Time to think outside of the box on the Cyprus issue

Time to think outside of the box on the Cyprus issue

In 2004, the UN negotiated the Annan Plan for Cyprus. The Turkish side had accepted the return of the Güzelyurt (Morphu) region which was almost entirely inhabited by Greek Cypriots before the division of the island.

Interestingly, the majority of the Turks living in Güzelyurt had voted “yes” even though they knew that would mean their displacement if the plan were to be accepted by both sides, which was not the case as the Greek Cypriots said “no.”

In the last round of negotiations in Switzerland, Morphu was one of the most contentious issues since the Turkish side was not willing to let Güzelyurt go back under Greek Cypriot administration. With the collapse of the talks, Greek Cypriots are expected to resume negotiations after next year’s presidential elections.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which Turkish Cypriots were to accept to resume talks next year and at one stage the issue of Güzelyurt came to the agenda. “There is no longer the need to talk about Güzelyurt because there is no need for its return,” Turkish Cypriot negotiators could tell their Greek counterparts. “All of the Greek Cypriots who had property in Güzelyurt have been compensated. This is not an issue. There are now very few left [those who have not accepted to apply to us because of your threats] who still have property in Güzelyurt, but their numbers are so few that Güzelyurt’s return can no longer be justified.” And thus, you take Güzelyurt out of the equation.

Can this imaginary scenario become real? “Yes, it can,” say the experts. “And it can happen under European Union law,” they add, recalling the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Indeed, the ECHR’s 2010 decision that recognized the property claims process set up in Turkish Cyprus as an effective domestic remedy provided an immense opportunity to the Turkish side to solve the property issue. 

The Immovable Property Commission established in the mid-2000’s to evaluate the Greek Cypriots’ claims had initially been met with skepticism in the southern part of the island and in fact, the Greek Cypriot administration had tried to discourage its citizens from applying to the commission by labelling those who did as “traitors.” Yet, with its initial decisions the commission earned the recognition of the Euro court in 2010 as an effective remedy which told all the Greek Cypriot applicants to Strasbourg to first apply to the commission in Turkish Cyprus and come back only after exhausting this remedy.

That actually destroyed Greek Cypriot plans to make Turkey kneel following the European court’s 1996 decision sentencing Turkey to pay compensation to a Greek Cypriot who had property in the north. After that decision called the Loizidou case, thousands of Greek Cypriots with properties in the north applied to the court in Strasbourg which would have resulted with billions of Euros in compensation paid by Turkey.

The immovable property commission had been set up in order to precisely prevent that storm from coming and the court’s 2010 Demopoulos decision was a turning point as it accepted the workings of the commission as an effective remedy.

That led to a rapid hike in the number of applications to the commission in Turkish Cyprus. But with the prospect of peace talks the commission’s work has slowed down and that suited Turkish governments which did not want to earmark such a budget for Cyprus. The commission’s work actually came to a standstill a few years ago as Turkey completely stopped the flow of money leading to a sharp drop in the number of applications from South Cyprus.

Following the collapse of the peace talks in Switzerland, the three political parties present in the Turkish Cypriot parliament decided to revive the commission, according to the press reports from the island.
Instead of solving the property issue via negotiations with the Greek Cypriots, they seem set to solve it according to European law.

There are more than 5,000 applications in front of the commission. In contrast to its initial stages when the commission did not have a specific priority, why not give precedence to the hundreds of applications coming from Güzelyurt’s former Greek Cypriot residents? Once you compensate them and there are no longer any claims from the Greek Cypriot side, the above scenario can become real.

“You want Güzelyurt?” would ask Turkish Cypriot negotiators to their Greek counterparts. “But the property structure has changed in Güzelyurt. You are asking ‘how so?’ Well, by the will of your own citizens. They were compensated and they no longer have any claim to property in the region; so, there are no justifiable grounds on discussing its return.” 

Wouldn’t that be an “easy fix?”  To say so would be an exaggeration. But this could be a very expensive, yet very legal fix to the decades old problem.