As the world looks elsewhere, Erdogan makes Varosha a Muslim city.
Immersed in its own nest of problems, the Arab World has paid little attention to what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been doing in the nearby island of Cyprus, divided due to Turkish occupation since 1974. In addition to offshore drilling in Cypriot waters, which has received its fair share of media coverage, the Turkish leader has been silent re-opening the ghost town of Varosha, an abandoned southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, with plans to transform it into a Muslim-majority town. Its original inhabitants were almost entirely Christian, and they fled with the Turkish invasion nearly of 1974. According to UNSCR 550, only the original habitants of Varosha are allowed to return to their homes, but Erdogan it seems, has other plans.
He wants to transform it into a hub for Turkish investors and tourism, while changing its demographics and populating it with Turkish Muslims. Once through with his scheme, he hopes to give permanent residency status or Turkish Cypriot citizenship to those newcomers, tipping the religious balance of Cyprus between Muslims and Christians. Two years ago, he defied the UN by sending his agents to Varosha, ostensibly to carry out an inventory of abandoned buildings, churches, and government offices. Then in August 2019, he invited Turkish journalists to the town, followed by the Turkish Bar Association. Since last October, around 10,000 “visitors” have been admitted to Varosha, inching the town dangerously close to becoming a Turkish colony. Erdogan justifies his actions by saying that a big share of Varosha’s territory (1,472 titles out of 6,082) belongs to the Turkish Department of Religious Endowments (Awqaf), dating back to the Ottoman era in 1571. This includes crown land and the entire seaside, he says. That territory belongs to a deceased Ottoman official named Abdullah Pasha, and not to Greek Cypriots. Abdullah Pasha made the land an endowment to the Ottoman state, a legal pretext that remains binding as of 2021. He plans to eventually take the matter to court, a process that can last for years, and would require determining the price of the areas in-dispute, and then, paying compensation money for their original owners, depending on who wins the case.
The Ersin Tatar Factor
Backing his claim for Varosha is the recently elected President of Turkish Cyprus, Ersin Tatar, a protégé of the Turkish president who has vowed to transform Varosha into another Las Vegas. Erdogan moved heaven and earth to make him president last October, replacing Mustafa Akinci, a man who had vowed never to re-open Varosha unless through a negotiated deal with the Government of Cyprus. Akinci had famously said: “Instead of living side by side with a corpse, let Verosha become a lively city where people live, where contractors from both communities do business together, and where young people can find jobs.” But that should only happen, he added, under a federal roof—never unilaterally.
Erdogan despised Akinci, who was vocally opposed to Turkey’s violation of Cyprus waters and its 2019 invasion of northern Syria. That certainly was not what Erdogan expected from Akinci when he was made president of Turkish Cyprus in 2015. He was recently quoted saying: “He should know his place. His post was given to him through the Republic of Turkey.” Unseating him was not too difficult for Turkish President, however, thanks to the immense political, economic, and military influence that he enjoys in Turkish Cyprus, along with 35,000 troops. The current president, Ersin Tatar has warmly embraced the unilateral re-opening of Varosha, considering parts of it now an open region for Turkish tourists and investors.
It is interesting to see how Turkish plans for Varosha have developed, from initial insistence that they had no intention but to inventory the area, into current ambitions into making it a regional Las Vegas. Erdogan is using Varosha as a bargaining chip to increase his clout in all Turkey-related talks across the region, which he wants intertwined. That is exactly what his predecessor Kenan Evren had said, when he was commander of the Turkish unit that entered the city occupied it back in 1974. “Taking Varosha was not among our targets and planning. When the Greek Cypriots started firing, our soldiers followed, and the city came under our control without our wish. We closed it to civilians in order to use it in later negotiations.” And that is exactly what Erdogan is doing today. The Turkish President is in battle mood, especially after his most recent victories in Libya against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan episode proves just how far he is willing to go to support his regional ambitions, and allies. He feels that due to sheer bullying, Turkey maintains the upper hand in its relationship with Europe. They will never take real action against him, fearing that he will drown Europe with refugees, a threat that he has repeatedly made. “You may take this lightly,” he once said, “but these doors to Europe will open and these ISIS members will be sent to you. Do not try to threaten Turkey over developments in Cyprus.”
Seeing that Turkish membership talks with the EU are going nowhere, he has no incentive whatsoever, to back down on Cyprus. The State Department has frequently expressed concern over Erdogan’s actions, but under the now former Trump Administration, no steps were made at ending his expansionism. With Joe Biden now at the White House that ought to change, given the new American President’s well-known criticism of Erdogan’s ambitions and support for regional non-state players with a jihadi agenda. Now with Akinci out of the way, Erdogan’s next step is to bring down Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, whose term expires in 2023. Constitutionally he is incapable of seeking a third term, which is music to Erdogan’s ears since he too was in favor of reconciliation with Turkish Cyprus, and a negotiated deal on Varosha. The international community regards Anastasiades as a brave leader who went out of his way at trying to find a way out of the historic crisis, famously agreeing to peace talks in Switzerland back in 2017 and more recently, offering to share 30% of energy revenue with Turkish Cyprus but only if Ankara recognized Nicosia’s energy exploration rights. He had offered Erdogan a federal union with a joint senate in Cyprus composed of 40 MPs (20 Greek and 20 Turkish Cypriots). The talks also explored the idea of a lower house of parliament, composed of 36 Greeks and 12 Turkish Cypriots. Both suggestions, however, were flatly rejected by Ankara. Erdogan has a hard time dealing with moderates and would love to see a hardliner get elected instead of Anastasiades, but it is too early to predict who will come next.
Erdogan is betting upon one thing, which is complete lack of EU/American appetite to confront him. In as much as they would like to sanction Turkey for what they believe is terrorist-linked activity across the region, they are also aware of the fact that they need Turkey to prevent the reoccurrence of the exact same activity in the future. Much of Erdogan recent bravado is derived from the null reaction of the Americans, whether in defense of Saudi Arabia after the 2019 attack on Aramco, or of the Kurds after the Turkish invasion of the Syrian northeast that October. Unlike Syria, however, there is no Russian superpower calling the shots in Cyprus. And he considers Turkish Cyprus as his own backyard—a matter of life and death for his regional influence, future ambitions, economic need, and legacy.