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Bridge over troubled waters: Growing maritime dispute between Croatia and Bosnia, neglected by the EU

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Authors: Dr. Enis Omerović and Adil Kulenović
The bilateral international agreement on the state border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia, known as the Agreement on the Border between the two states, or more familiarly, as the Tuđman-Izetbegović Agreement, signed in Sarajevo on 30 July 1999 between the then President of the Republic of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, and the Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegović, represents in its 23 Articles, conditionally, “a valid act since it has been applied until a new one is made” (V.Đ. Degan, 2013).

This Agreement could also be perceived to contain a transitional or provisional solution, since it has never been ratified by any parliament and does not serve its ultimate purpose – the permanent establishment and determination of the land and sea border between the two neighbors. In this regard, it can even be argued that the Republic of Croatia de facto abandoned the execution of this Agreement when its official authorities decided to embark on the building of a permanent construction at sea. This all supports the fact that the issue of delimitation and demarcation at sea, especially in the area of ​​the Bay of Neum and the Mali Ston Bay, is still permanently undefined and unsettled and thus requires, in our opinion, a serious step towards opening an official dialogue with Zagreb with the involvement of EU institutions, since the Republic of Croatia is a member of the European Union.

The second difficulty should be addressed together with the first. It would be especially important to define the sea boundary, regarding the tip of the Klek Peninsula and the uninhabited islets, Veliki and Mali Školj or, more precisely, the rocks in the Mali Ston Bay, which are part of a unique geomorphologic unit, together with the Klek Peninsula. If we draw the line of equidistance for purposes of delimitation of two states whose shores in one bay lie or are opposite to one another (the Peninsula of Klek and Pelješac), which is in accordance with the international law of the sea, as well as Article 4 (3) of the bilateral Agreement which, inter alia, prescribes that border at the sea stretches “the median line of the sea area between the land of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia”, it could be claimed that the disputed area would belong to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Closely connected to this, the question of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s access to the High Seas or international waters of the Adriatic Sea and other world seas should be addressed, where no country in the world has territorial sovereignty, nor does it exercise any sovereign rights. High sea areas are world seas and oceans which are outside any state territory and provide a regime of free navigation and overflight, as well as other freedoms inherent to the High Seas. On this part of the planet, according to general customary international law, all countries in the world, under certain circumstances, exercise their jurisdiction over vessels flying the flag of their country.

For these reasons, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982 (UNCLOS) (ratified both by the Republic of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) states in Art. 7 (6) of the Convention that, in declaring its straight baselines, from which the width of the territorial sea is measured, the coastal State may not cut off the territorial sea of ​​another coastal state from the High Seas or the exclusive economic zone. As things stand currently, in order to get from the waters of Bosnia and Herzegovina by vessel to the High Seas, it is necessary to pass through the internal waters and the territorial sea of ​​the other coastal state, so that, in crossing the line that represents the outer boundary of the territorial sea, one leaves the sovereign territory of the Republic of Croatia. Further into the High Seas, the Croatian Protected Ecological and Fishing Band (ZERP) has been declared and covers the sea area in the Adriatic Sea from the external border of the territorial sea in the direction of the open sea to its outer boundary, determined by the general international law, and temporarily follows the line of demarcation of the continental shelf established by the Agreement between Italy and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia concerning the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf between the two Countries in the Adriatic Sea from 1968.

In fact, it is essential for Bosnia and Herzegovina to secure a specific route, that is to say, a corridor, which will physically connect its waters with the High Seas, since it is in an unfavorable geographic position, due to its sealed coastline. At this level, it is state practice to support coastal states to limit the width of their territorial sea, due to the undisputed flow or passage of the other coastal state to the High Seas, in accordance with the above-mentioned UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which represents a codification of this branch of international law. Examples of this are the Republics of Estonia and Finland in the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea, in relation to the Russian Federation (St. Petersburg area), and the Republic of France in relation to the territorial sea of the Principality of Monaco in the Mediterranean Sea.

