By Esra Aygin
Despite the hype, few believe Turkey is sincere about letting the Greek Cypriot residents of Varosha return
Lifeless, deserted hotels lined up alongside the beautiful turquoise waters. Shattered glass, frameless windows, crumbling mossy walls, rusty iron rails, vegetation springing up from cracks in the concrete. This is all that remains of what was once a wealthy town bustling with tourists.
On Thursday, a group of Turkish Cypriot and Turkish journalists was allowed to enter the fenced-off city of Varosha, which has remained a forbidden military zone since August 1974 when its Greek Cypriot population fled from the advancing Turkish army.
“Sorrow in closed Varosha,” posted journalist Cenk Mutluyakali on his social media page. “How did you have the heart to do this to such a beautiful place?”
“My heart is torn out,” lamented Fatma Kismir.
The media visit, led by deputy head of the Turkish Cypriot ruling coalition Kudret Ozersay, came shortly after a team of experts began a scientific inventory in Varosha earlier this month.
Journalists, accompanied by army personnel, were allowed to get off the bus that took them around city at three locations only. Trespassing, filming and taking photographs in or around Varosha would normally be punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
“Our plan is to gradually turn Varosha into a civilian area taking into account human rights and international law, and in a manner which is suited to the conditions of the 21st century,” Ozersay told journalists at a luxurious military recreational facility situated in the middle of the ghost town. “We don’t think it is reasonable or logical to keep this place as a military area with facilities enjoyed by only a few.”
Ozersay was talking about plans to lift the military status of Varosha in stages, give it a special status under Turkish Cypriot control and start reinstating individual property rights through the Immovable Property Commission (IPC) in the northern part of Cyprus, a source close to the matter said.
Work to record the immovable and movable properties, including relics, icons and strongboxes is continuing, while efforts to assess infrastructure like electricity and roads will begin soon, Ozersay added, underlining that they want to move as quickly as possible.
Under its current military status, the IPC has no jurisdiction in Varosha and cases concerning Greek Cypriot properties there are piling up in front of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
“There are over some 500-1,000 applications regarding Varosha,” said the source. “We had to do something. Paying compensation is not a solution. How many hundreds of properties are we going to pay compensation for? How many millions of euros are we going to pay for ruins? Who will benefit from this?”
The IPC was established in 2005 to offer an effective domestic remedy for Greek Cypriot properties in the northern part of Cyprus through restitution, compensation and exchange. However, in 2017 the ECHR ruled that proceedings at the IPC were “protracted and ineffective”.
Most recently, in a case concerning the ineffectiveness of the IPC by KV Mediterranean Tours, which owns property in Varosha, the ECHR has given the Turkish side until November 4 to submit its remarks.
It may not be a coincidence that last week, after a meeting with the head of the Turkish Cypriot coalition Ersin Tatar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about new plans for Varosha and rendering the IPC effective.
In a recent interview that may shed light on the reasoning behind the plans for Varosha, Daryal Batibay, Turkey’s former permanent representative to the Council of Europe, said: “The IPC may propose [to the Greek Cypriot applicants] the return of their properties in Varosha… By doing this, it would reinstitute individual property rights and be considered as an effective domestic remedy by the ECHR … Moreover, the Turkish Cypriot economy would benefit greatly from the reconstruction of Varosha.”
Regarding the loss of use, Batibay said: “There is no way we can pay compensation for the loss of use for hotels in Varosha since 1974. But alternative solutions may be found like providing them with free electricity and water for a certain period, offering tax exemptions or giving them permissions to operate casinos.”
Talking to journalists on Thursday, Ozersay chose his words carefully, saying that the former Greek Cypriot residents of Varosha are their interlocutors and stakeholders but also talking about the rights of Evkaf – the Turkish Cypriot religious foundation that claims to own the majority of properties in the abandoned city.
“If the Evkaf has a claim, it will take this to the IPC just like everyone else,” the source asserted. “The committee will evaluate the evidence and decide who will get the property back and who will be compensated.”
Although very few even among Turkish Cypriots seem to give credit to Evkaf claims over Varosha, appeasing it may turn out to be not as straightforward, as the Islamic foundation has recently been publishing full-page newspaper notices, producing clips, and campaigning and lobbying about Varosha.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Ozersay and the ruling coalition are sincere about letting the Greek Cypriot residents of Varosha return.
“There are no clear answers,” says journalist Mutluyakali. “It seems that the main objective is to enable IPC to have jurisdiction over Varosha, to give the Greek Cypriot owners the chance to apply to have their property back. But will they ever be allowed to return? It’s not clear yet. This move seems more about looking like doing something but not doing anything, instead of not doing anything and leaving Varosha as it is.”
Whether this is an effort to evade legal repercussions, a publicity stunt, an election ploy or a genuine step to serve justice and return Varosha to its longing Greek Cypriot owners remains to be seen.
“When a town dies, many people die,” wrote Mutluyakali in his column in Yeniduzen on Friday. “That many dreams, that many memories die. When a town dies, a thousand dreams die. As I was returning from Varosha, I only could think of one word: Sadness…”