Saturday, 29 August 2015

Land for Peace (The Cyprus Weekly, 28 August 2015)

Esra Aygin

For a couple of unusually windy weeks after the crossing points opened in 24 April 2003, my sister-in-law from mainland Turkey cleaned her small house in Kyrenia day in and day out in case its Greek Cypriot owners decided to visit. The house was given to my parents after they fled Limassol in 1974, by Turkish Cypriot authorities for the property they had left there, and was inherited by my brother. The Greek Cypriot owner of the small house - surrounded once by lemon orchards and multiple-storey apartments now – did visit. When he went into the room where his five-year-old daughter used to sleep in 1974, he found that it still looked like a little girl’s room because now, my brother’s five-year-old slept there. He had coffee, picked lemons from his tree in the garden and left.

Property is one of the most complex aspects of the Cyprus problem, not only because it is very close to people’s hearts, but also because both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have been led to believe in myths for years. While Greek Cypriot politicians maintained for decades that all Greek Cypriot refugees who had been displaced from their properties in the northern part of the island would go back one day, many Turkish Cypriot politicians advocated that what has been “taken” is now theirs and property claims should be settled through global exchange and compensation. Such unrealistic, maximalist rhetoric is probably part of the reason why many people on both sides have a problem with the agreement recently reached by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader Nikos Anastasiades over the property issue.

The two leaders have agreed that the individual’s right to property – both the original owner’s and the current user’s - will be respected and that the exercise of this right will be regulated through compensation, exchange and reinstatement decided on by a property commission based on mutually agreed criteria. Both Akinci and Anastasiades have been criticized by certain circles in their respective communities, with some Turkish Cypriots claiming that recognition of individuals’ right to property means the original owners decide on the fate of their properties and with some Greek Cypriots finding it unacceptable that current users’ rights have also been acknowledged. Leading Turkish daily Hurriyet even proclaimed that the agreement could lead to a civil war in Cyprus.

The big question in the property issue is how some 1,350 million donums of property left by Greek Cypriots in the north in 1974, and distributed by Turkish Cypriots, will be handled. These properties left by some 150,000 Greek Cypriots were used primarily to resettle some 50,000 Turkish Cypriot refugees from the south, an additional 12,000, who had been living since the inter-communal clashes of 1963 in insufficient conditions and another 4,500, who had been displaced in 1958.[1] Some property was given to non-refugee Turkish Cypriots, such as the relatives of martyrs, Turkish Cypriot fighters since the 50s, new couples as part of a rehabilitation program and farmers as part of a land reform program. The third category that received Greek Cypriot properties was made up of some 35,000 Turkish settlers, who came to the north as part of a facilitated migration program between 1975 and 1981. No property was distributed to Turkish settlers that came to the island after 1982.

Nepotism, favoritism and political interests certainly played a role as well as economic hardship and increasing uncertainty in the way Greek Cypriot properties were distributed. Turkish Cypriot authorities do not give any figures regarding how much land has been given to Turkish Cypriot refugees, non-refugees and settlers. However, some indications can be found in Rebecca Bryant’s report titled “Displacement in Cyprus Consequences of Civil and Military Strife, PRIO Cyprus.” Bryant states that each Turkish Cypriot refugee family settled in rural areas was given a house and agricultural land, while each settled in towns or cities was given a house and shop or office. Each settler family was granted a house and agricultural land and it is estimated that around 6-7,000 Greek Cypriot houses were distributed in this way, according to Bryant. Some 500 additional properties may have been distributed to Turkish war veterans and families of Turkish soldiers killed in 1974.

For almost 10 years, Turkish Cypriot authorities did not issue title deeds to the Greek Cypriot properties that they distributed. Since 80 percent of all privately owned land in the north was Greek Cypriot property, this meant a huge social-economic limitation for Turkish Cypriots, according to Serden Hoca, the property expert in the former Turkish Cypriot negotiation team. In 1983, Turkish Cypriot authorities started giving title deeds to Turkish Cypriot refugees who had equivalent land in the south. With increased uncertainty, economic strain and pressure from businessmen, Turkish Cypriot authorities began to issue title deeds to all other Greek Cypriot property including those given to Turkish settlers in 1995. Right now, the most economically developed regions in the north – the Kyrenia coastline, northern Nicosia, and the Famagusta – Vokolida strip are predominantly Greek Cypriot properties, Hoca said.

As time passed, the Greek Cypriot properties that have been transformed through development increased, while the number of individuals involved multiplied - as of March 2012, some 200,000 transactions have been recorded at the Turkish Cypriot title registry and there is billions of dollars worth of collateral on the Greek Cypriot properties in the north, according to Hoca – resulting in a mess that needs to be resolved if the Cyprus problem is to be solved.  

Realism will be key in resolving the property issue. Turkish Cypriots need to accept that some properties will have to be reinstituted to their original Greek Cypriot owners and the Greek Cypriots need to accept that not everyone will go back to their properties as restitution of all claimed property would result in new human rights violations and some Turkish Cypriots would be third time refugees if moved again. Maximalist demands may cost us the last chance to reunify Cyprus.

[1] Rebecca Bryant, Displacement in Cyprus - Consequences of Civil and Military Strife, Report 6, Property in the Cyprus Peace Process (PRIO Report, 2010)

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