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The Cyprus Precedent: the Moldovan, Ukrainian and Georgian Cases

11 September, 2023

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

Nowadays, the Cyprus precedent, which implies acquiring the status of an EU member despite being in the midst of a frozen territorial conflict, is increasingly cited as an example of a policy decision which demonstrates a pathway for the new EU candidate countries with such unresolved issues. Through this precedent, it may be possible to identify a route to take forward the EU candidacies of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia without the full resolution of their ongoing territorial conflicts, removing Russia’s de-facto veto over the three countries’ formal political and economic integration with the West.

Following long-standing ethnic tensions in Cyprus, on July 15, 1974, a coup sponsored by the Black Colonels military dictatorship of Greece led to the fall of the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios. It took less than a week for Turkey to launch a bloody invasion of the island under the pretext of protecting the Turkish community, after which Cyprus was effectively divided.  As a result, 37% of its territory fell under the control of Turkish troops, whereas Greek Cypriots governed the rest of the territory. It set the inception of a frozen territorial conflict. The UN deployed its peacekeepers to Cyprus, and the organisation’s contingent still guards the buffer “green zone” that divides the country. Considering the current political affairs, one can draw the analogy between the premise of the Cyprus conflict and the slogans of Russian propaganda, which emphasised the necessity to save Russian-speaking citizens on the Crimean peninsula from Ukrainian radicals. In 2014, after the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Russia invaded Crimea, occupied Ukrainian territory, and later created separatist entities in the Donbas region. It is reminiscent of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, created in November 1983, which, except for Turkey, is not recognised as a full-fledged entity by any country in the world.

Even though Turkey occupies 37% of the island’s territory, Cyprus managed to integrate into the European community thanks to systematically implemented economic reforms, formally becoming an EU member in 2004. The Republic of Cyprus found its niche in regional relations and geopolitics to the maximum benefit of its people. It also allowed the island to create a serious economic basis for unification, despite all the differences between Turks and Greeks.

This article delves into the necessity of tailoring individual approaches for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It arises from a shared significant factor among these associate members: they all encountered Russia, a highly unpredictable geopolitical actor, in their internal affairs. The conflict in Ukraine not only highlighted post-Soviet territorial disputes but also underscored challenges in the global arena.

The Cyprus precedent, which provides for EU membership in a frozen territorial conflict, is considered by some to be a political solution for new EU candidate countries with unresolved territorial issues. The cause of Moldovan, Georgian and Ukrainian common problems is also the same: Russia’s aggression, which has violated the territorial integrity of these states. Therefore, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, referred to the Cyprus precedent in the context of the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova. At the 2nd European Political Community Summit, he stated that the Moldovan path towards the EU remains independent and unaffected by the disputes in Transnistria. Moldova possesses the potential to achieve a similar feat to Cyprus, which managed to join the European Union despite its territorial issues.

The unifying factor of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, in addition to territorial and other problems, is that they all originated in the post-Soviet space and are left face-to-face with Russia, which regularly foments regional conflicts to realise its geopolitical interests. Having control of a propagandistic and powerful corruption apparatus within the post-Soviet space, Russia has the ability to escalate “frozen conflicts” into a hotter phase (for example, the Ukrainian conflict in 2014 escalated into a full-scale invasion in 2022) both to secure its interests in these regions and to strengthen its position in the international arena. It is crucial to comprehend that Russia creates various anti-European movements, turning them into a zone of its interests.  Georgia is a vivid example of this following the recent protests against the law on “foreign agents”.

A successfully implemented Ukrainian counteroffensive can become a factor in revising the balance of power in territories with frozen conflicts. With adequate and timely support from the allies, the success of the Ukrainian military can destabilise the aggressor‘s influence on the decision-making processes in these regions, contributing to the shift of the balance of power. Furthermore, the success of the Ukrainian military will promote a significant undermining of Russian levers of influence on decision-making processes in the separatist regions. As a result, it will serve as a lever for Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan territorial and cultural reintegration and integration with the EU.

However, considering the Cypriot case, it is crucial to understand that more than EU membership may be needed to reintegrate separatist territories. The candidate countries must not declare but empirically demonstrate the presence of systemic reforms and earn international trust. It is the key feature that differentiates Cypus from the aforementioned states. Implementation of the preliminary requirements set by the EU in June 2022 for these countries has stalled. Neither Moldova, Georgia, nor Ukraine had used the full year to implement the necessary reforms. As was before, they are closely tied by the lack of systematic reforms and political capital and by the absence of an uncorrupted national administrative apparatus.

Over the past year, the age-old problems of the post-Soviet countries, such as lack of justice, large-scale political corruption, and lack of reforms at the level of local self-government, has only been further exposed. According to the EU’s interim assessment, Moldova fully met three of the nine recommendations to meet candidate status (33%), followed by Ukraine with two of the seven (28%). Georgia is lagging even further behind, with only three out of 12 (25%) met.

Domestic welfare challenges are also present which could act as barriers to European integration. In Moldova alone, the high poverty level is fueled by the energy crisis of 2021-2023. Against the background of average annual inflation of more than 30% during 2022, the population’s impoverishment process intensified. According to the 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index, the absolute poverty level in Moldova was about 25% of the people, with about 1/3 of those affected living in rural areas. Thus it becomes apparent that violation of the territorial integrity is not the only paramount issue of these states. They face plenty of social, political and economic challenges on which significant progress needs to be made before full integration with the EU.

Considering the different political, historical, social and economic backgrounds of Cyprus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as the nature and dynamics of each conflict, it is tough to give a concrete answer as to whether the Cypriot experience applies to these cases. Moldova, Ukraine and Cyprus have some similarities in the nature of their territorial conflicts. These countries witnessed the situation when the separatist regions were seeking autonomy, relying on the support of external power. Regarding the territorial disputes in these countries, the Cyprus precedent can be considered a real solution. In this model, the real-time conflict would not fatally hinder the European pathway of these countries. However, it is essential to emphasise that social and economic development diverges dramatically in these countries. For example, the socio-political soil for the Copenhagen criteria fulfilment was already properly prepared in Cyprus before EU membership. Simultaneously, the issue of widespread corruption continues to be a matter of significant concern in Ukraine, which has been aggravated by the full-scale invasion. Joining the EU is only possible with the eradication of this root challenge inherent to all of the post-Soviet countries.

As demonstrated by Transparency International statistics, the level of corruption in Eastern Europe is usually higher than the regional average, a fact which traces its roots to the joint communist past. In a general sense, the process of overcoming the impacts of the communist legacy and attaining a fresh political and social stage can be time-consuming. Thus, the process of the EU convergence for these countries can be considerably protracted, deviating them from the Cyprus precedent. However, as the experience of the Baltic countries explicitly shows, it is realistically obtainable.

To recapitulate, the European integration of the states recently added to the “enlargement package” of the EU, and the application of the experience of Cyprus requires a more thorough study with an understanding of the specifics of the post-Soviet space, with its political, ethnic, and generational context. Furthermore, these countries need to implement the reforms and make progress in living standards and broader economic development. Only in this scenario can they succeed in the implementation of the Copenhagen criteria, resulting in their long-awaited EU membership.

Image: United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) members patrolling the buffer zone which divides the country (Source: UNFICYP/Ľuboš Podhorský/Thaizacastilho via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.