Authorities in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus announced on Tuesday a partial reopening of an abandoned town for potential resettlement, drawing a strong rebuke from Greek Cypriot and international leaders including the United States.
Varosha, an eerie collection of derelict high-rise hotels and residences, has been deserted since a 1974 war that split the island, a military zone nobody has been allowed to enter.
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Northern Cyprus authorities opened a small area for day visits in November 2020, and on Tuesday said a part of it would be converted to civilian use with a mechanism in place for people to potentially reclaim their properties.
“A new era will begin in Maras which will benefit everyone,” said Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who was visiting breakaway Northern Cyprus on Tuesday. Maras is the Turkish name for Varosha.
“We don’t have another 50 years to waste,” Erdogan told a crowd at a parade to mark the 47th anniversary of his country’s invasion that divided the Mediterranean island.
He was referring to decades of failed UN-led efforts to reunite Cyprus.
“No progress can be made in negotiations without accepting that there are two peoples and two states with equal status,” he said.
Greek Cypriot leaders fear a change to the area’s status displays a clear intent of Turkey to appropriate it. Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades described the move as “unacceptable”.
“It alters or is an attempt to alter the status quo,” he said.
Greece’s foreign ministry said it condemned the move “in the strongest terms”.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said the decision “is clearly inconsistent with UN Security Council resolutions” that “explicitly call for Varosha to be administered by the United Nations.”
“The United States views Turkish Cypriot actions in Varosha, with the support of Turkey, as provocative, unacceptable, and incompatible with their past commitments to engage constructively in settlement talks,” he said.
“We urge Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to reverse their decision announced today and all steps taken since October 2020.”
We condemn the decision to have Turkish Cypriots take control over parts of Varosha, which is inconsistent with UN resolutions, unacceptable, and incompatible with past commitments to resume settlement talks. We urge a reversal of this decision and steps taken since Oct. 2020.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 21, 2021
‘Risks raising tensions’
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also expressed his concern.
“[The] unilateral decision announced today by President Erdogan and [Northern Cyprus leader Ersin] Tatar risks raising tensions on the island & compromising return to talks on a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue,” he said on Twitter.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Turkey’s announcement ran “contrary to UN Security Council resolutions” and risked “undermining the Cyprus Settlement process”.
United Nations resolutions call for Varosha to be handed over to UN administration and to allow people to return to their homes.
Anastasiades said that if Turkey’s “real concern was returning properties to their legal owners … they should have adopted UN resolutions and hand the city over to the UN, allowing them to return in conditions of safety.”
Peace efforts have repeatedly floundered, and a new Turkish Cypriot leadership, backed by Turkey, says a peace accord between two sovereign states is the only viable option.
Deeply concerned by President Erdogan's announcement on partial reopening of Varosha. This runs contrary to UN Security Council resolutions & risks undermining the Cyprus Settlement process. We are discussing this urgently with Security Council members. https://t.co/aWmzMKjXnA
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) July 20, 2021
The government of the Republic of Cyprus, backed by the European Union, rejects a two-state deal for the island which would accord sovereign status to Northern Cyprus state that only Ankara recognises.
Varosha has always been regarded as a bargaining chip for Ankara in any future peace deal, and one of the areas widely expected to have been returned to Greek Cypriot administration in a settlement.
The Turkish Cypriot move rendered that assumption more uncertain.