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Separatist States and Turkey: Nagorno-Karabakh and North Cyprus

An article in a Greek online journal calls out Turkey for being incosistent in its support for sovereignty: it helped end the separatist state of Nagorno-Karabakh, yet it continues to support Northern Cyprus. This discussion does not concern the Peace of Westphalia directly; it is, at most, about sovereignty, which Westphalia was not about. On the other hand, the subject of separatist states is one that I am particularly interested in, and it definitely relates to international diplomacy.

The first state in question is Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), an ethnically Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The local Armenian population began agitating to separate from Azerbaijan in 1988, even before the breakup of the Soviet Union. After Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, they went to war over the region until Russia mediated a ceasefire in 1994, at which point Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and other territory in Azerbaijan.

The curious thing is that Armenia neither annexted Nagorno-Karabakh nor, according to the article cited here, formally recognized its independence. It was effectively a pariah state, recognized only by Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia — other breakaway states that almost no one recognizes. After a new war in 2020 and subsequent negotiations, Azerbaijan has re-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, potentially opening the way for normalized relations with Armenia.

During this conflict, Azerbaijan’s military was trained and equipped by Turkey. The author of the article believes that Turkey deserves praise for bringing an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh state, but that it should be consistent and also end its support for Northern Cyprus. This ethnically Turkish state in the northern third of the island of Cyprus was created in 1974 after a military junta took over Cyprus and attempted to unite with Greece. The junta fell in the same year it started, but Turkish armed forces have remained in Cyprus ever since, propping up what amounts to a puppet Turkish state — like Nagorno-Karabakh, one with almost no international recognition.

It is not true that Turkey must end its support for Northern Cyprus in order to be consistent with the principles that it backed in Azerbaijan. Although it is true that a strict interpretation of sovereignty would require every government to refuse to intervene in support of any independence movements in other states, hardly anyone believes that sovereignty is an absolute good over self-determination of national groups. By that logic, no state should be recognizing Azerbaijan, since it should still belong to Russia, or any of a host of other new governments that have arisen in the former Soviet bloc or the Balkans. The question is, which separatist governments actually have support of their population and constitute viable independent states? Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh do seem to want to be independent, but I don’t have enough expertise to know what percentage of the population they actually constitute. Since the area only has a population of less than 150,000, it cannot be considered a viable state — certainly not in such a contested area of the world — and therefore would have to be joined to Armenia. Another question is whether the Armenians there suffer actual persecution from the government. The world is too divided for every single ethnic minority to get its own government or even to be divided nicely among friendly governments; even if we could once get populations and governments to align, migrations and cultural changes would soon require further rearrangements. If the population is relatively tolerated, the politically expedient solution may be for them to remain in Azerbaijan, or emigrate if they find it too oppressive.

As for Northern Cyprus, I have never seen any evidence that the Turks there were mistreated by the Cyprus government. Indeed, many seem to work in Cyprus, indicating that it is tolerable there. The original reason behind the occupation — fear of union with Greece — has some justification, as a significant Turkish minority in Cyprus would become a tiny minority in the nation of Greece. However, there seems to be little further threat of such a union, and the island’s proximity to Turkey would allow the Turkish military the same chance to intervene that they had in 1974. Whether Turkish Cypriots would accept being a part of a Greek-majority Cyprus at this point, I have no idea. It has already been two generations since the occupation, so they have probably formed part of their identity around their independence. On the other hand, Northern Cyprus is a very small state and may not be economically viable on its own. Certainly it would vulnerable without the Turkish military presence. Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, it is on an island and therefore really only has Greek Cyprus to worry about. I would almost suggest that Turkey would be better off annexing Northern Cyprus, and Cyprus could then join with Greece, but that would create a potentially dangerous standoff of hostile states across the island. Besides, I have no idea if there is strong feeling in support of enosis with Greece among Greek Cypriots.

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