By Stefanos Evripidou
THE TURKISH Cypriot leadership has denied reports that the European Commission is trying to broker a deal between Greek Cypriots and Turkey to open the fenced off part of Famagusta to its lawful inhabitants in exchange for allowing direct flights to Tymbou (Ercan) airport in the breakaway north.
There is increasing speculation in the media that President Nicos Anastasiades is pushing for Turkey to take a significant confidence building measure that would change the prevailing mood of mistrust before a new round of peace talks start with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.
One such step would be the opening of the ‘ghost town’ Varosha, which has been fenced off and kept under the direct control of the Turkish military since the 1974 invasion, in exchange for allowing the normal operation of ‘Ercan’ airport in the occupied village of Tymbou.
Adding to the rumour mill, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides on Sunday suggested that it appeared Turkey has conveyed to Brussels the move was possible, though things are at a very early stage.
From the moment the Turkish side agrees for the European Commission to examine it, this is a “big step”, said Kasoulides, noting however, that the Cyprus Republic could not allow the operation of an international airport on its occupied territory “unless the matter of legality is sorted”.
The minister is believed to have raised the issue with his American counterpart John Kerry during a recent trip to Washington.
Should a legal solution be found to the operation of an international airport on occupied territory, the government would then face a new headache of a more financial nature.
In its long-term agreement with Hermes Airports, the government committed to providing compensation to the operator of Larnaca and Paphos airports in the event that passenger numbers at Tymbou ever reached above a certain amount.
However, on a bigger scale, allowing direct flights to and from Tymbou, could result in Turkey opening its ports and airports to Cypriot airlines and ships, which in turn, could lead to the ‘unfreezing’ of a number of chapters in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.
But some commentators argue that Turkey will not give up its trump card, Varosha, for direct flights to Tymbou airport alone.
Instead, they argue, the Cypriot government needs to seriously examine the possibility of offering Turkey the prospect of regional gas cooperation, making Turkey a key player in the supply of Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe, without this ruling out the parallel use of a liquefied natural gas plant to export Cypriot (or other) gas to Asian markets.
Steps in that direction could theoretically create a more amenable environment for Cyprus to continue with energy exploration in its’ exclusive economic zone, secure significant confidence building measures from Turkey, and make real headway in efforts to reach a comprehensive peace solution agreeable to Greek Cypriots.
Speaking to local Turkish Cypriot daily Kibris, Eroglu’s spokesman Osman Ertug denied allegations that EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule was launching an initiative to open Tymbou in exchange for Varosha.
Ertug alleged that the Greek Cypriots were trying to create an “artificial agenda” to draw attention away from the fact that peace talks have yet to start.
He added: “Varosha has for a long period now been part of the comprehensive solution. This news is a lie and was brought up deliberately.”
According to Turkish Cypriot media, reports have also suggested Turkey is considering opening Varosha but under Turkish control, while the rightful owners would have to apply to return via the immoveable property commission in the north.
Meanwhile, as the high politics continues its convoluted dance, Tymbou recorded an increase in passenger numbers and reduction in flights to and from the airport during the first four months of 2013.
According to Turkish Cypriot reports, 408,626 passengers arrived at the airport in the first four months of 2013, compared to 390,842 in the same period last year. Departures reached 412,505 compared to 399,630 for the same period last year.
Flight arrivals dropped slightly from 3,270 in the first third of 2012 to 3,233 this year. Flight departures also dropped from 3,269 in the first four months of 2012 to 3,222 this January to April.
The illegal airport offers direct flights to and from ten destinations in Turkey, undertaken by Turkish Airlines, AtlasJet, Pegasus, OnurAir, while Correndon offers charter flights.
For destinations other than Turkey, all flights have to touch down in Turkey before continuing their journey either to or from the occupied north.