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Aug./Sept. 2001 - The disunion of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—initially through the nonchalance of Slav Macedonian authorities, then sped into overdrive by ethnic Albanian extremists, and now codified by NATO and European Union mediators—provides stark lessons for negotiators confronting ethnic tensions, political disputes, and security and stability problems at the other end of southeastern Europe, in Cyprus.

For nearly a decade, Skopje officials paid little heed to the unraveling of the Balkan region, first in Bosnia, especially in Kosovo, and just recently in Serbia's Presevo Valley. Solid steps to defang outstanding minority issues and promote a genuine sense of union among Slavs, Albanians, and other minorities could have helped prevent the current crisis. At the very least, the precedent of Western troops enforcing and maintaining ethnic division in Bosnia and Kosovo should have alerted Skopje to the dangers posed by Albanian extremists.

Given recent experience, the U.S. was not expected to take sides. Washington did not seek to favor Slavs or Albanians, or choose between just and unjust. It chose between bloodshed and peace, between chaos and stability. In the end, a policy designed to bring about peace and stability prevailed. Fortunately for the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), Western intervention was limited to mediation, rather than military engagement.

Now, the largely indigenous rebel force, comprised of five brigades of up to 5,000-7,000 fighters, is being disarmed. The NLA plans to turn in about 3,000 weapons, a very low figure given the size of the force. NATO failed to disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) two years ago, as repeated discoveries of arms caches and the emergence of well-armed rebels in the Presevo Valley and northwestern Macedonia made clear.

Nor is the NLA seriously expected to disarm. Armed rebels do not wage war against sovereign governments to elevate their language to official status and raise ethnic quotas in the civil service. They do so to expand control over the instruments of power in a particular region—or even an entire country. This is the intent of the NLA in Macedonia.

Just as it is inconceivable that all of Kosovo will ever again be governed from Belgrade, so will Skopje no longer control northwestern Macedonia. The citizenry already understands this, as newspaper advertisements featuring apartment swaps between Slav and Albanian areas of the country attest.

The largely Slav country will likely be transformed, through long-term demographic shifts, into a majority Albanian country in several decades. This may occur under the protection of NATO troops that, despite their initial mission statement to collect rebel arms and depart, may be commencing a deployment lasting far longer, mirroring the missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

However, neither the mission in Bosnia nor that in Kosovo has lasted nearly as long as the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP), set up in 1964 and cited as the world's lengthiest. Unfortunately, UNFICYP could not prevent extremist violence by Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the mid- 1960s. The de facto partition of Cyprus, resulting from the 1974 Greek-led coup against the democratically elected government and the Turkish invasion that followed, serves to this day as a sad illustration of what is probably in store for Macedonia.

Yet, history often moves forward in unforeseen ways. Even as Macedonia is being prepared for partition, conditions have perhaps never been better for reuniting Cyprus, if the Bush administration seizes the initiative and sets in motion a strategic dynamic that allows the U.S. to draw down its military presence in the Balkans while enhancing stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ironically, the division of Cyprus has brought about a lengthy period of surface peace and stability, resulting in the Turkish view that the Cyprus problem has long been resolved. But, beyond issues of legality, that argument collapses under the weight of seething tensions between NATO allies Greece and Turkey.

Defusing this regional, intra-NATO tripwire is the most important reason the U.S. remains committed to a Cyprus settlement. Early in his administration, President Bush stated that a just and lasting settlement of the Cyprus dispute through the efforts of the U.N. secretary general is the most effective path to securing peace and prosperity for all Cypriots.

Otherwise, the two communities will remain divided for decades to come; Greek-Turkish tensions will continue to vex U.S. and NATO planners throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the entire Aegean region, and the Balkans; and the potential for conflict will remain high.

The crux of the settlement process lies emphatically in the phrase "for all Cypriots." The strategic and personal insecurity that permeates Cyprus is rooted in the mid-1950s, when Greek Cypriots touted union of the entire country with Greece, and Turkish Cypriots sought partition and union of a Turkish zone with Turkey. To this day, Greek and Turkish Cypriots share little sense of national consciousness, preferring instead to identify with Greece and Turkey, respectively.

The first compelling issue for negotiators is the establishment of a peaceful and mutually secure Cypriot union. The solution can be premised upon a new U.S.-brokered security architecture that would replace the unilateral military participation of Greece and Turkey in Cyprus with equivalent brigade-size forces under a NATO-like command (see Strategic Regional Report, Inside Track, May/June 2000).

With equivalent Greek and Turkish forces in the north and south, Turkish Cypriots would be assured of security from extremist attacks, and Greek Cypriots would be assured that Turkey no longer possessed the on-island capability to conduct offensive operations.

This would require a major reduction in Turkish forces, with any remaining forces no longer viewed as occupation forces since they would report to a non-Turkish command. This would also be welcomed by Turkish Cypriots troubled by military control over official responsibilities normally overseen by civic authorities.

Similarly structured Greek forces could be deployed in the south, reporting to a non-Greek command. This would lessen Cypriot reliance on Greece and perhaps preclude—over the long run—the need for a Joint Defense Doctrine that places southern Cyprus within Greece's security perimeter.

In this way, Turkish and Greek forces could provide security for all the island's citizens without the counterproductive aspects of unilateral intervention.

In the end, the members of the two communities must come to see each other as Cypriots, not as Greeks or Turks. Otherwise, there is no basis for a self-sustaining republic free of foreign military forces and a permanent class of international negotiators.

