A golden opportunity in Cyprus should not be missed

A golden opportunity in Cyprus should not be missed

Turkish Cyprus’ decision in 2003 to open the border between the North and South to the crossing of the people was one of the most positively innovative and radical moves taken in the history of the divided island.

I was surprised to hear from a U.N. official in the island a few years later that the downside of these kinds of decisions was their contributions to the normalization of the division.

The Greek Cypriot administration at the time initially resisted the idea and called on its citizens not to travel.

I am doubtful the chances for a settlement would have been higher had the borders remained closed. It seems the current Greek Cypriot administration have thought so as it did not object to the opening of two border crossings in 2018.

When it comes to the reopening of ghost town Varosha, however, Greek Cyprus remains vehemently opposed. The term “reopening” should not be misunderstood. It is the return of Varosha, the properties in Varosha to be more precise, to their original owners.

In 1974, of the 13,000 tourist beds on the whole of the island 11,000 were believed to be in Varosha. This abandoned tourist destination is now replaced by Limassol in the south. It is not difficult to imagine that investors and all of those making a living from tourism in Limassol must be feeling unhappy about the potential revival of Varosha.

The Greek Cypriot administration is also unhappy because it does not want its citizens to return before a settlement. It is actually against the implementation of the decision taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which enabled the Turkish Cypriot administration to offer restitution or compensation options to the Greek Cypriot owners of properties in the North.

The Immoveable Property Commission (IPC) was established in 2005 for this purpose, and, despite all the obstruction from Greek Cypriot officials, thousands from the South have applied to the commission.

You would expect the Turkish side to seize this opportunity and get the IPC working full speed. To the contrary, the IPC’s work has stalled and the European court is upset about it.

You might think part of the reason is money. After all, we are talking about billions of dollars of compensation. Yet in Varosha, for instance, we are not talking about compensation but restitution. In other words, the owners will be invited back.

Obviously, they will have to be paid to compensate for their loss of use and they should be offered certain incentives like tax exemption to encourage their return. But the Turkish side is also to gain from the reconstruction of the town since, according to the U.N. rules, all the materials will have to be brought from the North.

You can understand up to a certain point why the Greek Cypriot administration would object to the idea. But it is harder to understand the obstacles on the Turkish side.

Take the issue of the recent claims about most of the properties in Varosha belonging to the Ottoman foundation. If so, how come, “the return of Varosha” was used as a bargaining chip several times in order to get concessions from the Greek Cypriot side like the lifting of embargoes over the airport on the Turkish side?

To come up with this claim will only make things more complicated.

The current Turkish Cypriot administration started working on the return of Varosha and got the support of Ankara. The conference organized in Varosha last week ended with a high attendance from Ankara aimed at demonstrating this support.

But the conference attended by Turkey's Vice President Fuat Oktay and accompanied by three ministers had two problematic dimensions. Speakers said the properties will be returned in accordance with international law and through the IPC but also underlined that most of the properties belonged to the Ottoman foundation. This is basically an oxymoron. If these properties belong to the foundation, then you can’t resort to the IPC.

The second problem pertains to the domestic politics in Turkish Cyprus. The organizer of the conference, the Turkish Bar Association, has not invited Turkish President Mustafa Akıncı, who has angered Ankara with his recent statements. The main opposition, as well as the Turkish Cypriot Bar Association, had voiced criticisms about the timing of the meeting. They did not attend the conference despite being invited at the very last minute.

It was a clear message from Ankara that it chose to ignore Akıncı. Yet it is highly unfortunate that the Turkish Bar Association, which would be expected to be above politics, could not prevent an issue of crucial importance to be used for domestic politics just ahead of elections in Turkish Cyprus.

The return of Varosha is a golden opportunity to prove that the Turkish side is willing to abide by international law by implementing the decisions of the European court and compensating the loss and grievances of the Greek Cypriots. This opportunity should not be sacrificed to the “internal affairs” of Turkish Cyprus.