Dila Yalman explores the complex realities of foreign interference into the domestic politics of the divided island of Cyprus.
Welcome to the ghost resort of Cyprus. Crystal water, beach resorts and grand hotels span a few miles of the southern coastline of Cyprus. All shuttered, fenced and overgrown. Until recently, Varosha was securely guarded with metal fencing, entry forbidden, and armed patrols ordered to shoot on site. The previous residents date back 46 years, when the Turkish army advanced, occupied and fenced off the region which welcomed the rich and famous of the 1970s. But in October 2020, the derelict ghost town of Varosha – also referred to as Kapalı Maraş by the Turkish Cypriots – was declared reopened by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October of 2020. This is not the first time that Turkish involvement has dictated the progression of North Cyprus. Increasing hostility between the Greeks and Turkish Cypriots in the 1970s triggered a series of attacks and military coups to overthrow the government, which led to Turkish invasion in 1974 and the division of the country into two states. The UN buffer zones span the width of the island, famously cutting through the last divided capital of the world, Nicosia/Lefkoşa. At present, Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise the Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC). Even prior to the unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which succeeded in a ceasefire and an ongoing peace process, UN and government leaders alike had been in negotiation to solve the Cyprus Problem. Turkey’s intervention into the affairs of this historically complex and fragile country and has since setback progress for a one-state solution. Unconventionally, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are united in their denunciation of Erdoğan’s visit to Maraş; the Greeks claim the region belongs to them and the Turkish Cypriots have protested Turkey’s attempts to subvert their secular way of life. Hundreds took to the streets in October 2020 and many were left angered at this blow to their peace efforts for a united Cyprus. A united Cyprus proposes a single state which aims to reunify the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, whereas a two-state solution legitimises the current status quo of the separately governed island. The two-state stance of Erdoğan was established back in the October 2019 TRNC elections, to benefit his nationalistic ally, Ersin Tatar, the current President. Since Tatar unseated the previously moderate leader, Cyprus has become derailed from the goal of reunifying the island. This has left both Turkish and Greek Cypriot inhabitants angry, generating an inkling of solidarity. However, to understand the unity within division, one must explore TRNC’s weakness as an internationally isolated nation which is prone to the whims of its financial mainstay, Turkey.
Erdoğan’s 2020 announcement that areas of Varosha will be redeveloped by investors from Turkey defies the 1984 UN Security Council resolution which states that only the original inhabitants are to resettle into the region. Varosha will be rebuilt, but within the control of Turkey. Since reopening, Turkey’s dominance has been asserted with Varosha’s main street being renamed from John Kennedy Avenue to Semih Sancar, who was the head of the Turkish military during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Whilst the original residents lose hope of resettling into their former homes, there is a drive to transform Varosha into the “Las Vegas of the Med” which satisfies the wealthy mainland Turks who are otherwise not allowed to gamble in the mainland. Although this stimulates the economy of the region by attracting tourists and investors alike, will most of the city merely become the playground of wealthy Turks? According to an academic paper by Professor Sülün Evinç Torlak, over 200 billion euros in investment is needed for Varosha’s construction. The city has great economic potential which requires labour activity, export and transportation of materials which would develop the local economy. Over 100,000 visitors have already flocked to the region since the reopening of the decaying region, public infrastructure has been implemented to enable access as well as leisure. Bicycle lanes and light restoration leading to the beachfront aim to revitalise the area. However, the restoration efforts require migrant labour from the mainland. TRNC’s secularised way of life, relative to Turkey, is already under threat by the growing population of mainland citizens. The recent election of Tatar may have come as a shock to Turkish Cypriots, but it precedes the changing demographics and attitudes in TRNC. The injection of migrant labour from Turkey to rebuild Varosha could further sway the political balance to the right in the decades to come.
Since the de facto Turkish Cypriot state is only recognised by Turkey, it has been unable to reach the western system for foreign investment. TRNC’s economy has since been reliant on Turkey, especially since they both use Turkish Lira as legal tender. To compensate for weaknesses in the economy Turkey has been known to provide significant financial aid to TRNC over the years. Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to fund the regeneration of Varosha, at the expense of TRNC’s economic freedom and diplomatic ties. Since 2004, the transfer of funds to TRNC’s budget has left the country’ economy dependent on Turkey. Between 2004 and Dila Yalman explores the complex realities of foreign interference into the domestic politics of the divided island of Cyprus. We’re All in This Together 2013 alone, TRNC had a constant budget deficit, peaking at 14% of Gross National Product (GNP) in 2009. The constant borrowing of up to 12.2% of GNP from Turkey has racked up TRNC’s debt to 23 million liras, standing at 1.5 times the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Erdoğan’s vested interest in hydrocarbon drilling on the coast of Cyprus goes a long way to explain why Turkey is consistently funnelling investment into the small nation. The discovery of huge gas reserves in the Mediterranean has fuelled a race between Turkey, Greece, France and Italy to tap into Cyprus’ valuable resources. Predominantly, the drilling sites sit in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Greek Cyprus, which is a European Union (EU) Member. Unphased, Erdoğan has continued to antagonise the actors involved in negotiations by beginning its hydrocarbon explorations.
Greek Cyprus’ alliance with the EU may provide greater diplomatic backing, with the EU examining sanctions against Turkey in March 2021 over its activities in EU waters. However, Erdoğan’s weaponisation of the refugee crisis and its controversial ties with other states have deterred immediate EU response and continues to intensify Turkey’s illegitimate engagement in Eastern European waters. Despite the critical role of the EU to normalise Turkish-Greek relations in Cyprus, their hesitancy has only exacerbated the gap in diplomatic relations. The EU is failing to intimidate Erdoğan who continues to exploit Cyprus’ hydrocarbon reserves at the expense of the island’s future federal continuation as a united nation. Backlash by the Greeks, who feel betrayed by their allies, are now strongly considering the two-state solution, with Varosha’s reopening as the final nail in the coffin. But what does this mean for the future of TRNC, as an internationally isolated nation which is prone to the whims of its financial mainstay? In the short term, both sides of the island need each other for economic recovery post-pandemic. However, with the island united in agreement, yet divided by their puppeteer’s rivalries, successful cooperation is appearing a long way off. Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean need to be eased and strategies put aside to enable the island to unite in their time of need. But these changes on the ground may become irreversible, especially as the common vision of unification is becoming a faded memory.