Hence, Bosnia and Herzegovina should not accept the guarantee of the neighboring state that Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the right only to innocent passage for all vessels to and from Neum or, in the case of some other ports in the state territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, since Neum is extremely unconducive to the construction of a larger port which would be open to international traffic – we predict that a port of this type and category could be built on the Klek Peninsula, whose waters are much more suitable, especially in respect of access and sea depth, for the construction of an international port. This is because the right to innocent passage of a vessel is linked to the territorial sea, not to the internal waters of the coastal state. This should have been precisely defined in accordance with the principles and rules of international law, preferably by a bilateral international agreement between the two neighboring states, namely, the existence, the position, the proper width and the legal regime of such a corridor or waterway, which would probably be through the Neretva and the Korčula Channel, to move all vessels to and from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legal regime of such a corridor should be explicitly articulated in writing, together with the rights and obligations of both contracting parties, all in accordance with international law.

Therefore, it could be understood that there is a noticeable difference between the right to innocent passage of foreign ships through the territorial sea of ​​a coastal state and the formation of a corridor with a special legal regime. The latter would most likely pass through Croatian territory, as it would be unrealistic to expect that the Republic of Croatia in the area of ​​such a corridor remains without its territorial sovereignty and integrity. This is regardless of the fact that it not very legally rightly inherited from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, by its Maritime Code, the straight baselines under the conditions of more sovereign states whose coastlines are touched and lean on one another in the same sea area. Namely, the disputed area in terms of the declaration of these straight baselines is from the​Cape Proizd (near the island of Korčula) all the way to the southwestern tip of the island of Vodnjak, near some of the more famous Paklinski islands (along the island of Hvar), as this act simply contributed to the “closure” of Bosnian and Herzegovinian waters. We have written “most likely to pass” since it is hard to imagine that in the area of ​​the Neretva and Korčula Channels, with a width of not less than 1-1.5 nautical miles, that condominium (shared sovereignty) can be established or that an international legal regime be determined completely outside Croatian sovereignty.

Finally, in support of the assertion that any coastal state should have unimpeded (not just innocent passage, which is subject to various restrictions on the part of the coastal state) access to the High Seas, there is the final determination of the arbitral award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the case the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Croatia of 2017, according to which the Republic of Slovenia, through the so-called junction of 2.5 nautical miles wide, i.e. the physical link of its territorial waters with the high seas area of ​​the North Adriatic was awarded a corridor from their waters, where Slovenia enjoys full sovereignty to the High Seas, where many freedoms are guaranteed to all countries of the world, both coastal and non-coastal, as well as to those with an unfavorable geographic position regarding access to the sea, as in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Namely, as the Chairman of the Arbitration Council in this very case, G. Guillaume, stated in the public statement of the arbitral award, “the junction between the Slovenian territorial sea and the High Seas is a space where ships and planes have the same right of access to Slovenia as well as in the High Seas. The Court identified the area of ​​the Croatian territorial sea that is adjacent to the Italian waters within which a special legal regime would be applied. The corridor is approximately 2.5 nautical miles wide, and located immediately next to the border, according to the Treaty of Osimo, within Croatian territorial waters. A special legal regime should guarantee the integrity of the Croatian territorial sea, and Slovenian free communication between its waters and the High Seas.” It follows that the free communication of a coastal state between its waters and the High Seas is not the same as its right/obligation to innocently pass through the waters of another coastal state. It should, therefore, be concluded that the first term refers to the freedom of navigation and over flight to a little more extent than that provided by the institute of the innocent passage of foreign ships to territorial sea, which is only a necessary passage, since every foreign vessel must navigate through this area on the shortest conventional route, without disruption or delay. Moreover, this accessory or connecting corridor would have a kind of limitation of Croatian sovereignty and jurisdiction, since it would be in the spirit of this particular legal regime that would go in the middle of the Neretva and Korčula Channel. It would be worth questioning, moreover, whether Croatian internal waters should be left where they are now. The same question appeared to have been posed by a legal scholar from Croatia – “the question remains whether the waters of Croatia delimited by the territorial sea of Bosnia and Herzegovina can continue to be considered as having the legal status of internal waters.” (B. Vukas, 2006). 

