Turkey Moves to Reopen Part of Northern Cyprus, Increasing Tensions in Region

In a sudden and unexpected move, Turkish authorities have decided to reopen a “dead” part of Famagusta in northern Cyprus, drawing international attention and provoking widespread criticism. This controversial decision comes at a moment when tension is already high in this troubled region of the Eastern Mediterranean; the move per se conceals several political motivations and the timing is by no means accidental.

Famagusta and Varosha

The city of Famagusta and the adjacent coastline town of Varosha used to be one of the most famous tourist resorts in Cyprus until the mid-1970s. With a population of approximately 40,000 residents, Varosha used to attract thousands of tourists every summer, including some of the most famous stars back in the day, like Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot.

All this came to an end with the 1974 Turkish military intervention and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus which has been in effect ever since. After the events of 1974, all the Greek Cypriots residents of Famagusta were forced to abandon their homes and leave the area. Shortly after the occupation of Famagusta, the picturesque area of Varosha was sealed by the Turkish forces and the once attractive tourist destination was instantly turned into a ghost town, a situation that remains unchanged to the present day. The Greek Cypriot population that was pushed to flee their homeland — literally leaving their houses and belongings behind — hoped that at some point it would be possible to return; these hopes have eventually faded away as the decades passed.

Turkey’s Decision to Reopen and the Greek Reaction

Last week Turkish military forces opened up parts of Varosha after 36 years of closure. Once the gates to Varosha were unsealed, numerous visitors that had been lining up from the early hours entered the abandoned zone under widespread Turkish media coverage, in what seemed to be a well-staged political show. Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister, also visited the area later that day. Tatar was the one who announced the plans about reopening Varosha, after coordinating with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the other hand, Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı, has harshly criticized this plan from the very beginning. Akıncı highlighted that such a move would only deteriorate the relations between the two communities of the island, and eventually will prove to be damaging for the Turkish Cypriot population.

Unsurprisingly the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades has described Turkey’s reopening decision as a direct violation of international law and UN Security Council resolutions 550 (1984) and 789 (1992). The Greek side has chosen to adopt a milder approach by condemning the Turkish provocation through an official announcement of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It should be noted that the timing of this move by the Turkish side is certainly not random, considering that after several months of a stalemate in diplomatic negotiations, Ankara and Athens were about to restart exploratory talks, with the top issue on their agenda their dispute over the maritime boundaries between the two countries. Now the Varosha issue presents a remarkable and convenient obstacle for the planned talks.

United Nations Statement

The United Nations Security Council met on October 9 and discussed the Varosha reopening. The Council expressed concerns about the unilateral approach of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot sides and emphasized that a lasting, thorough, and fair resolution, according to the will of the Cypriot people should be the only way forward.

This approach would equally recognize the rights and needs of both sides and abstain from any bilateral action. In this sense the latest opening of Varosha is worrying and the UN Security Council will put an effort to find a solution after negotiating with all sides involved.

Turkey’s Political Motives Behind the Controversial Move

The Varosha reopening took place just of a few days before elections in the northern part of Cyprus. This move was a well-orchestrated maneuver to consolidate the nationalist voices and electoral groups in the election, among the Turkish Cypriot community.

Ersin Tatar, the current Prime Minister of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is offset by his main rival President Akıncı. Tatar is quite popular among hardline voters and is always aiming to attract more nationalist and right-wing supporters; Tatar is also backed by Ankara, being a much more favorable candidate compared to the relatively moderate Akıncı. Tatar also supports a two-state solution for Cyprus, an extravagant claim that has no realistic potential and is only supported by Turkey.

Akıncı, on the other hand, rejects such proposals as unworkable, stressing that this rhetoric can only lead to further tensions and will not improve the current status quo by no means. Following the elections in the self-declared TRNC which took place Sunday night, it seems that Tatar’s plan hit the target; Tatar gained approximately 32.5% of the votes, while Akıncı nabbed a reported 29.7%. Akıncı openly accused his rival of acting on behalf of Ankara, and the final result will be decided next week in the second round of the elections; however the current indicators show that Tatar is likely to be the ultimate winner.