NICOSIA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to reopen a beach in the abandoned once-famous resort of Varosha on the occupied side of Cyprus got elected a hardliner leader he backed but is seeing hopes to reunify the island divided by an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion just about gone.
In elections for a leader, Erdogan threw his weight behind ultra-nationalist Ersin Tatar, the self-declared premier of the occupied territory, who ousted incumbent moderate Mustafa Akinci – who had occasionally defied the Turkish President.
A delighted Erdogan said he planned at some point to have a picnic on the beach that fronts a crumbling town of hotels, restaurants, shops, car dealerships with 1974 models still inside and a deteriorating infrastructure.
The Cypriot is a member of the European Union that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005, while not recognizing the Cypriot side and barring its ships and planes, the occupied side unaccepted officially by any other country.
Cypriots fear Erdogan's next move will be to make good on his pledge to restore the whole town in defiance of United Nations resolutions saying only the original inhabitants – mostly Greek-Cypriots – could return to their homes and properties.
Erdogan has shown only contempt for the UN whose Secretary-General Antonio Guterres failed to broker a deal when 2017 negotiations at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana collapsed.
Turkey is also ignorning soft EU sanctions imposed for Turkish ships drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters and Erdogan has grown emboldened after no penalties were made for his order to conver the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque.
After Greece and Cyprus pulled back demands for sanctions over Turkish drilling in Cypriot waters and moving into Greek waters, Erdogan forged ahead unimpeded and seems set to make Varosha a Turkish playground.
In a feature, the British newspaper The Guardian noted how residents on both sides of the island have longed for Varosha to return to its glory and want reunification while politicians for decades have played power games instead.
Greek-Cypriots have been invited to the beach front as well, the paper said, as well as other visitors although nothing else is open and the backdrop is a grim dystopian vision of a town in ruins and tatters.
Pavlos Iakovou was 17 when he met his wife, Tuolla, at the Edelweiss cafe in Famagusta, the fashionable Cypriot holiday resort where his family owned a hotel and they came back to Varosha for the first time in 46 years.
It had been sealed off as a militarized zone open only to Turkey's armed forces and politicians and officials before Erdogan reopened the beach to the support of Tatar who said he will take his marching orders from Ankara.
“When we left in 1974 we thought we’d be gone for two or three days at the most,” Iakovou told the paper. “This is a bittersweet experience. We always refused to sell the hotel and now I can visit it. But now I don’t think we are ever going to have a solution to reunite the island.”
On Oct. 29, a holiday marking the founding of modern Turkey, tourists from Turkey walked the crumbled streets to take photos in front of hotels where the likes of actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot once stayed.
A handful of Varosha’s main roads and 200 meters (656.17 feet) of beachfront were opened in the election stunt to bring Tatar his win and give Erdogan his straw man on the island.
“We had put forward careful plans to reopen Varosha in a way that is considerate of the needs of former inhabitants, in line with international law and keeps the international community informed of what’s going on, but the way this was done was terrible … for the sake of Mr. Tatar’s election campaign,” said Kudret Özersay, who calls himself the foreign minister of the occupied side.
His party, the junior member of the governing coalition, withdrew in protest at the move in the run-up to the election, bringing down the then prime minister Tatar’s cabinet – a development that could result in early parliamentary elections next year.
“This is a turning point for North Cyprus, especially if Turkish involvement compromises our democratic process like this again,” he added, using the name only Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots called the occupied land they said is a republic.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said he would talk with Tatar but that's likely to be a photo opportunity as the new Turkish-Cypriot leader already said he doesn't want reunification but a two-state island that would leave his side continuing to be isolated on the world stage.
Erdogan said he'll come to Nicosia and then Varosha on Nov. 15 to mark the anniversary of Turkey declaring the occupied land its own republic but he'll walk the same streets of isolated desolation.
Taking selfies in front of the trees and vines that have engulfed the King George hotel, Süleyman Ergen, who moved from Hatay to work as a delivery driver in Nicosia five years ago, was confident those obstacles could be overcome.
He told The Guardian in what could presage the end of reunification long-dashed hopes that have seen the island called the “graveyard of diplomats,” that, “This is Turkey’s destiny. This is where Turkey will have a new beginning.”