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Wanting Recognition, Turkey Plans Reopening Cyprus' Varosha Ghost Town

Αssociated Press

FILE - A general view of the town as Kudret Ozersay, the foreign minister of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, and Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visit to the uninhabited Famagusta suburb of Varosha, in the breakaway, Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool)

Turkey's on-again, off-again plans to reopen the abandoned ghost town Varosha on the side of Cyprus occupied during an unlawful 1974 invasion appear to be on again after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque, as he hikes provocations.

The town, left as it was 46 years ago and supposed to stay that way under a United Nations resolution barring its resettlement nevertheless could see Turkish-Cypriots moving in if the crumbling infrastructure can be repaired.

The plan would see resettlement and open to investors in an apparent bid to win international recognition of the self-declared Turkish- Cypriot Republic no other country in the world recognizes, said a financial news agency Bloomberg feature.

That's seemingly a bid by Erdogan to further stoke his nationalist base after reunification talks at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana fell apart in July, 2017 when Erdogan and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said a 35,000-strong army on occupied side would never be removed and as they demanded the right of further military intervention when they want.

With the talks scuttled and the COVID-19 pandemic preventing any further negotiations, along with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades' refusal to sit down again unless Turkey withdraws energy drilling ships from Cypriot waters, Turkey has turned to Varosha again.

Under the plan, Turkish-Cypriots will take over the properties in the town which was famous in the 1960s and 1970s – up to the invasion – for resorts and a celebrity hotspot drawing the rich and famous and jet setters.

OWNERSHIP DISPUTE

That ended with the occupation and only Turkish troops and officials have set foot in the town, but Erdogan and Akinci said reviving it would provide a much-needed economic stimulus to the ailing Turkish-Cypriot side, which is not in the European Union as is the legitimate government on the Greek-Cypriot side.

“There should be dialogue between the two communities on the island on all issues: Varosha, property issues and energy resources around the island,” a spokesman for Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, told the news agency.

“If the Greek-Cypriots want to come, claim their property, pay for it, run businesses, etc., it will be possible,” once legal issues are resolved, Kalin said as the fury over the seas hasn't subsided.

Investment in trade and tourism in the town would imply recognition of Turkey’s control, the report said, giving another victory to Erdogan in further defiance of the UN, although the reopening could see the end of reunification hopes.

Varosha is a mess of crumbling buildings, car showrooms with 1974 models inside, broken water pipes, utilities that don't work and would be an expensive fix for Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots to fix.

Ersin Tatar, the self-declared prime minister of the breakaway Turkish enclave, told CNN-Turk that more than 200 applications to reclaim properties in Varosha have been submitted and are being reviewed.

It appeared the plan would go ahead in February but then the pandemic hit and the world essentially stopped.

FIXING THE MESS

At the time,Turkey said reopening the town where everything has been in place since the invasion, the infrastructure deteriorating, would be an historic opportunity to bring tourism and economic benefits, said Reuters.

Ringed by a fence which extends into the sea, the former holiday resort has been off limits to anyone but the Turkish military since its 39,000 Greek Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops.

Speaking in Varosha after touring the area, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said opening Varosha would have benefits for tourism, the economy and trade.

"Keeping this coast of paradise under the sovereignty of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus idle is not acceptable legally, politically or economically," Oktay said then.

Turkish and northern Cypriot officials were continuing their inventory efforts there, he said. "There is unfortunately an abandoned area here as well as rotting buildings. Our hope is that Varosha is revived in a way that will revitalise the economic, trade and social life here," he added.

In a feature in October, 2019, the British newspaper The Telegraph said if Turkey can make it happen that a revitalized Varosha could be a playground again, if you don’t mind going to an occupied land for partying and fun.

Varosha “will become Las Vegas again,” Tatar said, and all the trappings are there to make it happen unless the infrastructure is unsafe and too far gone.

Land claims by thousands of Greek-Cypriots would be taken into account, but Tatar said preference would go to conflicting claims by Islamic religious organizations dating back to British Colonial rule of the island, paving the way for Turkey to take it all.

At the time, Anastasiades said the plan was “completely unacceptable,” and undermined hopes of bringing the island together again, a graveyard for lines of envoys thinking they could make it happen.

Around 45,000 Greek Cypriots had to flee the area during the war between the two sides and they still own land and property in the sprawling ghost town, which is situated on the southern edge of the port city of Famagusta.