The European Council of Ministers has narrowly avoided a head-on collision threatening to derail the UN peace talks, by postponing a Greek Cypriot call on May 30th to halt all sales of refugee-owned properties in the TRNC.
The Council has announced it will consider the request after March 2017, following Turkish Cypriot and Turkish protests that such a move would destroy the progress of the current negotiations. Yet the developments have caused a furore on the island and threaten to sour relations at the highest levels.
The South Cyprus government presented their fresh proposal to the Council of Europe last week, demanding Ankara cease all activities promoting what they call “the illegal sale of Greek Cypriot properties in northern Cyprus” and to immediately introduce measures to prevent the transfer of all displaced persons’ properties.
The Greek Cypriot authorities also called on the Council to demand that Turkey fully implement the judgement in a 2001 Cyprus v Turkey case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The move alarmed Turkish Cypriot lawyers and estate agents, who say even the threat of such action could bring the TRNC’s property sector to its knees, similar to the Orams case, which started a year after the borders were open.
In 2004, Lapta homeowners Linda and David Orams were sued by Meletis Apostolides, the original Greek Cypriot owner. Apostolides took his case to the European Court of Justice, where he won in 2009 and the British couple was ordered to hand back the land on which their villa stood and compensate him.
The Orams precedent was subsequently overturned by another case, Demopoulos and Others v Turkey, at the ECHR. Amongst other things, the court’s 2010 ruling deemed that existing homeowners also have rights and it recognised the Immovable Property Commission (IPC), created by the Turkish Cypriots, as a valid local remedy for Greek Cypriot refugees with property claims.
In their latest unilateral efforts to resolve the Cyprus property issue, the Greek Cypriot authorities also seek to undermine the IPC.
According to information on the IPC website, as of June 9th 2016, “6,286 applications have been lodged with the Commission and 762 of them have been concluded through friendly settlements and 22 through formal hearing.” To date, the Commission has also paid £222,420,189 in compensation.
Although the body has resolved hundreds of claims since being set up ten years ago, up to 200 claimants are still waiting on their compensation, prompting South Cyprus to also demand that the Turkish and TRNC governments strengthen and speed up the IPC’s compensation payouts.
TRNC Presidency describe property proposals as “unacceptable”
President Akıncı was dismayed by the one-sided Greek Cypriot proposals, and reiterated his view that, “the solution of the Cyprus problem will be found at the negotiating table…and not in the corridors of the law courts.”
The TRNC President’s spokesman Barış Burcu also slammed the move, calling it “unacceptable”. He told Cyprus Today, “It is unthinkable to imagine title deed transfers, sales or advertising stopping, or life in the TRNC being put on ice. But it is reasonable to say that such initiatives will harm the peace process.”
“My concern is that these demands are far-reaching and not helpful at a time when the subject concerned relates directly to one of the chapters currently being negotiated between the two leaders, namely property.”
“Property in North Cyprus has always been sensitive. There is the IPC… approved by the ECHR to handle cases and provide domestic remedies to applicants.”
She added, “These demands place the IPC’s recognition in grave danger and the Turkish side will shoot itself in the foot if it loses this body.”
Her concerns were echoed by Hasan Sungur, President of the Estate Agents’ Union, who also wants Turkey and the TRNC, “to make the IPC fully able to cope with Greek Cypriot property claims.”
‘Greek Cypriots look us in the eye & tell us they want peace & partnership…yet seek to impose their own solution & in doing so place a bomb under the negotiating table’
Sungur told Cyprus Today: “We are extremely discomfited by this development, because it obviously scares buyers, even though an existing and ECHR-endorsed IPC exists to settle any claim.”
He puts the latest political development in the South down to gains by nationalist parties in last month’s General Election, and also the rise in right-wing sentiment:
“On one hand the Greek Cypriots look us in the eye and tell us they want peace and partnership. But at the same time, they seek to impose their own solution through the European courts and in doing so place a bomb under the negotiating table.”
While it is highly unlikely such political demands would ever be accepted and acted upon in Europe, Sungur believes they could hamper efforts to market North Cyprus properties abroad. The sector virtually collapsed a decade ago as a result of the Orams case, which had a devastating impact on the TRNC economy and is only just recovering.
In a written statement, former TRNC Finance Minister Ersin Tatar has called on President Akıncı to put the latest proposals on the UN Talks agenda immediately, urging him to also raise the issue with the European Commission and the United Nations as a matter of priority.
Tatar, an UBP (National Unity Party) MP for Lefkoşa, sees the developments as permanently damaging the positive spirit of the talks.
Main photo: Tatlisu Bay Houses site, from North Cyprus International