consider that, from the cultural perspective, both Catalonia and Slovenia are homogeneous; immigrants to the former learn Catalan, as immigrants to the latter learn Slovenian, and in both cases newcomers assimilate rapidly into the local culture.

Spain and the former Yugoslavia, from which Catalonia and Slovenia are fundamentally alienated, might be called macro-borderlands, illustrating other aspects of the phenomenon: first, that a diverse borderland, as both Spain and the former Yugoslavia were, can only succeed if it avoids centralism, i.e. if it accepts its borderland nature. Spain did not become a major economic power until it federalized, and Yugoslavia's tax-addiction and subsequent collapse were dictated by belief in centralism. But the economic strength of Catalonia and Slovenia alike rests on location, not on internal factors. Catalonia stands between the Iberian heartland in Castile, southern France, and northwestern Italy, and its trade relations with all three have been its mainstay for centuries. The same is true of Slovenia, which adjoins northeast Italy and Austria, and has maintained commerce with both for an equally long period of time.

Borderlands may succeed, then, with or without ethnic diversity. Some borderland communities, like Catalonia, Slovenia, and South Korea, will be strengthened in their national specificity by regionalization, globalization, and free trade. Others, like California, Malaysia, and Switzerland, will sustain internal diversity at the same time as their location drives the production of extraordinary wealth.

Cyprus can never become as Greek as Greece or as Turkish as Turkey, and there will never be a Cypriot nationality that is as different from both as the Catalans are from the Spanish and French, and the Slovenes from the Serbs and Croats. Why, however, should the Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish, not look to the model of borderland diversity as a basis for economic advancement? As a maritime, banking and trading center serving Greece, Turkey, Israel, and the Arab countries, with its regional authority strengthened by the EU and its distinctive identify reinforced by globalization, Cyprus could become the borderland of the Eastern Mediterranean, and its leading economic tiger, in the 21st century. For these reasons, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots should resume unification talks as quickly as they can; better this time, perhaps, under the dual aegis of the U.S. and the EU, without UN interference.

Stephen Schwartz wrote this paper with support from the Western Policy Center in Washington, DC, where he is an adjunct fellow.


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