Land divides Cypriots

NICOSIA – A stalemate in attempts to reunite Cyprus has turned up the heat on simmering land disputes that could threaten peace efforts on the divided island and shatter the dreams of many foreign home buyers. Land claims are a legacy of the 1974 de facto partition that uprooted 165,000 Greek Cypriots and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots, which neither side is willing to forget. Diplomats fear that pent-up resentment in each community over accusations of land grabs by the other could erupt, damaging any attempt to revive peace talks after more than three decades of division and displacement. «The atmosphere is already bad and this really doesn’t help. It is a complete mess,» said one Western diplomat. Alarmed at the prospect that their property rights could be eroded with the passage of time, Greek Cypriots are increasingly turning to the legal system to try to curb a construction boom in the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot north. Foreigners who have bought into the cheap property market in northern Cyprus are the main target of the campaign, denounced by Turkish Cypriots as a Greek-Cypriot ploy designed to frustrate overdue economic growth in the sanctions-hit enclave. Greek Cypriots have warned those who dabble in property in northern Cyprus that they risk arrest if they leave the north and enter an internationally recognized jurisdiction. «The whole objective is to scare people off, but I don’t think the Greek Cypriots would really want to arrest 5,000 foreigners living over there,» the diplomat said. The construction boom is fueling rapid economic growth in the north, where gross domestic product officially rose by a staggering 31 percent in 2004. The self-proclaimed state has been buffered from overdevelopment by years of isolation under international sanctions. Things are changing rapidly, however. An Internet search for northern Cyprus holiday villas returns hundreds of listings in a virtually untapped tourist market, offering sun-starved northern Europeans their dream home for as little as 50,000 British pounds (about 72,000 euros). However, the dream could turn into a nightmare. A Greek-Cypriot court recently ordered a British couple to tear down the home they built on disputed land, ruling that they were trespassing. The court order is impossible to implement since northern Cyprus is effectively beyond its jurisdiction. However, Greek-Cypriot lawyers say the couple could be exposed to further court action against their British assets if they do not comply. Lawyer Christodoulos Taramountas, who represents several Greek-Cypriot refugees in property cases, says there can be no compromise on property rights. «This is trespassing,» he said. In an attempt to head off more cases, Turkish-Cypriot authorities advise residents not to accept Greek-Cypriot court summonses. «Property is an integral part of the Cyprus problem. It is not something that can be solved in the courts,» said Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish-Cypriot leader who led his community into acceptance of last year’s UN reunification plan. Trade-offs on property are likely to feature prominently in any attempt to reunite Cyprus but, with so many players involved, it will be a Herculean task. After 1974, much of the abandoned Greek-Cypriot property in the north was unilaterally distributed to displaced Turkish Cypriots based on how much land they had lost in the south. The Greek-Cypriot side is resisting attempts by Turkish Cypriots to reclaim land in the south, citing a «law of necessity» to prohibit Turkish-Cypriot land transactions for fear of upsetting the already distorted demographic balance. Authorities there are now appealing against a court eviction issued in favor of a Turkish Cypriot who claimed his home back from a Greek Cypriot, who was herself displaced from the north. Turkish Cypriots say the present controversy could have been avoided had Greek Cypriots accepted the UN blueprint, which offered a combination of compensation and restitution. Greek Cypriots accuse Turkish Cypriots of trying to tilt the ethnic balance, pointing to the thousands of mainland Turks who moved to northern Cyprus after 1974. Opponents of the UN plan say it has aggravated the problem by giving many newcomers to the property market priority in staking ownership claims.