Erdoğan makes “picnic” in ghost town – controversial visit to Northern Cyprus

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The Turkish President Erdoğan visited the coastal settlement of Varosha in Northern Cyprus. The President of the Republic of Cyprus in the south of the island speaks of an “unprecedented provocation”. What is Erdoğan’s goal?

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the coastal settlement of Varosha in Northern Cyprus, which was once inhabited by Greek Cypriots, and thus re-fueled the conflict over the divided Mediterranean island. Erdoğan took part on Sunday in what he himself called a “picnic” in the district of the port city of Famagusta, which was still closed a few weeks ago. Varosha is under the rule of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), which is only recognized by Turkey. It is clear who the “real owners” of Varosha are, Erdoğan said in a joint statement with Northern Cyprus President Ersin Tatar in Varosha.

Tables were set up under a pavilion on the beach, as can be seen on photos. The Turkish President was accompanied by the ultra-nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli, with whose party Erdoğan’s Islamic-conservative AKP has a government alliance in Turkey. The two were greeted by stormy and rainy weather.

“Unprecedented provocation”

The President of the Republic of Cyprus in the south, Nikos Anastasiades, described Erdogan’s visit to the coastal settlement of Varosha as an “unprecedented provocation” on Saturday. He also accused Erdoğan of undermining efforts by the United Nations (UN), which wants to initiate new negotiations to overcome the division of the Mediterranean island.

The seemingly harmless “picnic” is symbolic and further strains relations with Cyprus and Greece, with which Ankara is already fighting over natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean. From the point of view of the EU country Cyprus, Erdoğan’s visit to Varosha is considered a further step towards the final division of the island. In a speech in Lefkosa, northern Cyprus, Erdoğan called for talks on a two-state solution.

Republic of Northern Cyprus only recognized by Turkey

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 after a Greek coup and Turkish military intervention. In the north there is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey; the Republic of Cyprus in the south has been an EU member since 2004. A UN-controlled buffer zone, in which the status quo of 1974 is to be maintained, separates the two parts of the island.

Famagusta in the east of the island is a symbol of division. When the Turkish tanks advanced on the city in August 1974, around 40,000 residents of the Greek Cypriot district of Varosha had to leave their homes.

Leaving Varosha for decades

Varosha was once a popular seaside resort where US actress Elisabeth Taylor vacationed. After the Turkish intervention, the former tourist stronghold was declared a restricted military area. Since then, the area has resembled a ghost town. Hotels and houses are falling into disrepair. For decades, the UN has been demanding that the former residents of the ghost town – almost all Greek Cypriots – can return to their city under the administration of the United Nations.

But despite international criticism, the Turkish Cypriot government opened Varosha partially for the first time since 1974 in early October. A large stretch of beach has since been accessible to holidaymakers and locals. Nicosia suspects that Ankara and the hardliner Tatar will gradually open other parts of Famagusta after the beach and then open them up for settlement – contrary to the resolutions of the UN Security Council.

Clever plan?

Legal professionals in Nicosia see an elaborate scheme behind the actions. Because only the beach was opened and not the city itself, from Ankara’s perspective the status quo was not changed after 1974. In order to make the beach accessible to vacationers and tourists, essential changes had to be made in the ghost town.

Two central streets were re-asphalted in the course of the partial opening and lead through the city to the beach. The Turkish Cypriot government set up bicycle paths and planted trees. The EU has repeatedly criticized this. A further step could be bars, cafes and shops such as rental car companies and travel agencies – and ultimately hotels. That would be like a gradual settlement, so the criticism from Nicosia.

According to analysts, the government of Northern Cyprus, with the support of Ankara, could go further and call on the former residents of Varosha to apply for their property back or for compensation. With that the Greek Cypriots would recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Anyone moving to Famagusta would also have to live under Turkish Cypriot administration. The Greek Cypriots are unlikely to be ready for either.

The solution to the Cyprus question is now a long way off. The aim of the United Nations is to form a federation of two politically equal countries – a Greek-Cypriot in the south and a Turkish-Cypriot in the north. The Turkish Cypriot side has so far called for the formation of a loose confederation with a weak central government. Turkish troops should stay on the island. With the election of the hardliner Tatars as president in October, Northern Cyprus has moved further from its original position anyway. The new president – like Erdogan – advocates a two-state solution.

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