Accordingly, a maritime corridor with a specific legal regime needs to be differentiated widely, or clarified in detail, so it does not necessarily represent identical international legal categories with the right to innocent passage of foreign ships and the right of transit passage. These latter terms are characteristic of the very specific maritime zones and parts of the sea which are not the subject of our current exploration and explication.

When all interconnected notions finally acquire their coherent power in terms of consistency, then will be the time to discuss continuing the construction of a permanent artificial installation on the sea, called the Pelješac Bridge (mainland – Pelješac Peninsula). Having understood that the Republic of Croatia only wants to connect two parts of the mainland, that is, the northern and southern ends of their country with a high-quality road link, this modern traffic connection should not endanger, or be detrimental to, the interests of their neighbors. Therefore, for the purpose of solving the traffic difficulties of the Republic of Croatia, the continuation of the construction of the Pelješac Bridge should be permanently solved by settling the so-called previous issues elaborated earlier – the permanent maritime delimitation on the Adriatic Sea as well as the permanent determination of the land border through a bilateral international frontier treaty, which will be applied equally and in good faith by both signatory parties and which will, above all, be confirmed in both the Croatian Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 would be applicable in the event of any dispute as to its application, and the interpretation of certain provisions thereof. In addition to this, as mentioned above, it is necessary to establish in an internationally appropriate manner the legal regime and the width of the future corridor, which will represent, inter alia, a junction between Bosnian and Herzegovinian waters and the High Seas of ​​the Adriatic.

Hence, only after the final determination of all the aforementioned, and after a thorough, concrete and legally binding determination of the legal regime of the corridor above which the permanent bridge will be built, the scientific and professional processing of the project known as the Pelješac Bridge must be approached. This should meet all the technical characteristics of bridges that have already been built over water within the international legal regime, i.e. international waterways, such as the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul that cross over the waters of the Bosporus strait which is under international legal regime, or the Oresund bridge (although most of the international maritime traffic takes place above the underwater tunnel) linking the Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Sweden and which is also located over the international waterway. This means that if the agreement between the two neighboring coastal states in this part of the Adriatic Sea could be achieved, in the sense of completing its construction and opening it for all road traffic, the bridge of these dimensions must have a certain minimum navigation height and a minimum range between the pillars, or at least the central ones, so that big ships could also sail into the Neum waters.

Bosnia and Herzegovina always somehow tends to delay consideration of certain questions. If this continues, there is a great chance that there will be no single institutional response, with the result that the position of Bosnia and Herzegovina in relation to this important international legal issue will remain very vague and indeterminate. Additionally, there is a very long internal tradition which does not encourage political cooperation, and a lack of understanding of things that are of fundamental significance to the whole country, not just to one of its constituent peoples.

However, in expectation of any kind of determination on the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with or without the Pelješac Bridge, the problem of the permanent “drawing” of the borderline between the two countries, both on the sea and on the land, will remain. The question of the access corridor or the connection of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s waters with the High Seas will not be sorted out alone. So, is it wise to wait for the international community or the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (if it is still here?!) to take steps to protect the international interests of this state?

This is an opportunity to see the strength of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian diplomacy which will once again demonstrate its position on the international stage. There is certainly a consistent lack of unity, resulting predominately from the less than satisfactory territorial organization, and attempts to build a state on the basis of ethnicity. This lack of unity is reflected in the impossibility of coming to clear institutional views on the part of the official state government. There may again be the emergence of a culture of conflict and non-cooperation at the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which could, adopt the declaration, as a political act, with precisely defined conclusions), the Council of Ministers and the Presidency.

