There has been a good deal of  talk about the Kosovo precedent in discussions about what to do next with regard to Georgia, Russia and the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and Europe are finding their options constrained by another set of past decisions in dealing with a powerful regional actor, a small neighboring country, a separatist regime and an armed intervention: Cyprus.

As Georgia is discovering, reaffirmation of principles about “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty” aren’t worth that much. Thirty-four years after UN Security Council resolutions were passed calling for all foreign forces to leave the island of Cyprus — including Turkish contingents — Ankara continues to deploy some 40,000 troops — and suffers no sanctions, no penalties. No country other than Turkey recognizes the existence of the self-declared “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus”, and the West continues to maintain the diplomatic stance that the government of the Republic of Cyprus is the only legal sovereignty on the island. This, however, has not prevented thousands of Europeans from traveling to North Cyprus, buying vacation homes, or engaging in business. The de facto existence of the Turkish Cypriot state is tolerated; it maintains discreet liaison offices, including in Washington, DC (whose representative has met with members of the U.S. Congress); and it is permitted to send its representatives directly to the negotiations on determining the island’s final status.

Moreover, the European Union—with some prodding from Washington—has opened accession negotiations with Turkey without requiring a Turkish withdrawal from North Cyprus, Ankara having to withdraw its recognition of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus or even for Turkey to overtly recognize the existence of the current Cypriot government—a member-state of the EU—as preconditions for the talks. (However, one of the snags in the ongoing negotiations for Turkey to close chapters of the acquis communitaire has been Ankara’s refusal to open its ports to Cypriot-registered planes or ships, which has been seen as non-recognition of Cyprus’ status as a member of the European Union and a possible violation of Turkey’s obligations under the Customs Union with the EU.)

So the fact that Georgia-Russian talks may have broken down in Geneva may not have much of an impact on Europe’s relations with Russia, just as non-resolution of the Cyprus issue over the last three decades has not dramatically affected either the U.S. or European relationship with Turkey. In other words, we already have a precedent of the West
perfectly willing and able to compartmentalize such problems. European states can easily proclaim their support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and reunification of South Ossetia with Abkhazia with deciding to not make this an issue in their relations with Russia. This is a precedent which certainly will not be to Tbilisi’s liking.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the EU refused to grant Turkey a veto over the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the Union and prevented Turkey from using the division of the island as a basis to prevent the government in Nicosia from joining the EU — a similar argument might be made in the future that Georgia does not need to consolidate
its territory as a precondition for full membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations.

But what the Cyprus case demonstrates is how long these stalemates can last. Those who say that the status quo that has emerged in the South Caucasus cannot endure may want to revise those predictions.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.