If you are like me and you've been following the
news on a regular basis for a while, say, 20 or 30 years, the chances are that
whether it was 1977 (when you got married), 1986 (when your kid was nine years
old), or 2003 (when the grandkid was on the way), you were watching on television
or reading in your daily newspaper an item about a wildfire in southern California
(in the summer), about a hurricane in Florida (in late summer), and about the
start of new peace talks over Cyprus
(any time of the year).
I don't have to recall the reports about this year's hurricane, and you've
probably watched those California wildfires on TV (they always look quite the
same), but you might have missed last month's news about Cypriot (Turkish) leader
Mehmet Ali Talat urging the
United Nations to "re-launch peace talks" aimed at ending the three-decade division
of Cyprus as he was gearing up for a landmark visit to America.
Not to worry. Officials at the UN and in Washington promised to support "fresh
talks" over the future of the eastern Mediterranean island. And so it goes,
until next year's reports on Cyprus peace talks, Florida hurricanes, and California
As some of you may recall, the ruling junta in Greece
staged a coup in 1974 to overthrow the government of Cyprus. Five days later,
by sending in troops in what it called a peace operation and what the Greek
Cypriots described as an invasion.
After some brief fighting, Turkey took control of the northern part of the
island, and in 1983 it declared the territory the Turkish Republic of Northern
Cyprus (TRNC). Since then there has been an uneasy standoff, with UN
troops keeping the two sides apart. The Greek Cypriots still claim the whole
island and describe the hated Turkish military as an army of occupation.
De Facto Independence
The Turks, on the other hand, demand some form
of recognition of their de facto independence, which the rest of the world refuses
to accept. The international court of human rights last year ruled that Turkey's
28-year occupation of northern Cyprus was an illegal act.
But here is the good news: For more than three decades, Greek Cypriots and
Turkish Cypriots haven't been killing each other, as they used to do for so
many years before 1974. In fact, some 5,000 people were killed and 200,000 were
displaced during the civil war that preceded the partition. Moreover, the Greek
part of Cyprus has been doing quite well and even joined the EU in 2004. At
the same time, the EU lifted an economic embargo on the Turkish side and endorsed
a plan to reunify the island that had been rejected by the Greek Cypriots.
In short, divided Cyprus, including the virtual Turkish state, seems to be
doing better than many unitary states around the world.
That the status quo in Cyprus will probably be maintained for several years
to come has to do with regional and global power politics. Turkey is a midsize
global power, a member of NATO, an important Muslim state, and a close military
ally of Washington. Greece is a member of the European Union and has a "special
relationship" with both the United States and Russia.
So here is the catch: Unless all the major players that are involved in Cyprus,
in particular Turkey, agree on a final-status solution to the political future
of the island, there won't be an agreement, and the virtual Turkish state, also
known as TRNC, will still be with us.
Which explains why the virtual state of Kosovo will probably also survive for
many years to come, and why in addition to the hurricanes in Florida, the wildfires
in California, and the "re-launching" of peace talks over Cyprus, you can now
add the "fresh" peace talks over Kosovo to the list of annual events that may
follow you to the grave.
officially a province of Serbia but is the subject of an ongoing territorial
dispute between the Serbian government and the province's majority ethnic Albanian
population. Since the Kosovo war, the province has been administered by the
United Nations as a protectorate.
Questions have been raised about whether an independent Kosovo would be politically
or economically viable. But the most important obstacle to any final-status
solution to the province's political future is the inability to reconcile the
incompatible positions of the Serbian and Albanian sides.
position is backed by its powerful traditional ally, Russia. And while Washington
and most EU members sympathize with the Albanian Kosovars, they are concerned
that an independent Albanian-ruled Kosovo would produce a momentum for the formation
of a Greater Albania
in the Balkans. Hence, expect the status quo in Kosovo in the form of its virtual
state to be maintained in the next few years. On one level, that's depressing.
On another level – so long as Albanians and Serbs are not killing each other
– it's not really bad news.
In a way, the world's leading virtual state, Taiwan
(the Republic of China), also happens to be one of the world's most prosperous
and technologically advanced economies, in addition to being a democracy. It's
true that its existence depends on a very delicate balance of power involving
the U.S. and China
(PRC), which regards Taiwan as being under its sovereignty. But this make-believe
diplomatic design seems to be working quite well, and notwithstanding the rhetoric
on all sides, few really expect the U.S. and China to go to war over Taiwan
in the near future.
So we've seen the future of the virtual state, and it seems to be working like
this: When global powers, nation-states, and competing national, ethnic, and
religious groups fail to reach an agreement on the status of this or that coveted
territory, they substitute the nonfiction genre of power politics with a fictional
Say you have a state called Iraq,
which is a member of the UN in which a low-intensity civil war is taking place
(involving Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi'ites, and Kurds), which is under the military
occupation of a global power (the U.S.), and whose status affects important
regional players (including Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) with
links to the major Iraqi players.
Everyone is expressing public support for maintaining the unity of Iraq, while
on the ground the reality is reflecting a gradual process of division, if not
partition, into three mini-states, including Kurdistan,
where students don't even learn Arabic in schools anymore. But a fully independent
Kurdistan won't be accepted by Turkey and Iran, and an independent Shi'ite state
with ties to Iran would be regarded as a threat to the neighboring Arab Sunni
states and to the U.S.
Instead of searching for a final-state political
solution to Iraq, why not accept the reality on the ground by adopting a make-believe
form of diplomacy? Yes, Iraq will remain unified as a federal state until further
notice. In the meantime, we'll have three virtual states.
The Kurdish one already exists for all practical purposes, and a U.S.-Turkish
condominium in the province would help diffuse some of the explosive problems
there (refugees, Kirkuk, oil, status of Turkmens). A détente between the United
States and Iran would be necessary to help bring some stability to the Arab
Shi'ite virtual state. And the neighboring Arab Sunni states could provide military
support to maintain order in the Arab Sunni province.
And next year, and the year after, we'll probably have "peace talks" on Iraq
(and Cyprus, and Kosovo) aimed at determining its final political status as
part of an agreement among all those involved. My guess is that such an accord
will not be reached next year or the year after. But if virtual states can help
stop bloodshed and prevent wars, why should we make an effort to keep the real
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