But if dialogue is opened, perhaps after formal disagreement through a diplomatic note to the Republic of Croatia, the latter will surely have the advantage, or at least a better negotiating position, due to its European Union membership. This fact may well be crucial (since the European Union also recognizes the interest in land consolidation of its territory, so that its members can better monitor and control their state territory, with the goal of Croatia’s entry into the Schengen area) to the success of the negotiations as a diplomatic mean of settling one international dispute, which surely here does exist, at least with respect to the territorial title. Finally, it is worth mentioning that an international dispute does not need to be specifically proclaimed, the essence is in the existence of a disagreement with respect to essential facts, or in their apparently different interpretations.

If there is an international dispute between two coastal states that share the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea – that is not debatable – it is now best to choose the most appropriate and effective means of settling the dispute with, if possible, mutual interest as its aim. In this respect, it would be best to choose the most appropriate means for peaceful settlement of disputes from a large palette of diplomatic and legal means that are equally available to each state. Based on the foregoing, a dispute can be brought before the ICJ in The Hague, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, or it can be “easily” settled through ad hoc arbitration, i.e. special arbitration tribunals. But for the decision, which is the only outcome of these legal proceedings, it is necessary to wait for years, since such international legal processes can be very long-lasting and, above all, extremely expensive. In any case, Bosnia and Herzegovina will surely need to find a modus operandi in solving the above-mentioned issues with its western neighbor. This could be found in the Joint Team of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia for Negotiations on the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Delimitation at Sea or, perhaps, on a general level, in a body that will be composed on a parity basis, such as the Inter-State Diplomatic Commission for the Determination of the Border Line, which should, inter alia, settle the border dispute over the Danube River between the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Croatia, still, so far, with little success. All this graphically demonstrates the complexity of the international law of the sea, particularly in the area of delimitation.

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The 30th Anniversary of the Visegrád Group: The Voice of Central Europe

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The Visegrád group or V4 is a cultural and political union created in 1991, during a conference in the city of Visegrád in Hungary. V4 has been a symbol of Central Europe’s international activity and a new way of coordinating regional cooperation. Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia’s location in the Central European region provides shared cultural and intellectual roots, which they wish to, preserve and further strengthen.

The aim has been clear since the beginning of the cooperation: to eliminate the remnants of the Communist bloc in Central Europe and to accomplish the necessary transformation to further European integration. V4 accessed the EU membership together on May the 1st 2004. Once the goal – EU and NATO membership – had been reached, the Visegrád group did not disappear, as it was and still is also a way for those 4 countries to have a bigger voice by cumulating their strengths. However, some uneasiness and gloom can now be felt in this axis connecting the Baltic, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea.

Relationship with the EU

The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is being opposed by several central and eastern Europeans as well as the United States, is a contentious subject for the V4. Its completion would bypass the V4 region, causing economic and geopolitical harm. It’s not only about falling income from gas transit fees to Western Europe; it’s also about the overall “geopolitical rent” for the Central European area, which would dwindle correspondingly as the present gas pipelines’ relevance decreases.

In Brussels, “Europe” usually means Western Europe. Yet V4countries are, in terms of national progress, becoming the equals of, and even superior to, France and Germany—two EU founders and its two largest, wealthiest members. Recent statistical measures of economic growth, employment, and terrorism all show that four ex-Soviet satellites on the EU’s eastern frontier demonstrate better performance than France or Germany in almost every benchmark metric.


The gross domestic product (GDP) of the V4 grew an average of 4.3 percent in 2018, compared to 1.6 for France and Germany. In both Hungary and Poland, the growth of GDP was 5.1 percent, more than three times the average rate for France and Germany. The worst growth rate among the V4—Czechia’s 3.0 percent—was still double Germany’s growth rate. Given Germany’s stellar reputation as Europe’s economic powerhouse, this is significant. Yet inflation remained mild across all four Visegrád countries, ranging from 1.7 percent in Poland to 2.9 percent in Hungary.