In today's dynamic era of globalization, interconnectedness, and increasingly irrelevant borders, a new understanding on security in Cyprus can open the door to a common national consciousness. The importance of security in achieving a settlement, or a breakthrough in the diplomatic impasse, is coupled with the possibility that a reunified Cyprus will accede to the European Union within three years, the second compelling issue for negotiators.

For Greek Cypriots, the tangible benefits of EU membership—and of being officially within Europe—are self-evident. For Turkish Cypriots, the picture is far different. They have not trusted Greek Cypriots to actually make good on promises of political, economic, and legal benefits in the event of a settlement, especially while security issues remained outstanding. Compounding the situation, Greek Cypriots have not considered that level of mistrust with sufficient seriousness.

Now, for the first time in decades, Turkish Cypriots are sensing that the prosperity and opportunity often promised by Greek Cypriots can actually be provided and guaranteed—by the EU.

Through Brussels, Turkish Cypriots will be assisted in ascending to European political, economic, and legal standards. The salaries of Turkish Cypriots will markedly increase; young people will stop emigrating; unemployment will be greatly reduced; social conditions improved; security for family and property protected; human rights respected; and genuine democracy exercised. European citizenship will be granted, giving Turkish Cypriots the freedom to travel, study, work, and establish businesses anywhere within the EU. Full recourse to EU courts in the event of discrimination or other violations of EU laws is also guaranteed.

Taken together, the benefits of the full integration of Cyprus into the EU will propel the Turkish Cypriot community into the 21st century. The growing realization of this potentiality has generated stronger grass roots support for decisive progress toward a settlement among Turkish Cypriots weary of international isolation, poverty, underdevelopment, and restrictions on basic freedoms.

But, in a static environment, obstacles still mar the landscape.

Greek Cypriots should not be overly confident that accession is automatic, as EU officials from France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands whisper their anxiety over admitting Cyprus if the settlement standoff with Turkey persists. Excluding Cyprus from the next enlargement round would probably trigger a Greek rejection of accession for other countries, potentially setting off the EU's first major crisis.

In Ankara, though, the changing dynamic of the Cyprus issue is only now beginning to take root. Turkey has warned of "unlimited responses," including integrating with northern Cyprus to the fullest extent possible, if Cyprus accedes to the EU before a settlement is reached.

As potent an issue of national honor as Cyprus may be, it seems implausible that Ankara would abandon its European vocation entirely—especially given the attendant consequences for a rapidly growing nation of 65 million Turks—because of dated arguments that prevent Turkish Cypriots from living securely and prosperously as EU citizens and perpetuate the psychological divide that still exists between Brussels and Ankara.

Astute Turkey watchers believe that Turkish officialdom, gradually realizing that the EU dynamic can be genuinely advantageous for all parties involved, is seeking an acceptable resolution of the decades-old albatross. Stepped-up criticism in the Turkish media of Ankara's longstanding Cyprus policy offers a peek into this new thinking.

For this scenario to succeed, all sides must assume responsibility. For instance, Greek Cypriots could provide assurances that Cyprus's EU membership will not be exploited to veto Turkey's hopeful accession. Politically, the continued isolation of Turkish Cypriots is self-defeating for Greek Cypriots, who understandably seek to prevent recognition of the Turkish Cypriot administration as sovereign.

But, if Turkish Cypriots perceive that they have been cast off by affluent and seemingly indifferent Greek Cypriots, their willingness to believe that a reunified Cyprus government will represent all of the country's citizens equally will be more difficult to nurture. The Turkish Cypriot authorities must also take steps, such as permitting people to travel to the south, whether to work, sightsee, or engage in other activities that free citizens should have the right to undertake within a free society.

The EU also has an important role to play. Plans to develop a rapid reaction task force utilizing NATO military assets, including those in Turkey, while denying Ankara full participation in force decision-making, are ill advised.

The Bush administration should continue to promote a mutually beneficial EU-Turkey arrangement that encourages Turkey to support a reaction force that develops in a manner complementing U.S., EU, and NATO interests.

And, of course, the Bush administration should synthesize positive developments regarding the Cyprus issue, marginalize the potential pitfalls, and put its full weight behind Cyprus settlement talks to be undertaken by the U.N.

In sum, a new security architecture addressing the strategic security concerns of Greek Cypriots and the personal security concerns of Turkish Cypriots can rebuild the trust that is essential to an eventual settlement. Then, the political, economic, and civic integration of the two communities can slowly begin, toward the shared goal of EU accession under a single Cypriot identity by a union of Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

In this radically altered environment, the withdrawal of the bulk of Turkish forces from northern Cyprus would lead Greece to review Aegean force deployments in place since the mid-1970s. Indeed, forces on both sides of the Aegean Sea could be downsized to free up scarce resources needed to bolster living standards and domestic economic conditions in Greece and Turkey.

Ultimately, with redeployment of personnel and armor away from Cyprus and the Aegean, Greece and Turkey could dispatch forces for peacekeeping operations in Macedonia, Kosovo, or Bosnia to replace U.S. troops that President Bush would like to start bringing home as early as possible.

With the U.S. coming to the rescue in the Balkans once again, the Bush administration's regional objectives dovetail neatly with an EU timetable on Cyprus. By acting decisively now, President Bush can promote a Cyprus settlement, advance Turkey's EU accession aspirations, and facilitate allied operations and U.S. interests in the Balkans.

Bringing the two sides in Cyprus together can set the regional precedent for union that just might keep the two sides in Macedonia from drifting permanently apart.


About the Author

John Sitilides

John Sitilides

Chairman, Board of Advisors
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more