Property ruling controversy

NICOSIA – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has sparked controversy in Cyprus by ordering Turkey to settle property disputes with Greek Cypriots within six months – without saying how. The Strasbourg-based court on Thursday ordered Ankara to provide «effective redress» to Greek Cypriots who fled property when the island was partitioned after a 1974 Turkish invasion. The emotional issue of property settlement, which includes everything from farms to hotels and family homes, has proven to be one of the greatest obstacles to the reunification of Cyprus. Turkey is eager to speed a resolution to ease its negotiations for European Union entry. But despite an apparent victory, the ruling worried Greek Cypriots, as it has given Ankara up to six months to meet the court requirement but did not say specifically how claimants should be compensated. They expressed concern that it was a fig leaf designed to give Turkish-Cypriot authorities time to set in motion their own reparations mechanism in northern Cyprus, the breakaway state where the court ruling will apply. The Turkish-Cypriot administration this week ratified a change to its property laws allowing Greek Cypriots for the first time to apply to the north’s courts to get their property back. It clearly hopes this will eventually meet the ECHR’s requirements. But Greek Cypriots, accustomed to settling their scores with Turkey through the ECHR, believe any acceptance of such a mechanism would deprive them of that route and give credence to northern Cyprus, which they regard as a renegade state. «I sincerely hope that such a thing is not on the minds of the law judges – to accept and establish a system in the occupied area (northern Cyprus),» said Demetris Christofias, a coalition partner in the Greek-Cypriot government. Turkish-Cypriot officials said the reprieve in Thursday’s ruling signaled the court’s recognition of the north’s plans to allow Greek Cypriots to reclaim properties. «This reflects how important the changes are,» said Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. Turkish newspapers also welcomed the verdict. «Cold shower for the Greek Cypriots. Ankara gets what it wanted,» wrote the Radikal newspaper. The tone in the Greek-Cypriot south was decidedly more cautious. «It’s a double-edged sword,» daily Simerini said. The ECHR said Thursday’s ruling applied both to the case of Greek-Cypriot Myra Xenides-Arestis, who lodged a claim for her property in the Varosha area of eastern Cyprus, and to some 1,400 similar cases pending. Lawyers for Xenides-Arestis said full restitution of her rights to enjoy unhindered access to her property would mean Turkish forces abandoning a strip of prime real estate they have turned into a military zone. Varosha was the heart of Cyprus’s tourism-driven economy until 1974. Now it is a jumble of abandoned five-star hotels and homes, overrun with rats and weeds and looted many times over. «This case… signifies the beginning of the return of Varosha,» said lawyer Achilleas Demetriades. (Additional reporting by Selcuk Gokoluk in Ankara.)