Could Russia follow the Cyprus model in Ukraine?

That the island functions well despite its division after Turkey's 1974 invasion may offer lessons for Moscow

Soldiers march in a military parade marking the 61st anniversary of Cyprus' independence from British colonial rule in Nicosia last October. Cyprus was split along ethnic lines following Turkey's invasion in 1974. AP Photo

The drums of war are beating a bit louder this week after diplomatic talks failed, Russia moved more military might to the Ukrainian border, a massive cyberattack struck Ukrainian government websites, and so-called Russian saboteurs were rumoured to be laying low in eastern Ukraine in anticipation of orders from Moscow.

One reason many analysts expect Russia to launch an offensive is that its government has long seen Ukraine as not a real country but as Russian territory, as President Vladimir Putin detailed in a 5,000-word essay last summer. In addition, Moscow is thought to fear that a stable Ukraine could become a member of Nato and possibly the EU, bringing those powerful Russia-opposed blocs to its border.

Such thinking is likely to have driven Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the resulting conflict in eastern Ukraine, where bits of its Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are now controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Yet, this has apparently failed to sufficiently weaken Ukraine or erode its democracy: President Volodymyr Zelensky has significantly reduced Russian influence; and Nato, the US, EU, UK and Turkey have in recent months shown increased willingness to back Kyiv.

So it may be once again into the breach for Russia. Moscow’s ideal outcome for Ukraine, should the war come to pass, might be something like the current situation on the island of Cyprus, which has been divided since a 1974 Turkish military invasion sought to head off an Athens-backed coup.

Turkey’s occupation of the northern third of the island, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and recognised only by Turkey, failed to keep the Republic of Cyprus from joining the EU, in 2004. But on nearly all other counts Turkey might view the invasion as a success.

As I detailed in these pages last year, talks to resolve the dispute and reunite the island have failed again and again, to the point that Ankara and Turkey-backed TRNC President Ersin Tatar now advocate a two-state solution. After decades of pushing for a bizonal federation, more than four out of five (81 per cent) Turkish Cypriots share their view, according to a 2020 poll.

Yet, this is largely because Turkish settlers now represent about half of the TRNC population, shifting its religiosity and political stance. Turkey’s 40,000 troops in northern Cyprus have turned it into a satellite state, where Ankara is able to shape everything from laws to school curriculums and act to access energy resources in the disputed waters surrounding the island.

Last year, Turkey established a drone base in the north that Nicosia says heightens tensions and highlights Ankara’s “expansionist” agenda. If the current momentum continues, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a recent report, a negotiated settlement for Cyprus could soon become unattainable. Just last week, the US dropped out of a planned pipeline project with Cyprus, Greece and Israel because in leaving out northern Cyprus, it is likely to increase tensions with Turkey. And let’s not forget that this is all framed by constant tensions between long-time rivals Turkey and Greece, who have fought several wars and nearly came to blows again in summer 2020.

A joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus in the Nizhny Novgorod region last September. AP Photo

As with Moscow’s purported view of Kyiv, the Cyprus policy of the ruling AKP has long been aligned with its domestic efforts to build a strong nationalist identity and its regional goal of power projection, as detailed last year in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. There are also historical parallels, as the Ottoman Empire ruled Cyprus for more than three centuries, much like the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union controlled Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the EU side of the island – its hands tied by the persistent presence of the TRNC – has developed a predilection for the illicit. Like many smaller states around the world in need of generous allies, Cyprus has built its economy around a financial sector geared toward luring foreign investment.

Low taxes and minimal regulation, and the presence of the Orthodox church, have made it a haven for Russian investors. A decade ago, Russian deposits in Cypriot banks were already worth $31 billion, more than the island’s gross domestic product. Then Greece’s 2013 financial crisis spilled into Cyprus and the government offered nationality to foreigners willing to invest €2 million ($2.2m) in real estate.

At least two US-sanctioned Russians and a number of Malaysian and Cambodian figures who have been linked to financial crimes back home have also become Cypriot citizens under the scheme. Nicosia has since toughened the review process and launched an investigation to strip nationality from dozens of people because of possible “mistakes”.

But the problem is far from fixed. “You never know what kind of influence you are granting when you give golden passports to people connected with opaque regimes,” Stelios Orphanides, a Cypriot investigative journalist, told the Financial Times.

Political polarisation and military tensions, hesitant western involvement and dark economic dealings that offer a haven for oligarchs – sounds a bit the way Russia might envision a partial occupation of Ukraine. This is not to say Cyprus is unappealing or a failed state.

Its many gorgeous beaches draw crowds of tourists in the summer and it's generally seen as a stable democracy. Yet, the Turkish military presence gives the island the feeling of a powder keg ready to blow. (Another interesting parallel: just as Russia is the main source of foreign investment in Cyprus, Turkey, as of last year, is the largest foreign investor in Ukraine.)

Tensions are particularly high in the north of late, due to the devastating impact of the falling Turkish lira, which the TRNC adopted in 1976, and frustration with Turkey's influence as parliamentary polls loom next week. The region faces a long-standing international embargo and is hugely reliant on the Turkish economy.

Last October, local news outlets reported on a list of more than 40 prominent Turkish Cypriots barred from entering Turkey, including former TRNC president Mustafa Akinci and many top lawyers, activists and journalists. Turkish Cypriots have not taken kindly to their supposed benefactor essentially silencing those who disagree with its policies.

The blacklist, combined with growing economic hardship, has driven thousands of Turkish Cypriots into the streets in protest of what they perceive to be Ankara’s overreach. Many have called for an electoral boycott, seeing the vote as essentially controlled by Turkey, and some have launched organisations that oppose Ankara and call for a federal solution.

“Turkey is our biggest problem,” Sener Elcil, who heads the Turkish Cypriot teachers’ union and is among those barred from Turkey, told The Guardian last week. “It should keep its hands off Cyprus and take its lira and go away.”

Still, if it takes Russian-occupied Ukrainians nearly half a century to begin to unite and rise up, Moscow is likely to be pleased with the outcome.

Published: January 17, 2022, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National