It has been a few months since Varosha was last in the news but after last weekend’s highly-publicised meeting of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials and lawyers at Sandy Beach the future of the fenced off part of the town became the major topic of debate once again. The meeting discussed the inventory on the buildings and other infrastructure carried out by the Turkish Cypriot regime in the last few months, after a highly-publicised visit to the fenced-off area last August by Kudret Ozersay – while he was still deputy head of the coalition ‘government’ – accompanied by a group of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot journalists.
Last weekend the roundtable meeting, attended by Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay, was organised by the Turkish Union of Bar Associations, perhaps so that nobody could claim the opening of the town was being used as an election issue in the north. It should, however, cause concern that the meeting was organised by Turkish lawyers and attended by Turkey’s Vice President, as this could have indicated the opening of the town has become an exclusively Turkish matter, with the Turkish Cypriots removed from the equation even though some attended the meeting.
Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci wasted no time in expressing his objections about the latest initiative which he described as “very faulty in terms of participation, scope and timing.” He felt that any steps taken should be in line with international law and not cause a dispute with the UN, while insisting the meeting, to which he had not been invited, was an electoral ploy. The leader of the Republican Turkish party and candidate in April’s elections Tufan Erhurman also objected to the fact the meeting was organised by Turks and had excluded Akinci. “Turkey should be talking to us and not for us,” said Erhurman during a television debate.
The reality though, underlined by last weekend’s meeting, is that Turkey is increasingly talking on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots and is becoming increasingly intolerant of Turkish Cypriots not toeing Ankara’s line, as the recent scathing attacks on Akinci showed. The Erdogan government was not going to consult Akinci before deciding to reopen the fenced-off town of Varosha. After all, it will not be the Turkish Cypriots that would provide the capital for its rebuilding or administer it once it was opened. It will be a Turkish project, funded and managed by Turkish businesses, reminding uppity Turkish Cypriot politicians like Akinci who is calling the shots.
It is probably this realisation that unsettled President Anastasiades, who dismissed last week’s meeting as “unacceptable” and vowed “not to bow to the blackmail of third parties.” On a more practical level, Anastasiades said in an interview with Euronews on Friday that Cyprus would block EU financial assistance to the Turkish Cypriots and funds for Turkey if Ankara opened Varosha for settlement. He had reportedly informed the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of this intention at a meeting on Thursday. Admittedly, this is not going to happen in the next few months as nobody knows when Turkey would open Varosha.
Anastasiades had also written to the UN Secretary-General proposing the establishment of a bicommunal committee on Varosha that would discuss its reconstruction. He reportedly also handed a letter to von der Leyen requesting EU funds for studies to be carried out by the committee on the redevelopment of the derelict town. It is a good move even though it has been left too late and is unlikely to be accepted by Turkey, which seems to have no desire for joint initiatives or to endorse a bicommunal group that would exclude her from the decision-making.
The Cyprus government is in a corner, from which there seems to be only one way out. Whoever we turn to for help will offer the same advice Anastasiades has been hearing whenever he complains about Turkey’s aggressive behaviour – ‘solve the Cyprus problem’. This appears to have been the message from Brussels. The President of the European Council Charles Michel told Anastasiades he would contact the UN Secretary-General as soon as possible to ask how the EU could assist in efforts to solve the Cyprus problem. He did not offer to fund a bicommunal committee on Varosha because for the EU like the rest of the international community there is only one way to end the violations of the Cypriot EEZ and stop Turkish plans to open Varosha.
Whether a settlement could still be achieved in the foreseeable future is questionable.