Cyprus Mail
Cyprus Letters

Cyprus in the light of Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan

By Ozay Mehmet

CATALONIA and Iraqi Kurdistan are the latest cases of attempted Unilateral Declarations of Independence (UDI) that shed light on the old CyProb. Each, in its own unique manner, proves one key fact:  that unilateral secession, however strongly backed by neo-national sentiment, is no remedy for settling ethnic conflict. Only an agreed settlement via dialogue offers a viable solution.

These three cases highlight a vital principle: In a democratic space, people’s right of self-determination must be heard, indeed, heeded. Dialogue, a sense of mutual compromise in good faith, should lead to an agreed settlement. A people’s right, especially in a multi-ethnic country, should not be regarded as an unlimited right. Secession cannot be granted unconditionally, nor can it be legitimised by force. Legitimacy requires careful balancing of legal, political and economic consequences for others.

Catalonia is a prosperous part of Spain. Its capital Barcelona is a success story in soccer and tourism and the Catalan people are indeed innovative and productive. Pro-secessionist voices may have a democratic argument against an aggressive central government in Madrid. But, can the Spanish constitution be ignored in order to satisfy the aspirations of these Catalans? The answer must be No. Through dialogue and good-faith compromise, with appropriate incentives from the EU, might produce another case of “velvet divorce” as in former Czechoslovakia.

The case of attempted Kurdish UDI in Northern Iraq is a case of clear opportunism. Buoyed by American support, the Kurdish leader Mesud Barzani over-played his hand. Under the cover of fighting Isis in the US-led coalition, the Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq extended the geographic boundaries under their effective control. The oil-rich province of Kirkuk, home to Arabs and Turkmen, was to be the economic life-line of an independent Kurdistan following an UDI. The central government in Baghdad, along with powerful neighbours such as Turkey and Iran, joined forces against the Kurdish UDI. When Israel backed Barzani, it looked like a “Second Israel” in the region was only a matter of time. But then, suddenly, Kirkuk was lost to the Iraqi army and Turkey, and Iran threatened economic embargo on the land-locked Kurds. The Kurds’ UDI dreams are dashed, Barzani stepping down as a broken man.

The Turkish Cypriot case of UDI was an act of frustration mixed with opportunism. During 1963/4 to 1974, inter-communal violence erupted after Makarios, the Greek Cypriot president of the Cyprus republic, in 1963 singlehandedly nullified Turkish Cypriot rights in the 1960 Constitution. The UN launched both peace-keeping and peace-making. The UNSG early in 1964 began a mission of good offices to restore constitutionality, but numerous mediation efforts failed. After 1974, when Turkish army landed in Cyprus to prevent Enosis, the UNSG resumed his mediation, this time on a bizonal, bicommunal federal (BBF) power-sharing basis, with no success.

In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash declared a UDI. The opportunistic Denktash won approval in Ankara, then under military power, but was condemned by the UN Security Council and the international community. Effectively, the Turkish Cypriot case against the Makarios usurpation of political power in Cyprus has been weakened and the isolation of Turkish Cypriots  has continued ever since. The UNSG’s BBF model failed several times, notably in the referendum of 2004, and in the latest round in July 2017 in Crans-Montana. The Greek Cypriot demands effectively amounted to zero security for TCs.

What emerges from these cases of UDI? Fait accompli actions by politicians like Makarios in 1963, or Denktash in 1983, or the Catalan and Kurdish leadership in 2017 provide no legitimacy for popular neo-nationalist aspirations. Only agreed settlement can do that as result of good-faith negotiations.

But what if dialogue is impossible or inconclusive? Sadly, negotiation in bad faith is possible. Neither can futile negotiations go on forever. The international community must see to it that peaceful resolution results, if not in “first best”, then in ‘second best” solution. In Spain, Madrid should not be supported if it chooses aggression or if it refuses to begin a process of dialogue with the Catalan leadership. As for the Kurds, dialogue with Baghdad is essential in the short-term, leading to regional cooperation in the long-run to accommodate Kurds’ legitimate rights.

In Cyprus, after elections in early 2017, the UNSG might undertake one last attempt to settle the CyProb within an agreed terminal date.  If, however, Greek Cypriot red lines leads to another failure, then the UN must take the lead to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.


Ozay Mehmet, Ph.D (Toronto),Senior Fellow, Centre in Modern Turkish Studies,
Distinguished Research Professor, International Affairs (Emeritus),
Carleton University, Ottawa, Ont., Canada

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