The reopening of ghost town Varosha in Cyprus
“Taking Maraş [Varosha] was not among our targets and planning. When the Greek Cypriots started firing, our soldiers followed them and the city came under control without our wish. We closed it to civilians in order to use it later in the negotiations.”
Those words belong to Turkey’s seventh president Kenan Evren who was at the time of the 1974 intervention the commander who entered the city.
Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay took a group of journalists last week into Varosha which was once a wealthy town bustling with tourists. The issue of “reopening” Varosha, which is now a ghost town, has been on the agenda for some time, but obviously it is a delicate issue as it involves hundreds of Greek Cypriot properties.
When there is no settlement in sight, it would be unfair to expect Turkish Cypriots to sit back and continue to “enjoy” isolation!
And Özersay’s mediatic move came at a critical time. But before elaborating on the details let me remind the international developments that took us to the current situation in Cyprus.
Unfortunately Turkey has lost the moral upper hand it enjoyed since 2004 when the Turkish Cypriots had said “yes,” while Greek Cypriots said “no” in the referendum for a U.N. peace plan. The EU has not delivered on its promise that if Greek Cypriots were to say “no” and Turkish Cypriots were to say “yes,” the latter won’t be “left in the cold.”
The only consolation Turkey got after the referendum was to be devoid of any pressure to solve the Cyprus problem, which suited many in the Turkish state that favored the status quo.
In addition, Turkey had saved itself temporarily to pay millions of dollars’ worth of compensation to Greek Cypriots that had won their legal battle in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). After long negotiations, Turkey convinced the ECHR that a domestic remedy for Greek Cypriot properties in the northern part of the island would be set up. The Immoveable Property Commission (IPC) was established in 2005 to offer remedy to Greek Cypriots through restitution, compensation and exchange. So Turkey was saved from both political and economic pressure.
But the Turkish Cypriots continued to suffer under isolation. A new window of opportunity was opened when in 2012 the financial crisis hit the ordinary Greek Cypriot so hard that getting back their properties in the North and benefiting from the reunification made them more willing to accept a peace plan. In addition, gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean were seen as an impetus for peace and cooperation. But peace talks failed in 2017.
Whose fault was it? At this stage it does not matter because the international powers are not at the point of sympathizing with Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots because of the failure at the peace talks. On the contrary, they are objecting to Turkey’s recent position about the energy conflict in the East Mediterranean and chances for a lasting solution seem very slim for the foreseeable future.
What Turkish Cypriots can do is to weaken Greek Cypriot arguments (and willingness) for reunification. That way passes from solving the property issue. And that in turn depends on the effective working of the IPC.
But for that Turkish Cypriots need money, but the Turkish government has stopped funding the IPC during peace talks due to the prospect of a final agreement on property issues. And with the economic problems biting harder it has been so far reticent to start back the funding.
As IPC stopped to work efficiently, this has not gone unnoticed by the ECHR. Following the application of a Greek Cypriot company which owns property in Varosha, the ECHR has given the Turkish side until Nov. 4 to submit its remarks.
The issue at this point however is not just about money. There is resistance within Turkish Cyprus to the working of the IPC. A local court has objected to the return of the properties in Varosha following an application from Evkaf, the Turkish Cypriot religious foundation that claims to own the majority of properties in the abandoned city.
The decision will be reviewed by a higher court. If it were to cancel the initial decision, then the ECHR will decide in favor of Turkey which will be saved from starting to pay millions of dollars of compensation. If the higher court were to approve the decision, leave aside the memoires of Evren, it will also have to answer the following questions:
- Why the city was kept closed for four decades if the majority of the properties belonged to the Turkish foundation,
- Why Varosha was used as a bargaining chip in the past, like: Greek Cypriots will get Varosha in exchange of starting international flights from Ercan airport.