NICOSIA – With Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders set to meet in the coming days for UN-sponsored “informal” talks on their island’s future, a highly unusual asset will be high on the agenda: Europe’s largest ghost town.

The fenced-off and abandoned Famagusta suburb of Varosha – once one of the most popular beach resorts in the Mediterranean – is now central to negotiations on Cyprus’ political future.

Where those negotiations go, however, has been thrown into doubt by recent moves by the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaderships.

They are now set to reopen the crumbling and decaying resort – despite a brace of UN resolutions saying they cannot – and outrage from Greek Cypriots and their European and United States allies.

This move comes, too, after last October’s election of Ersin Tatar, a close ally of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as leader of the Turkish Cypriots.

Both Tatar and Erdogan support abandoning the goal of some five decades of UN-sponsored Cyprus talks, which have always aimed at reunifying the de facto divided island.

Instead, both men favor permanently carving out separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot states.

“Conditions have now changed,” Tatar told local media in late November. “It is time to draw a new roadmap. We don’t want to waste any more time.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar make a joint statement in the fenced-off eastern town of Varosha, in the Turkish-held north of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, on November 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Birol Bebek

The road on that new map now runs right along Varosha’s derelict streets.

Empty and under Turkish military control since Anakara’s 1974 invasion of the island, “two states” would likely mean this resort being permanently transferred to Turkish and Turkish Cypriot control.

Estimated to be worth around US$100 billion – and likely far more, if it were ever to regain its leading place in regional tourism – Varosha’s 6,450 building plots, including 45 hotels, 60 apartment-hotels, 21 banks, 99 restaurants, cafes, bars and night clubs, and thousands of villas and apartments are, however, mostly owned by Greek Cypriots.

Some 40,000 of these fled Varosha and the surrounding districts of Famagusta when Turkish tanks rolled into town 46 years ago, and have never been allowed back since.

Now, though, these former inhabitants have been invited by the Turkish Cypriot leadership to either resettle in their crumbling homes under Turkish Cypriot authority, or sell them on to the resort’s former inhabitants – a call that has stirred great angst and anger.

“This is our land built by our fathers and forefathers centuries ago,” former inhabitant and historian Anna Marangou said in a recent video protesting the Turkish Cypriot leadership’s moves. “Famagusta belongs to our children and grandchildren, it does not belong to you Mr. Erdogan, nor to investors from Turkey.”

With this move on Varosha and the call for two states, prospects for a resolution of the Cyprus dispute now look bleaker than ever. Meanwhile, the continued lack of a resolution on Cyprus impacts a range of other confrontations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

These range from arguments over maritime boundaries, which crucially would be drastically altered by a shift to two states on the island, to a growing range of regional strategic rivalries.

These pit Turkey – a would-be disruptor of the status quo – against defenders of the current balance including European Union (EU) states France, Greece and Cyprus, plus Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“Varosha is really far more than just a beach resort,” says Ioannis Pavlouvou, whose father owned a café on one of Varosha’s most prestigious avenues, back in the day. “It’s the whole tragedy of this part of the world, all wrapped up into one.”

Divided Island

The 1974 invasion, mounted by Turkey following a Greek-backed coup aimed at joining the independent island to Greece, also sealed a de facto division of Cyprus that remains to this day.

Now, there is a largely Greek Cypriot south, the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (ROC), and a Turkish Cypriot north.

In 1983, the north declared unilateral independence, creating the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC), which has since only been recognized by Turkey.

Abandoned buildings along a street in Varosha in the fenced-off area of Famagusta in the Turkish-occupied north of the divided eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Photo by Birol Bebek/AFP

Varosha, meanwhile, has remained under Turkish military control, but within the TRNC. UN resolutions have since demanded it be placed under UN control and reopened to its original inhabitants.

Yet Turkey has kept it firmly closed.

“I don’t think they have any particular regard for UN resolutions,” says Achilleas Demetriades, a Nicosia-based lawyer who has long-pursued the Varosha issue.

Just before the elections that brought Tatar to power in the north, Turkish Cypriot authorities opened a road in the resort, enabling civilians to access Varosha’s beaches.

Following Tatar’s victory, he and Erdogan both visited the beach, while cycle lanes and more roads have also now been opened.

“Whereas before, the Turkish military commander (CO) would grant individuals access, now this has been generalized,” says Erol Kaymak, professor of international relations at the TRNC’s Eastern Mediterranean University.

“There’s clearly an expectation that this is a first step, and the next step would be to transfer jurisdiction from the military CO to Turkish Cypriot civilian control.”

This would enable the Greek Cypriot owners of property there to appeal to the Turkish Cypriot Immovable Property Commission (IPC), a body recognized by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as able to grant restitution, compensation or exchange of Greek Cypriot property in the TRNC.

While the ROC government strongly advises Greek Cypriots to refrain from any such moves – government spokesman Kyriacos Kousios recently declaring it “the last nail in the coffin of the Cyprus problem” – Demetriades has advised owners to “call Turkey’s bluff, go back and claim their land and claim for loss of use.”

While this debate still rages amongst Greek Cypriots, some 300 Greek Cypriot applications have already been received, according to Tatar. On November 25, the Turkish Cypriot leader also said that he would continue “until the last square meter of Varosha” was re-opened.

New Territories

“Nowadays, Turkey believes it has power,” says Mertkan Hamit, from the Turkish Cypriot nongovernmental organization Famagusta Initiative, “and it can push to get whatever it wants.”

Indeed, under Erdogan, Turkey has been broadly challenging the regional status quo, from Libya to Syria and in the waters off of Cyprus and Greece.

This strategy has also recently been boosted by the success Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan had in its winning conflict with Armenia over the contested Nagorno Karabakh (NK) enclave.

“After NK, we started to hear this term ‘realities’” adds Hamit. “My concern is Turkey is trying to create new ‘realities’ around the region and Varosha is one of them.”

People appear on streets of the abandoned town in Varosha after the city reopened for public use after 46 years on October 8, 2020. Photo: Gokhan Yilmaz / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Indeed, Turkey’s new shift to a two-state solution may also be part of “Erdogan aiming high and trying to break the mold,” says Kaymak.

By rejecting reunification of the island – a comprehensive solution to Cyprus’ division – Turkey is also “opening up the possibility of piecemeal deals,” Kaymak adds.

One of those deals might be over Varosha, while another might be over control of hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean.

Discoveries in waters claimed by the ROC and Turkey are a major flashpoint, with Turkish warships and research vessels currently patrolling offshore exploration blocks also assigned by the ROC to international oil majors such as ExxonMobil, Total and ENI.

This, in turn, has brought French and Greek warships in to support the ROC, while Egypt and the UAE have also backed Greek Cypriot claims, conducting joint naval exercises off the Egyptian port of Alexandria in early December.

The stakes are therefore rising, with Cyprus and Varosha now also pieces in this brewing wider regional confrontation.

Back on the island, hopes are dim on either side that the forthcoming UN-sponsored, “informal” talks will make any progress.

“Half a century has passed waiting for the ideal solution and many Greek Cypriots from Varosha are no longer alive,” says Okan Dagli, also from the Famagusta Initiative. “We will keep hoping but my fear is the permanent partition of our island.”