Ünal Üstel, the Minister for Tourism and the Environment, has been removed from his post by Ersin Tatar, the Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC).
The Prime Minister made the announcement on Friday, naming Kutlu Evren as his replacement.
Mr Üstel’s position had become untenable after he was implicated in the ‘private jet’ scandal. The Minster had given “special permission” for a delegation of 13 people to fly into North Cyprus from Antalya, Turkey, on Friday evening, 12 June, and bypass the country’s strict quarantine rules.
When TRNC daily Yenidüzen revealed details of the controversial visit on its front page last Sunday, 14 June, it caused uproar in the TRNC and among Turkish Cypriots abroad.
Mr Üstel had claimed they were in the country on an ‘essential business visit’ to do site inspections for a Lapta Marina project. Backed by the Health Minister Ali Pilli, the Tourism Minister had claimed the group would not pose any health risks to the TRNC as they were staying in a “quarantine centre” and would “not mix with the public.”
The response from Mr Üstel did little to quell the fury nationwide. The public were incensed at how the Minister could override public health considerations for the visitors, after the TRNC government had imposed and maintained strict rules to contain the coronavirus pandemic since March, enabling the TRNC to become the first country to eliminate the virus.
Opposition leaders demanded to know why Turkish Cypriots who worked in South Cyprus had been told they could not cross back over the Green Line border to their homes because of the risks they posed, while the delegation originating from Turkey and Russia, which both have higher infection rates than South Cyprus, were permitted entry without PCR tests or quarantine.
There was anger too from British Turkish Cypriots, who had been informed on 11 June of the Council of Ministers’ decision that mandatory 14-day quarantine requirements for all UK visitors would continue due to risks from the UK, and that those entering the country from 1 July must each pay 4,400 TL (£510) to cover their accommodation and food.
Public attitudes hardened when Mr Üstel’s explanation about the visit was challenged by Lapta Council Leader Mustafa Aktuğ, who said he “knew nothing” about the delegation and its visit.
When most of the delegation left the country a day earlier than scheduled, further speculation about their visit arose. Transport Minister Tolga Atakan added further fuel to the fire by writing in a now deleted post on his Facebook page that the Council of Ministers had been “misled” over the visit.
Prime Minister Ersin Tatar conceded on Friday “there are some mistakes” surrounding the delegation’s visit
Bowing to public pressure, Mr Tatar ordered a police investigation into the scandal, which at one stage threatened to bring down his coalition government.
The investigation into Mr Üstel’s role in the delegation’s visit met one of the demands of junior coalition partner Halkın Partisi (HP), whose Executive Council had met on Monday. Senior party members had discussed “all options, including ‘withdrawing from the government’”, according to local news reports.
On Friday, the Prime Minister, who heads the main coalition partner UBP (Ulusal Birlik Partisi / National Unity Party) to which Mr Üstel also belongs, conceded “there are some mistakes” surrounding the delegation’s visit, which he described as a “sad event.”
“What happened saddened us as well as our people, who are very sensitive about health issues,” the Prime Minister Tatar said.
“Whatever the intentions, it is not right to ignore these mistakes or the demands of the public, so I talked to our partner Deputy Prime Minister Kudret Özersay to make clear my desire to change two ministers in my cabinet.”
The Prime Minister added that he had informed the TRNC President Mustafa Akıncı of his decision to replace Mr Üstel with “our Girne MP Kutlu Evren.”
Who is the new TRNC Tourism, Environment & Culture Minister Kutlu Evren?
Born in Girne in 1957, Kutlu Evren is a businessman who first served as an MP for UBP between 1991 and 1993.
He returned to Parliament in 2013, and in July 2015 was appointed Transport, Environment and Culture Minister in the CTP-UBP coalition government led by Ömer Kalyoncu of the left-leaning Republican Turkish Party (CTP).
Mr Evren resigned from his post shortly before the collapse of this government in April 2016. He was subsequently made Minister of Interior in the new centre-right UBP-DP coalition government under UBP Prime Minister Hüseyin Özgürgün.
The entrepreneur’s business interests include a company specialising in natural marble, granite and ceramic.
Active in civic society, Mr Evren is a member of the Executive Council of the TRNC’s Chamber of Commerce (KTTO), a founder member of Beşparmak Lion Club and the Classic Automobile Club. He has also served on the management committees of various sports clubs and driven multiple social initiatives and activities.
Mr Evren has a Master’s Degree in Business Management and Tourism from Hacettepe University in Ankara – one of Turkey’s most prestigious higher education establishments.
He is married with two children.
Main image, top, of Ünal Üstel (left) who was replaced on Friday, 19 June, as TRNC Tourism, Environment and Culture Minister by Kutlu Evren