Cultural Self-Determination: Dr. Panayiotis Diamadis

Monday, 19 September 2016

I’ll be focusing on the history and culture. We talk about the self determination - but of who? How do we define who these people are? How do they define themselves? What do they use? Why this particular block of land on the surface of the planet? I’ll be exploring this through the use of three examples:

  • Cyprus: Links in closely to a particular space - smaller than Artsakh by 2000 square kilometres - but it has certain advantages being an island with clearly defined borders (which is complicated by the concept of sea borders).

  • Artsakh: As a future example of independence.

  • Assyria: Is there going to be and can there be a de facto state, or a sovereign state of some sort - either as an independent nation, or as part of a federal Iraq - for an Assyrian nation.


Cyprus is essentially a former colony that has become a sovereign state under partial occupation; 37% of the territory under the control of the Turkish military in the north, and 100 square kilometres under British occupation - the so-called ‘sovereign’ bases. So we have a small patch of land effectively divided in three ways.

No Muslim population, no Turkish population, there until the Ottoman conquest of the 16th century. The Hellenic identity of the Island goes back man thousands of years back; it is irrelevant, because the majority population are either Greek, or identify with Greeks. There is a substantial Armenian population, and a small Maronite population - not migrants from Lebanon, but locals left over from the Venetian period and afterwards. Even Cyprus when it became independent in 1960 had three guarantor powers - returning to the problem of patron powers which still exists for Cyprus. And then you add in 2004 joining the European Union.

What does joining the European Union mean for Cypriot sovereignty? If Artsakh were to become a fully sovereign state, will it then apply for European Union membership? Will Moscow allow it? Can Moscow afford to allow it? Just because Artsakh should get full independence, what does the word “full” actually mean? What does sovereignty mean in the very globalised world in which we live in?

What becomes more complicated with Cyprus is that in this clearly defined space - as an Island - with an 85% population that is or identifies with the dominant Hellenic population group, 18% of the population being Cypriot Muslim. Ironically, since the Turkish invasion in 1974, there are now more Cypriot Muslims in London than live on Cyprus.

Another important factor is the idea of an “exclusive economic zone” or in other words, how far off shore is your territory. Australia has one of the largest exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the world. This is something Cyprus has capitalised on quite well - by bringing in the great powers, not as patrons, but as partners to cooperate in these economic zones. Cyprus doesn’t have the resources to exploit the hydrocarbons that have been proven to exist here. Cyprus contains within its EEZ enough gas to supply the EU for 300 years. A larger one was found in Egypt not long ago. Yesterday there was a deal made between Cyprus and Egypt to export gas for processing until Cyprus can develop its own refinement facilities.

Again, this is an example economic sovereignty - however Cyprus is still highly dependent on the EU, Egypt and other external markets.

Political independence is only the beginning of the issue, however. Why did Cyprus get independence? Because this group of people defined themselves as Hellenic Christian peoples, defined a historical period that was their common story, and decided that they wanted to live together. History plays a very important role in who we are - it shapes who we are and our stories. Hayastan is this piece of territory, Artsakh is this piece of territory - why? Because we - the people who live there - decide it is. This relates back to the requirement for independent states to have a permanent population.


Where does this flag come from? Who decided this was the flag? Why did we pick these colours? Where do these symbols come from and what do they mean? Why are people prepared to go to war over them? This is where history comes into play.

Recently, a horde of coins were found in Azerbaijan - the oldest ones were 12th century; relatively recent in the scheme of the region’s history. But this was about proving the Azeris were here, proving ownership of land. The systematic destruction of Armenian physical heritage in Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan proper is not accidental. Once the people are gone, what’s next? You have to destroy their memory. These physical structures - whether churches or cemeteries. Cemeteries are always targeted because they’re places of the dead - who buries their dead where they don’t feel at home? Cemeteries are targeted because you erase the memory of the dead, and you erase the chain of people, one generation to the next. The history, what we define as our culture, is the basis of our nationhood - whether de facto or de jure.


Is an Assyrian state viable in the part of the world? Inside of a federal Iraq, or independently? Should they have, on a moral basis, be an independent state? Of course - they’ve lost more than any of the peoples in the Middle East; in terms of population, in terms of territory, economically, etc. They’ve suffered the worst on any indicator. So why should they not have their own state? Because of where they want their own state - in the middle of the KRG (and whatever Arab state that gets created south of the KRG when Iraq collapses), right in the middle of the oil and gas pipelines and fields.


Why the Nineveh plains? Why the flag - the two pairs of lines, the rivers. Assyria is actually a Greek word; in Assyria it’s ‘Ashur’, the name of their God. They’re a Christian nation, but they include this symbol of their ancient past on their flag. It establishes their ownership and belonging to their land. Traditionally when we have ceremonies in Australia, we always start with the acknowledgement of country - we need to acknowledge the indigenous peoples. In this case, the Armenians are the natives of Artsakh, the Assyrians are the peoples of the land between two rivers (the Tirgis and the Euphrates).


History is so crucial to claims of territorial ownership, and the destruction of culture represents a tool by which aggressor states can attack those claims. This is why it is so important that Armenia, for example in Yerevan, has an Assyrian genocide memorial. There is a small Assyrian community there, refugees from their own genocide.  The reason there are Armenians in Cyprus is because most were descendants of genocide survivors from Cilicia. It is links like these, these historical links, that binds these communities in their common pursuit of recognition and independence.