Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Cyprus: in the most convoluted of disputes, at least one thing is clear

Meletis Apostolides is going home.
Who is he, the non-Cypriots amongst you, will ask. That is immaterial, I will answer. He is one of thousands of Greek Cypriots who fled the North of the island after Turkish forces invaded in 1974. He is one of the thousands that have spent the last three and a half decades oscillating between hope and anger. And for most of that time, going back was not an option. But the world is changing.

After the 1974 invasion the island of Cyprus was partitioned.
Greek Cypriots from the North and Turkish Cypriots from the south became refuges in their own homeland. And although the situation seemed untenable, it held for a very long time. The island remained divided against all the rules of logic and international affairs.

The North declared itself an independent state that nobody other than Turkey recognised as legitimate. The world just ignored it. But it didn’t go away.

I grew up in Greece, where the North was always referred to as ‘Denktaş’ fake state’. And although Denktaş is no longer at the helm, the North remains a fake as far as the Greeks are concerned.
For the Turks, in Turkey or in North Cypris, that is – unsurprisingly – not the case. The North has a name and its name is KKTC (kakateje, amusingly) Kuzey Kıbrıs Türk Cumhuriyeti ‘the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’.
What’s in a name? Claims to legitimacy and aspirations for recognition, that’s what’s in a name. A clear affiliation to the mother state (the Turkish Republic), a claim of ethnic ownership of the land occupied and an appeal to democratic legitimacy in the form of a Republic of their own. A name that claims ‘we are genuine even if the Greeks think we’re fake’.

But the name didn’t do the trick.
The rest of the world averted their eyes, discussed ‘the issue’ at UN summits and largely pretended the North did not exist.
Sure, Turkey got a slap on the wrist for invading but there was no long-term damage to relations with Europe. So, many thought being ignored wasn’t altogether bad news.
Only Turkey was not prepared for a long-term occupation. Nobody had the stomach for it. They had neither the means nor inclination to sustain a patch of earth ignored by the rest of the world. But sustain it they did.

From 1974 and until the opening of the borders to foreign commerce and tourism, Turkey provided all the food, water, electricity, blankets, medication, toys, boots and shovels Northern Cypriots needed. KKTC had no economy of its own, no industry and inadequate agriculture. Naturally there was no foreign investment – direct or indirect – and the North’s beautiful beaches were out of reach for foreign tourists.
Turkey had to foot all the bills and put a big bright smile on it all as the military had decreed KKTC a priority on all levels.

Meanwhile the North was repopulated with Turkish-speakers, the South picked up its pieces and people tried to rebuild their lives. Never ignoring the big green line dividing their island, never forgetting the pain of separation.

And both sides think they are right. And both sides have stories of pain and loss. And the story changes depending on when you start the telling and when you stop. On where you stand when you tell it and where you stand when you listen. One thing is certain in every version: it is a sad story with no winners.

And I cannot for a moment blame Mr Meletis Apostolides for wanting to go home. And I understand why he went to court in Cyprus demanding his right to get his land back, now the border is open and the EU is asking all Cypriots to play nice.
And the Cypriot court said Mr Apostolides can have his land back.

And here is where the problems begin.
The land is not empty.
A British couple – Linda and David Orams – bought the land off a Turkish Cypriot and built a villa on it and, as you can imagine, they are not too keen on the idea of Mr Apostolides coming back.
So he went to the European Court of Justice where the Cypriot court ruling was upheld: Mr Apostolides can go home.
Now this is all academic, of course, because Northern Cyprus is not part of the EU so ECJ rulings do not bind the KKTC. And I don’t see them rushing to uphold a Greek Cypriot court ruling either.
But Mr Apostolides can seek compensation in a UK court and I would be very surprised if he doesn’t.

But even if he pursues this no more, Mr Apostolides’ case has set a massively significant precedent that will send chills down many spines.

And I will not pretend to have the requisite knowledge to suggest an appropriate solution for repatriation after a 36 year gap. Families that have lived and died in a once-empty house feel this is as much their home as the person’s who left it 36 years ago while fleeing for their life. Maybe it is. When ownership becomes entangled with morality and history there is no straightforward answer.

For a foreign investor, however, things are simpler and they boil down to this: like your daddy used to say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
When something looks like too much of a bargain, you should always wonder why that is.
A beach-front villa in Northern Cyprus is so much cheaper to come by than its counterpart in the Marbella. I wonder why?

For 36 years Europe has ignored Northern Cyprus. We pretended it was a black hole. No flights landed there, no commercial relations existed, no goods were imported directly.
But in the last few years things have relaxed. Tourists, merchants and speculators have all descended since movement in and out of Northern Cyprus became possible.
And nobody noticed that nothing had changed in the status of KKTC. Still nobody recognised it as anything but occupied territory. It still had no standing, no membership in international organisations, no part in treaties and alliances, no international presence whatsoever. As a state, it only exists at home.

But investors, sun-hungry Brits and various land developers did not want to get bogged down in the political detail. Such a shame that this beautiful place was closed off for so long, they thought, and aren’t I lucky to be getting in first?
With cheap land up for grabs, investors rushed to beat others to it without stopping to think about ownership or legal redress.
Otherwise known as ‘the catch’.
You are buying land in a country that does not exist as far as your own country of citizenship is concerned. What are you going to do in case of a dispute?
Believe in the power of the dollar, is the answer.
The borders have already been opened to trade. This means that methods must have been found to resolve resulting disputes, so we must be fine, let’s go invest in cheap land.

Yet there is no such thing as ‘empty land’. It’s been centuries since that was last true – and even then it was dubious. Land always belongs to someone. Who did yours belong to before it was sold to you? In most cases you don’t really care.
Unless you are buying in a former war zone.
Unless you are buying in an area famous only because of an invasion and corresponding population displacement that occurred in living memory.
All I’m saying is in Northern Cyprus, you should care, because these guys may want to come back.

With Cyprus ‘peace’ negotiations being on the news pretty much non-stop since 1974, people became jaded about the possibility of a real solution, but nobody forgot the war, the division, the refugees. Until the refugees' houses went up for sale when everything was forgotten in the face of a good bargain.

With population displacement things are difficult and I do not envy the task of the judge that should decide to evict families – some times, though not always, refugees themselves – because the original occupants – also refugees – want to come back. People pitting their pain against each other trying to figure out whose tragedy is worse, whose right strongest. People in each other’s home, not everyone wanting to return.
That is hard.

But with an investor who grabbed the bargain not stopping to think about the complications, not caring about the implications, not stopping to wonder about the ‘catch’, well in their case, they took a risk. They gambled on the politics remaining conveniently unresolved, they gambled on people not wanting to come back. They staked their money on a bad situation staying bad. And they lost. But at least they lost after taking a conscious risk. And if they didn’t pay attention to the small print, the risk factor, then they only have themselves to blame.
They should have paid more attention to their daddy when he told them that this is the problem with bargains, there is always a catch.