By Dr. Robert Zaller, Special to the Hellenic News of America
As the war in Ukraine enters its fifth month, the occupation of Cyprus approaches its forty-eighth anniversary. The adversaries are different, and so are the circumstances. But both events pose for us the same question. What is a nation, and who gets to decide the question?
Nationhood goes back a long way. The ancient Hebrews considered themselves a nation, even when what we regard as territorial sovereignty today was absent, not only for centuries but even millennia. This suggests that the fundamental characteristic of nationality, or at least the most perdurable, is the self-definition of a people. Such a definition may be based on religion, custom, and familial and societal organization. At the same time, these things may also be tied to a specific homeland. Modern Israel was the dream of two thousand years, never realized but never abandoned. When it was achieved at last, most Jews were willing to accept a small slice of ancient Israel as a sufficient homeland in the modern world. Others, the Haredim, believe that the reconstitution of the Holy Land, a gift of God, will not be complete until all of ancient Israel is reclaimed.
Something of the same may be said about the story of Greece. Ancient Greece was not a single sovereign entity but, in its period of highest development, a series of city-states claiming a common identity and tongue, but no single polity or ruler. The city-states contended, and frequently fought among themselves. They expanded, too, by conquest and colonization. But they did not consider themselves a single entity. When the Persian Empire attacked Greece in the early fifth century B.C.E., only Athens and a small ally, Plataea, joined in a common defense. The Battle of Marathon really forged Greece in that sense, for if the Athenians had not prevailed what we now know as Greece would have become a Persian province, and the history not only of Greece but of Europe and arguably the world might have been quite different. That Greece did pass into foreign hands—those of Alexander, those of Rome, those of the Ottoman Empire—as well as periodically reclaiming elements of its former eminence. It was not, however, until Greece achieved modern nationhood in the nineteenth century, a nationhood defined by territorial sovereignty within recognized borders, that its full self-conception was complete.
It is easily forgotten, however, how recent the idea of nationhood defined by fixed frontiers has been. When the United Nations was formed in 1945, it contained only fifty members. Today, the nations of the world are four times as many. At the beginning of the last century, the empire was the dominant form of political organization, with only the metropolis or “home country” having the status of nationhood. The imperial system virtually collapsed in the two decades following the Second World War, leaving the Soviet Union, with its sixteen constituent “republics” and the satellite states of Eastern Europe it controlled, as the only power in the world meeting the traditional standard of empire. That empire would collapse in turn between 1989 and 1991.
Many of the 150-odd new states of the postwar period had disputed borders, the legacy of arbitrarily drawn imperial boundaries. Some were prey to larger states. But three, in particular, stand out as prime examples of nations with long ethnic histories whose right to peaceful, independent existence has been denied by large neighbors, each with a long imperial history, who refuse to recognize any valid claim on their part to historical roots, cultural identity, and the right of self-determination. These are Taiwan, Cyprus, and Ukraine.
Taiwan’s independence (which is still not internationally recognized) was the product of the Chinese civil war between China’s official ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist insurgency of Mao Zedong. Defeated on the mainland, Chiang retreated by naval convoy to the island of Taiwan, where with American support he established an autocratic rule that lasted until his death in 1975. Thereafter, Taiwan rapidly evolved toward democratic government and commercial prosperity. There is no doubt that the Taiwanese overwhelmingly wish to retain their current institutions and independence, but China insists that Taiwan remains an integral part of its territory which it is determined to recover by force if necessary. This standoff has only become more heated with events elsewhere.
Cyprus has a much longer and more complicated history. It has known both independence and occupation over some three millennia, at times controlling parts of the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. Its strategic location has long made it of military and commercial importance, and its heritage has long been Greek. The Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires washed over it without fundamentally altering its character, and it finally won independence from the last of its conquerors, Britain.
Cyprus’ advantage in geography was its disadvantage as well. Nestling under the southern coast of Asia Minor, it was coveted from the beginning by modern Turkey. Turkey itself was born in genocide, with perhaps as many as two and a half million Armenians, Greeks, and smaller minorities exterminated within a decade during and after World War I. The mainland Greek community, part of the glory of Greek antiquity, had virtually ceased to exist by the final purges of the 1950s. It was just at that moment, in 1956, when Britain surrendered the hold it had had on Cyprus since 1878, although retaining some military bases.
