Reopening Varosha to settlement

Reopening Varosha to settlement

A very important meeting is slated to convene in Cyprus this weekend. No, that was not the news. A very important meeting on the future of the deserted and fenced Varosha suburb of Famagusta will be held this weekend. Even that was deficient. What’s all the more important is the fact that a very high level meeting hosted by the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), participated by Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül, Turkish Cypriot deputy premier and Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay will be held in the city, a sprawling tourism center of the past that was turned into a ghost habitation since the 1974 Turkish intervention.

This will be the first ever such meeting with such high-level participation inside Varosha. Will the meeting signify a change in Turkey’s position? Or will the meeting demonstrate the seriousness of the decision the Turkish Cypriot government took a while ago to reopen Varosha to resettlement by its former residents and others.

Varosha has been a hunch, a serious problem as patience-consuming as the Cyprus problem itself. With its luxurious hotels, glamorous shops and flamboyant villas, as well as apartment blocks housing thousands of people, Varosha was deficiently regarded once upon a time as the “Las Vegas of the Mediterranean.” Of course, there were no casinos but the white fine sand beaches, bright Mediterranean sun and legendary service capabilities, the city was indeed a tourism heaven with several tens of thousands of bed capacity far more than any other location might offer in the eastern Mediterranean during those times.

Life stopped in the city, or most parts of it, in 1974 with the Turkish intervention. While a few of the buildings were used, one as a military recreation facility and one as a student hostel, most of the area was fenced and left to a desolate fate. As early as 1975, Turkey pledged to hand back the city to its former residents once the Cyprus problem was resolved. Many United Nations secretary-generals included handing back of the city to Greek Cypriot residents as part of goodwill packages that also called for the lifting of economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Turkish Cypriots – such as opening the Ercan Airport in North Cyprus or the Famagusta port to international traffic. All such offers were rejected by the Greek Cypriot leadership on grounds lifting travel ban on northern Turkish Cypriot part might elevate the status of the Turkish Cypriot state.

Since the Turkish Cypriot government surprisingly decided almost a year ago to reopen Varosha to settlement, several studies were conducted to complete an inventory as well as provide some clarity to the thorny land ownership problem as most of the land of the deserted city were former properties of Turkish foundations confiscated by the then British administration and sold or distributed almost bona fide to Greek Cypriots. Besides defining original owners, of course, the rights of the 1974 residents ought to be protected while reopening Varosha under interim Turkish Cypriot governance pending a final solution to the Cyprus problem.

The move was revolutionary and indeed unaccustomed but considered by Greek Cypriots, as well as pro-Greek Turkish Cypriot leftists, as an attempt to prepare the ground of buying out the precious territory. Still, the inventory and related works continued by teams of experts and now apparently time has come to discuss the legal dimensions of the problem.

Was it a coincidence that such a high-powered meeting is taking place now when Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı angered nationalists, and of course Ankara, with his unfortunate “If I am not elected and federation hopes die, Turkey might annex North Cyprus” remark?

The meeting was programmed way before Akıncı publicly made such a remark anywhere.