Western Europe still sports larger economies, higher incomes, and longer life expectancies, but these represent a fading legacy of decades of prosperity and peace that was denied to the EU’s eastern members. The indicators, in which some CEE states still lag, like corruption or pollution, are similarly an inheritance of ex-communist rule. Pre-pandemic economic and social progress looked very good for Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and troubling for Germany and France. If these trends resume—and there is no reason to think they won’t—the East will soon outshine the West.

Despite the fact that Germany is the largest net contributor of EU funds, its economy has benefited the most under the euro, gaining €1.9 trillion from 1999 and 2007, or about €23,000 per German. Berlin’s economy benefits from the EU’s euro zone in many ways, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung, a respected German think-tank. By 2025, the benefits could amount to €170 billion more for Germany. Observers often refer to the V4 as “two plus two,” because of their differing attitudes to European integration. Czechia and Slovakia are more Europe-friendly than Poland and Hungary, which are far more eurosceptic.

Conclusion

The V4 do not share the post-World War II view of the EU embraced by dominant decision-makers in Western Europe, such as France, and Germany. Hungary and Poland’s authorities have generated front-page headlines in recent months for disregarding EU regulations. Their vision for Europe is for a robust and strong nation-state. The V4 has emerged as a non-institutional organization but is increasingly present as a separate agent in European and global politics. The upcoming year, with all its challenges, will certainly reveal more about this partnership. Central Europe needs to be strong within the European Union, and this requires a functioning Visegrád, and the willingness to find common results.

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EU: The stalemate in negotiations brings Serbia ever closer to Russia and China

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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member of the EU.

In spite of exhausting negotiations, this response is slow in coming and the main cause of the stalemate has a clear name: Kosovo. Before accepting Serbia’s application for membership, the EU requires a definitive solution to the relations between Serbia and that region that broke away from it after the 1999 conflict – when NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians – and proclaimed its independence in February 2008.

Serbia has never recognised the birth of the Kosovo Republic, just as many other important countries have not: out of 193 UN members, only 110 have formally accepted the birth of the new republic, while the rest, including Russia, China, Spain, Greece and Romania – to name just the most important ones – refuse to recognise the independence of the Albanians of what was once a region of Serbia.

The European Union cannot accept that one of its members is in fact unable to guarantee control over its borders, as would be the case for Serbia if its membership were accepted.

In fact, since the end of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no clear and controlled border between the two countries. In order to avoid continuous clashes, Kosovo and Serbia have actually left the border open, turning a blind eye to the ‘smuggling economy’ that thrives on both sides of the border.

In this situation, if Serbia were to become a full member of the European Union, it would create a gap in the borders of the entire Schengen area, as anyone passing through Kosovo could then move into all EU countries.This is not the only obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the European

Union: many European chancelleries are wary of Serbian foreign policy which, since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, has maintained a privileged relationship with Russia, refusing to adhere to the sanctions decided by Europe against Russia after the annexation of Crimea to the detriment of Ukraine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbia even agreed to produce the Russian vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ directly in its own laboratories, blatantly snubbing EU’s vaccine offer.

For the United States and some important European countries, Serbia’s formal accession to the European Union could shift the centre of gravity of Europe’s geopolitics towards the East, opening a preferential channel for dialogue between Russia and the European Union through Serbia.

This possibility, however, is not viewed unfavourably by Germany which, in the intentions of the CDU President, Armin Laschet, the next candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, has recently declared he is in favour of a foreign policy that “develops in multiple directions”, warning his Western partners of the danger resulting from “the interruption of the dialogue with Russia and China”. In this regard, Laschet has publicly stated that ‘foreign policy must always focus on finding ways to interact, including cooperation with countries that have different social models from ours, such as Russia, China and the nations of the Arab world’.

