There was a time when the city of Famagusta was the Marbella of the Eastern Mediterranean. What’s more, at the beginning of the 1970s it was one of the most fashionable places on the planet, as witnessed by the passing of the stars of the moment: Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Richard Burton or Raquel Welch. In its hotel district, Varosha, tall concrete buildings rose, convertibles strolled visitors down John F. Kennedy Avenue, and tourists toasted on the beach in the Cyprus sun. Today, Varosha is a ghost town: grass grows through cracks in the asphalt, buildings threaten ruin, rusty traffic lights have long ceased to function, and even palm trees and cacti grow on the ground. hall of the former luxurious Grecian Hotel. The beach is fenced and signs posted by the Turkish Army, which controls that area of Cyprus, warn that entry is prohibited.
“Varosha was our life, and our life was perfect. Tourists came and all the neighbors knew each other by first names. But we lost everything: our homes, our friends, our businesses, ”explains Greek Cypriot Pavlos Iacovu, who still holds the title to a hotel. What turned that tourist paradise into a deserted city was the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus launched in 1974 to protect the Turkish Cypriot community after a coup sponsored by the Military Junta of Greece that sought the annexation of the island. “Before the advance of the Turkish Army in August 1974, we packed a couple of clothes in a suitcase and left Famagusta, thinking that we would return in a few days. But more than 40 years have passed and we are still waiting. All our belongings were left there, the photos, for example … we have no objects left with which to remember what our lives were like before 1974 ”.
The return of the Varosha neighborhood – in the Turkish area and a few kilometers from the line that divides the country in two – to its former owners has been one of the most debated issues between the Government of the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of the North Cyprus (RTNC), the entity that controls the northern third of the island and is only internationally recognized by Turkey. But it was also one of the least thorny issues of the successive – and failed – rounds of negotiations, as both parties agreed that it would be one of the first steps towards a reunification of Cyprus. Moreover, people like Iacovu, from the Famagusta, Our City association, worked together with Turkish Cypriot civil organizations in a plan that contemplated the transfer of control of Varosha to the UN or the Executive of Nicosia to make it an example of coexistence between Turks and Greeks from Cyprus.
And suddenly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived. The Turkish president, who in the 2000s was one of the promoters of the peace negotiations in Cyprus but who in recent years has been submerged in an ultra-nationalist drift, announced on Tuesday the unilateral reopening of Varosha. It is true that the entire city will not be reopened, but only the beach. But there will be military checkpoints – it is an area in the hands of the Turkish Armed Forces – and they have already begun to prepare an entrance and a road to the ghost town. “We hope that all of Maras [el nombre turco de Varosha] be reopened when current works are completed, ”Erdogan said during the announcement. “We know that this decision will upset some,” he added.
Indeed, the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiadis, has called the decision “unacceptable” for violating several United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit any other use of Varosha other than the return to its former inhabitants. There has also been criticism from the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, even more so when the measure announced by Erdogan comes after a European summit in which the door was left open to apply sanctions to Turkey if it continued its belligerent attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There are concerns that this decision will jeopardize the reunification negotiations frozen since the failure of the last attempt three years ago and that, as planned, they should be resumed this month once the elections are held on the Turkish Cypriot side. “It is a step backwards in coexistence and hinders the achievement of peace,” criticizes Okan Dagli, a former Social Democratic MP and member of the Famagusta Initiative.
Because although dozens of onlookers gathered this Thursday to reach the beach of Varosha through the ghost town, the news has been a bomb for the politics of northern Cyprus. The decision was kept secret and the prime minister, the conservative and nationalist Ersin Tatar, did not communicate it to the president of the RTNC, the leftist Mustafa Akinci, nor to his own ministers (the Turkish Cypriot government system is semi-presidential). In protest, the centrist People’s Party, led by the hitherto Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay, has decided to leave the coalition Executive, which could lead to the convening of early parliamentary elections after the presidential elections, whose first round is held this Sunday. The reopening of Varosha “leaves the Turkish Cypriots in a very compromised position vis-à-vis the international community,” President Akinci denounced: “Doing electoralism on an issue as important as Varosha, which falls within the powers of the president, is very wrong ”.
Almost all Turkish Cypriot parties, including some deputies from the nationalist right, have criticized Erdogan’s announcement as, in addition to a blow to the peace negotiations, they see it as unacceptable interference in Sunday’s elections in favor of Tatar, who is It has become Ankara’s bet to maintain control over the TRNC. Tatar leads the voting intention polls for the presidential elections, but without enough advantage to beat Akinci in the first round, so the guidelines of the remaining candidates (the already ex-minister Özersay, among them) could balance the balance.
Akinci and the left-wing parties -the most favorable also to reunification- have been a legislature denouncing Erdogan’s growing interference in Turkish Cypriot politics, something that is causing increasing disaffection towards the Turkish government among parts of a community that had traditionally seen to Ankara as its savior against Greek nationalism.
“What Erdogan has done violates our laws, our Constitution. It may seem normal in Turkey, but it is not normal by our democratic standards in Northern Cyprus. I hope that this Sunday we will teach Erdogan a lesson and his puppet, Tatar, does not win, “says a Turkish Cypriot journalist who requests anonymity and also asks Greek Cypriots for gestures:” Anastasiadis must take steps towards the resolution of the conflict and the establishment of a federal state. Because if we do not advance in the dialogue now and Turkey continues with its policy in northern Cyprus, in four or five years there will not be any of us who are committed to reunification left. “