Varosha: From Ghost Town to Picnic Place

By Sotiris Paphitis

The island of Cyprus has been torn in two since the illegal military invasion of 1974. The invasion resulted in thousands of deaths, missing persons, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced. One of the peculiarities of the invasion was the town of Varosha, a district of the city of Famagusta, which remained abandoned from 1974 onwards. Before the clash between forces of the Cypriot National Guard and the Turkish army, the entire population of the area fled out of fear of the possibility of massacres taking place. By the time that the conflict had subsided the Turkish army had ceased control of the area and had managed to fence it off. Access is only permitted for Turkish military and UN personnel ever since.

This has lead to the gradual deterioration of buildings and everything else man-made and the reclaiming of the area by nature. This was also the reason why the area obtained the nickname of ‘ghost town’ which remains today. It should be noted that the international community had made attempts to rectify the situation, the most important of which is the United Nations’ Security Council Resolution 550. The Resolution condemned all attempts to settle the area by anyone other than its lawful residents and called the Turkish army to pass control to the UN peace force. Even though such Resolutions have a binding character on all UN member states, including Turkey, their position remained unaltered. Attempts by inhabitants have also been made in other international fora, the most important being in the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has made numerous rulings against Turkey and in favour of former Varosha residents, who have been complaining, among others, for the deprivation of their properties.

Despite all the efforts made, the problem has been unresolved for 46 years now. Consequently, the state of Varosha has remained unaltered and which has left its former residents with no remedy for the permanent violation of their rights over their homeland.

Following the collapse of another round of peace talks, held in 2017, a relative standstill came to pass. Despite the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over maritime borders between the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, no significant developments did take place with respect to the Cyprus problem or Varosha.

This was going to change with the presidential elections of the self-proclaimed state in the island’s north. The so-called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) was ruled since 2015 by  Mustafa Akıncı, a moderate politician, who had made genuine attempts for compromise and reconciliation. Akıncı was standing for re-election in October 2020 against the conservative-oriented Ersin Tatar. Following two rounds of voting, and with less than 4500 votes in difference Tatar was proclaimed as TRNC’s 5th president.

The new president had expressed his views on the Cyprus problem from early on, calling for the abandonment of reunification efforts and opting instead for a ‘two-state solution’ – meaning that the occupied north would receive total independence and international recognition. On the 6th of October, less than a week before the elections, in an event held together with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Tatar announced his intentions to reopen the ghost town of Varosha.

Indeed, following his win, the rhetoric was intensified. It was announced that, in an effort to add insult to injury, Erdoğan would make a visit to the newly reopened area on the 15th of November – the anniversary of the TRNC’s unilateral declaration of independence. The visit was going to have a relaxed character – it was going to be a picnic – the occupying authorities stated.

The event took place as planned and it can be regarded as an event that will stigmatise Greco-Turkish relations in the years to come. That visit caused a plethora of reactions on both sides of the island. Greek-Cypriot refugees were filled with frustration over what they perceived to be a mockery of their rights, which have been continuously violated since 1974. On the other hand, a fair share of the Turkish-Cypriot population also reacted negatively to an event which they viewed as an arrogant dismissal of human rights and peace efforts.

The so-called picnic had another painful symbolism for Turkish-Cypriots. It exemplified the ever-increasing interference of the Turkish state into what they regard as Turkish-Cypriot matters. Given the fact that the TRNC is recognised as an independent state only by Turkey, their motherland has also been acting as an economic lifeline. This economic dependency combined with the presence of a 40,000 strong Turkish army in the north of the island, always made Turkish-Cypriot leaders somewhat reliant. Hence, Turkish governments have had a free hand to act as they saw fit in the occupied part of the island, treating their compatriots as a puppet-state. This interventionism reached its nadir during this year’s elections. Several reports from international media outlets stated that Turkish officials were touring the north, interfering with voters in order to secure a victory for the Turkish president’s favourite, Mr Tatar. After all, President Erdoğan was less than willing to risk a victory of the then-incumbent president, Mr Akıncı, who stood as a threat against Turkish control and who had repeatedly clashed with Ankara.

Therefore, Varosha and the rights of its legal residents were treated as a pawn in Turkey’s political games. This so-called ‘picnic’ not only infringed even further on the rights of the Greek-Cypriots who lost their livelihoods 46 years ago but it also came as a blow to international rule of law. It represented the ever-decreasing loss of the Turkish-Cypriot community’s right to control their own fate. The final section of this piece will analyse how this behaviour fits into the wider puzzle of Turkish interventionism in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One must bear in mind that these recent incidents in Cyprus are not isolated. They are part of a much wider behavioural pattern that has been unfolding for at least the past decade. This strategy involves Turkey gaining greater influence in the states of the Eastern Mediterranean/ Middle East, either by putting boots on the ground or by exerting other forms of pressure and control. Reasonably, this has come at the cost of a number of states’ national sovereignty and in detriment of thousands if not millions of persons’ rights.

The international community has only now started to realise the dangers of this policy. The US and EU have started taking some action in the form of limited sanctions but these will inevitably prove to be too little too late. In the absence of clear and decisive actions to stop this neo-Ottoman attitude anything else is unlikely to prevent further abuses of human rights.

The list of examples continues with reports from Nagorno-Karabakh, northern Iraq and a number of other Arab and Northern African countries. These are all the products of an aggressive foreign policy that has been intensifying in the past decade. A policy that pays little respect to human rights and the rule of law. Varosha has only been one of the dimensions this ever-expanding policy has taken.

The question is where does it stop?

Sotiris Paphitis