Today we do not know whether in autumn Laschet will take over the leadership of the most powerful country in the European Union, but what is certain is that Serbia’s possible formal membership of the European Union could force Europe to revise some of its foreign policy stances, under the pressure of a new Serbian-German axis.

Currently, however, Serbia’s membership of the European Union still seems a long way off, precisely because of the stalemate in the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.

In 2013 Kosovo and Serbia signed the so-called ‘Brussels Pact’, an agreement optimistically considered by European diplomats to be capable of rapidly normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in view of mutual political and diplomatic recognition.

An integral part of the agreement was, on the one hand, the commitment of Kosovo’s authorities to recognise a high degree of administrative autonomy to the Kosovo municipalities inhabited by a Serb majority and, on the other hand, the collaboration of the Serbs in the search for the remains of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians presumably eliminated by Milosevic’s troops during the repression that preceded the 1999 war.

Neither of the two commitments has so far been fulfilled and, during the meeting held in Brussels on July 21 between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, harsh words and reciprocal accusations were reportedly exchanged concerning the failure to implement the ‘Pact’, to the extent that the Head of European foreign policy, Josep Borrel, publicly asked the two parties to ‘close the chapter of a painful past through a legally binding agreement on the normalisation of mutual relations, with a view to building a European future for its citizens’. This future seems nebulous, to say the least, if we consider that Serbia, in fact, refuses to recognise the legal value of degrees and diplomas awarded by the Kosovo academic authorities also to members of the Kosovo Serb minority.

Currently, however, both contenders are securing support and alliances in Europe and overseas.

Serbia is viewed favourably by the current President of the European Union, Slovenian Janez Jansa, who is a supporter of its membership because “this would definitively mark the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation”. The vast majority of European right-wing parties, ranging from the French ‘Rassemblement National’ to the Hungarian ‘Fydesz’, also approve of Serbia’s membership application and openly court the Serbian minorities living in their respective countries while, after the years of US disengagement from the Balkans under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, the Biden administration has decided to put the region back on the list of priority foreign policy commitments, entrusting the ‘Serbia dossier’ to the undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Palmer, an authoritative and experienced diplomat.

With a view to supporting its application for European membership, Serbia has also deployed official lobbyists.

Last June, Natasha Dragojilovic Ciric’s lobbying firm ND Consulting officially registered in the so-called EU ‘transparency register’ to promote support for Serbia’s membership. ND is financed by a group of international donors and is advised by Igor Bandovic, former researcher at the American Gallup and Head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, by lawyer Katarina Golubovic of the ‘Committee of Human Rights Lawyers’ and Jovana Spremo, former OSCE consultant.

These are the legal experts deployed by Serbia in Brussels to support its application for formal European integration, but in the meantime Serbia is not neglecting its “eastern” alliances.

Earlier this month, the Head of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, paid an official visit to Belgrade, a few weeks after the conclusion of a joint military exercise between Russian special forces (the “Spetznaz”) and Serbian special forces.

In the Serbian capital, Naryshkin not only met his Serbian counterpart Bratislav Gasic, Head of the ‘Bezbednosno Informativna Agencija’, the small but powerful Serbian secret service, but was also received by the President of the Republic Alexander Vucic with the aim of publicising the closeness between Serbia and Russia.

The timing of the visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Brussels on Serbia’s accession to the European Union and can clearly be considered as instrumental in exerting subtle diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the European Union of the possibility that, in the event of a refusal, Serbia may decide to definitely turn its back on the West and ally with an East that is evidently more willing to treat the Serbs with the dignity and attention that a proud and tenacious people believes it deserves.

A piece of news confirming that Serbia is ready to turn its back on the West, should Europe continue to postpone the decision on its accession to the European Union is the fact that China has recently signed a partnership agreement with Serbia in the field of pharmaceutical research, an agreement that makes Serbia one of China’s current largest commercial partners on the European continent.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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