Welcome to 2017: changing borders

One of the more optimistic things to consider heading into the new year is that there’s a genuine possibility that 2017 will finally see an accord reached in Cyprus. Back in July 1974, a coup by the Cypriot National Guard, supported by Greece, installed a government that, by most accounts, was there simply to steer Cyprus toward annexation by Greece. Fair enough, I guess, but the thing was that, in 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus was being given its independence from Britain, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and the UK all signed something called the “Treaty of Guarantee,” and that treaty stipulated that Cyprus would never enter into economic or political union with any other country. This would seem to have precluded annexation, legally-speaking. So, using the 1960 treaty to justify its action, a few days after the coup the Turkish military invaded the island, took control over the northern third of it, and established what’s called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Well, at least it’s called that in Turkey; no other country recognizes it as a legitimate state.


Cyprus has existed in a perpetual state of frozen, and sometimes not so frozen, conflict ever since, the island divided into Greek and Turkish zones. But next week representatives from the two Cypriot communities, as well as from Britain, Greece, and Turkey, are going to meet in Geneva, and they may make a diplomatic breakthrough toward reunifying the country. Why now? Money, mostly:

On the face of it, the omens are indeed good. Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci are both moderates on an island where emotions are still raw after past intercommunal violence. Discovery of offshore gas fields and a need to secure revenues also should give impetus.

One reason why Cypriot reunification has never gotten very far is that everybody’s incentives are all misaligned. Greece, and Europe writ large, have never really cared enough about reunifying the island to offer the kinds of concessions it would take to budge Turkey, which has always cared a great deal about keeping the island divided. But Britain is looking for any foreign policy success to distract from Brexit, which increasingly looks like some sort of profoundly unfunny Monty Python skit. And everybody, but especially Turkey and the two Cypriot factions, is looking at those gas fields. Suddenly reunification is looking pretty good to all parties. There are a lot of issues to hash out, particularly around property restitution stemming from the 1974 split and around whether Greece and Turkey will continue to act as “guarantors” of the security of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. So lots of places for a deal to fall apart. But this is probably the best chance in 43 years for the island to be reunited.

There are other geographic/border issues that loom as major points of interest for 2017. Some are longstanding and haven’t really changed enough to mark 2017 as a particularly significant year–Kashmir, for example, or the Western Sahara, or Tibet. Things may get interesting in Nagorno-Karabakh, but I’m going to save that for a look at potential hotspots. Something might change in the South China Sea, particularly with the Philippines reassessing its entire alliance structure, but there’s a fair chance that Rodrigo Duterte will disembowel a child for chewing gum in front of him or whatever, be impeached, and then things will return to normal. Other territorial disputes may break open this year but only if and when a more pressing crisis has been settled, like the futures of the various Kurdistans and the possibility of north and south Yemen splitting up again. Some others are still too emerging to get a strong bead on, like the situation in the Niger Delta and the emerging crisis in Xinjiang. But here are three territorial disputes to watch in 2017:

  • Scotland: The issue of Scottish independence was supposed to have been put to bed back in 2014, when a referendum calling for Scottish independence was defeated. But the possibility of a new referendum was given new light last year, when the UK voted to exit the European Union (“Brexit”) in another referendum that turned entirely on the vote margin in England. In Scotland, “remain” won by a larger margin in the EU referendum than it had in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, which suggests that there are some people who voted to remain in the UK who may be amenable to a do-over now that the UK is on its way out of the EU. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, suggested today that a so-called “soft Brexit,” whereby the UK would make the concessions necessary to remain in the EU’s single market, might be enough to get her to postpone plans for a new Scottish independence referendum. But the chances of a “soft Brexit” are exceedingly slim, because UK Prime Minister Theresa May is going to prioritize blocking immigration over remaining in the single market. A lot of British politicians are convinced that their country is so vital to the EU that Brussels will bend over backwards to give London whatever it wants–which, basically, is all the perks of EU membership without any of the obligations. I’m similarly convinced that I should be making $5 million/year blogging, but unfortunately the world doesn’t usually run in accordance with our convictions. The EU is likely to drive a very hard bargain with London and make a “hard Brexit” (i.e., full separation) inevitable, which means Scotland may well take another vote on independence.
  • Crimea: The issue of Crimea kind of takes a backseat to the frozen civil war to the north, in eastern Ukraine, but its one with which the world is going to have to eventually come to grips. De facto, the peninsula belongs to Russia. Its people voted–sort of–to secede from Ukraine and the Russian government annexed it. People living there now say they would take up arms to prevent being placed back under Ukrainian governance. It’s hard to imagine anything changing this fact; Ukraine certainly can’t do anything about it, and even before Donald Trump was elected Washington had absolutely no interest in going to DEFCON anything over a place that holds utterly no strategic or tactical significance for the US. But, of course, as a matter of international law Crimea is still Ukrainian, and it would set a terrible (as in “undermining the post-WWII world order” terrible) precedent for the rest of the world to simply acquiesce to the Russian takeover. Kiev may ultimately look to trade a voluntary surrender of its rights in Crimea for a full Russian withdrawal, of both assets and support, from the eastern Ukrainian mainland, but there’s no indication they’re seriously considering that right now. The other consideration is that the rise of Vladimir Putin-aligned right-wing populists in the West may change the international calculus around Russia’s annexation. You could see Donald Trump recognizing the annexation under the right conditions, for example, and French presidential contender Marine Le Pen is already telling people that the annexation was “legitimate” and she hasn’t been elected (and hopefully never will be).
  • Palestine: In a sense, nothing is changing here. Israel will continue annexing the West Bank and East Jerusalem as it has been doing for decades. But Donald Trump looks like he will probably give Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to go nuts and stop slow-rolling the annexation to keep up appearances. This would be a major departure from US policy and a huge new driver of global instability, but neither of those considerations seem to matter to the Trump administration. It could be a very ugly year in the Occupied Territories.

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