As always, Cyprus was considered a prize. The British sought to retain what interest remained to them, even if largely as a proxy for the United States which had replaced it as the major power in the Middle East. But Turkey, too, was eager to annex as much of Cyprus as possible, and had already begun to populate the northern portions of the island with its own migrants. As for the Greeks, who still constituted the vast majority of the island, they were divided between those who wished a republic of their own and those who wished for union—enosis—with Greece itself. This last, although it had a sizable party both on the island and in Greece itself, was not a feasible option, since it accorded with the interests of none of the major powers in the region. Turkey’s objections were obvious. For Britain, a divided Cyprus best accorded with the preservation of its bases. The United States had no intention of alienating its new NATO partner, Turkey (both Greece and Turkey had been admitted into NATO in 1952, but American control over Greece was far more secure).
The one option that none of the major powers favored was an independent Cypriot republic. It would be a weak state, prone to division among its population elements. Such instability might favor Turkey in the long run, but neither Britain nor America wished for such a result. It was by no means the desired goal of Cypriot partisans of enosis, who at first included the leading Greek political and religious figure on the island, Archbishop Makarios, who would become in fact the republic’s first president and ultimately its most stalwart defender. Cyprus became a republic less because of any great enthusiasm for the idea, but because all other solutions seemed worse.
Given good faith, however, the island republic had reasonable prospects of success. Its Greek and Turkish residents had lived side by side for generations, and political power-sharing was agreed to. When permitted, Cyprus had prospered since antiquity as a center of entrepot trade. But the powers that surrounded it had no interest in leaving it well enough alone. The treaty that recognized Cyprus provided that Britain, the U.S., and Turkey would jointly guarantee its security, with each of them retaining the unilateral right to intervene in its affairs should they regard their own interests to be jeopardized. The Turks took this as an open invitation to build up subsidized migration to the island, with the clear intention of laying claim to it in whole or part. American influence might have mitigated this, but political disturbances in the mid-1960s made the Greek case unsympathetic, and the military coup in 1967 by officers known as the Junta in 1967 put diplomacy on hold.
The flashpoint of conflict was reached in 1974 when elements of the Junta, now in its last days, made a desperate attempt at enosis by overthrowing the Makarios government. In the resulting fiasco, the Junta fell, and Turkey occupied the northern third of the island, dividing it in two. Greeks and Turks alike on the wrong side of the divide were driven from their homes, and Turkey, installing a puppet regime, declared the areas under its control sovereign, a coup recognized to this day only by Turkey itself. Effectively, however, Ankara had achieved its military-political objective, and Cyprus remains bitterly divided after forty-eight years, a casualty of post-imperial and Cold War conflict. The tragedy is great, and various international attempts at settlement have all presumed that the island will remain divided. Cyprus is still the nation that no other nation—Greece excepted—wants to exist.
The war in Ukraine is put into high relief by the long deadlock over Cyprus. Just as Turkey has never recognized Cyprus as a nation, so Vladimir Putin repudiates more than a thousand years of history in denying nationhood to Ukraine. The beginnings of modern Russia itself were in the region of Ukraine around what is now its capital, Kyiv. Here Christianity was first adopted in this part of the world, and Ukrainians developed both the church and the language that distinguish them. Of course, territorial boundaries and cultural exchange were fluid in that medieval period, but Ukrainians have long seen national identity in themselves, and stubbornly fought for it when the occasion offered. It rebelled repeatedly against Russia’s long dominion, and the genocidal repression that cost it three to four million lives under Joseph Stalin, the disaster called the Holodomor, is still something Ukrainians take in virtually with their first breath. Russia itself recognized a special autonomy for Ukraine within the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 fully 92% of Ukraine’s population voted for independence, including Russian settlers and Tatar descendants. The new state was duly recognized by the world at large, and admitted into the United Nations.
None of this mattered to revanchist Russian nationalists, however, and in particular to Vladimir Putin. Putin baldly denied a thousand years of history, declaring Ukrainian territory an integral part of a Russia that itself had emerged only slowly in the centuries after the foundation of Kyiv. Progressively escalating his rhetoric, he first declared Ukraine a security threat, then a harbor for Nazis, and finally a mere territory with no claim to self-governance. Having already occupied the Crimean Peninsula and a substantial part of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, he then invaded the country from the north. This last effort has failed to date, leading to a broad war marked by on the Russian side by mass executions, civilian atrocities, and systematic terror.
Cypriots who endured the Turkish invasion of 1974 will have similar memories. As with Russia, Turkey claimed that its citizens in Cyprus were under direct threat as the Greek Junta plotted, however ineptly, a last-ditch attempt at enosis. The pact that divided ‘supervision’ of Cyprus among Britain, Turkey, and the U.S., providing the right of each power to unilateral intervention if it claimed its interests compromised, gave color to Turkey’s invasion of July. Neither London nor Washington, the latter anticipating the collapse of the Junta and preoccupied by the pending fall of Richard Nixon, opposed extending emergency action to occupation and de facto conquest. As Greek communities were driven south and an emergency armistice line established, Cyprus was partitioned, with the Turkish zone, under open-ended occupation, being finally declared sovereign.
Clearly, then, the experience of Cyprus half a century ago anticipates what the world now faces on a larger scale in Ukraine. In both cases, a new nation with a long history—in that of Cyprus, thousands of years—finds itself in the crosshairs of major powers who compete for management of its politics and control of its destiny. Britain still seeks to keep its bases, maintained at the sufferance of the United States. The U.S., with wider interests, has the further goal of maintaining a degree of stability between two NATO rivals, for both of which Cyprus is a combustible issue and, on the Greek side, a major cultural and demographic one.
Similar pressures undermined Ukraine. Self-identified Ukrainians, a clear majority of the population, had adapted over time to the Russian settlers and speakers among them, and the two languages were often used interchangeably. Putin’s Russia, however, was determined to reintegrate Ukraine into the former Soviet orbit one way or another, partly to deter the new state from yielding to the economic blandishments of the West, partly to regain control of its agricultural and mineral wealth, and perhaps most critically to keep NATO expansion at bay. Any Ukrainian leader under these circumstances would have been wise to tread carefully between Russia and the West, but a Western-sponsored overthrow of President, Viktor Yanukovych, who seemed poised to strike a major deal with Moscow, brought Russian troops into the Donbas and Crimea, effectively bifurcating the country. A simmering conflict in the Donbas climaxed in the large-scale Russian invasion of earlier this year.
One might say that, given the geopolitical circumstances surrounding Cyprus and Ukraine, that different as they were in size, population, and heritage, they have nonetheless a good deal in common. In both, independence was resisted by a major power that sought to maintain its assets and interests even when forced to relinquish complete control. In both, elements of the population were set against each other, with subsidized, not to say forced migration upsetting long-established accommodations. In both, much wider great power calculations entered the mix, leading to invasion and stymieing resolution. In both, the population as a whole was exposed to indiscriminate violence by an aggressor. Taiwan may be next on the list.
After World War I, the principle of national self-determination was established as the basis of statehood adopted by the victorious powers of that conflict, and military aggression by one state against another was declared a crime after World War II at Nuremberg, indeed the worst crime that could be committed in the international arena. These twin principles have been held since as the reigning consensus of the world. At the same time, they have been honored as often in the breach as in the observance. The Kurdish people have sought nationhood for a century, and Tibetans have been under Chinese domination for more than sixty years. An exception to the rules was clearly carved out in the case of Cyprus, and that exception has left it a broken and partly occupied state for five decades.
Ukraine has brought these issues to a head today. Putin’s invasion of the country has been as blatant as Hitler’s was of Poland in 1939, and it is understood that if it succeeds the implications will be not only regional but worldwide. Additionally, he has struck directly at the principle of self-determination, proclaiming Ukraine a mere territory devoid of collective rights that belongs, by his interpretive whim, to the resurgent Russian empire he seeks to build. If Putin is defeated, and if Turkey’s own autocrat falls, a crack in the door may open at last for Cyprus. It is a very slim chance, but it must be pursued. Nationality is the way the world has evolved since the end of empire, for reasons and purposes both good and bad. Democracy must follow it, if the latter is not to outweigh the former. That, itself, cannot come by crusade but only by example, and that example is not being very successfully demonstrated at present. But the stakes are too high to ignore.