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Media Watch 2005

14 April 2005
Source: BBC
Author: Sam Wilson
Comment: The following article appeared on BBC online on 23 March 2005.
N Cyprus property row hots up
""I was in the national guard service. About 50 people from my engineering regiment were captured. Only 18 survived..." Mr Apostolides says he wants a solution, but believes the building boom in the north is erecting another obstacle... He says he hopes the Orams case will make foreigners think twice... The British parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned this month that British citizens intending to buy property in northern Cyprus "risk exposing themselves to legal action by Greek Cypriots who may be the rightful owners of those properties"... But if the courts uphold their original judgement, lawyer Mr Candounas says he will use Cyprus' new EU membership to try to have the judgement registered in the UK, and will go after the Orams' assets there."

For many Turkish Cypriots, things are looking up.

After years forced to fend for themselves during international isolation, they are reaping the benefits of a gradual softening of relations with the outside world.

A building boom has come to northern Cyprus, with foreigners snapping up newly-built villas.

"The money is pouring in. You can smell it," says one property agent.

The authorities' interior minister, Ozkan Murat, says applications by foreigners to buy property have increased almost ten-fold in the last few years.

But Cyprus' old divisions are casting a shadow over the boom.

Greek Cypriots, forced to flee south in 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third of the island, say the land from which concrete is sprouting is still theirs.

Market rattled

It is a dispute they are prepared to pursue through the courts - to the potential cost of those fuelling the property gold-rush.

Britons Linda and David Orams finished building their dream holiday home three years ago, in a village a few miles west of Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish), overlooking the coast of the unrecognised state of northern Cyprus.


The Orams are determined to keep their new home

"We heard about a Greek Cypriot lawyer preparing to take action... but we never thought for a minute it would be us he came after," said Mrs Orams.

That lawyer, Constantis Candounas, is at the forefront of a campaign to stop land being sold, and buildings erected, where once Greek Cypriots lived.

A Cypriot court has now ordered the Orams to demolish their house, return the land, and pay "rent" for the time they lived there. The ruling has rattled the communities of sellers, buyers and builders enjoying good times in the north.

Bitterness

Meletis Apostolides lived on the land until 1974, with his parents, brother and sisters.

He was 24 when, after a Greek-backed coup in Cyprus, Turkey invaded.


He said his family had no choice but to flee.

"I was in the national guard service. About 50 people from my engineering regiment were captured. Only 18 survived. There was a war," he said.

"We were very bitter, of course.

"No one expected it would take this long. My father died in 1978. He had lost his livelihood, house, and everything. It was devastating. He almost resigned from living."

Hopes for the reunification of Cyprus were dashed last year when Greek Cypriots voted to reject a UN-backed solution, while Turkish Cypriots voted for it.

Mr Apostolides says he wants a solution, but believes the building boom in the north is erecting another obstacle.

He says he hopes the Orams case will make foreigners think twice before moving to Cyprus.

'Silly money'

That is a concern for companies like Aga Development, engaged in the biggest building project in the north, an entire village being assembled at Arapkoy, about 10 miles (16km) east of Kyrenia, between the coast and the mountains that rear up inland.


Osman Ozter believes business will treble this year

Aga's apartments and villas range in price between £55,000 ($104,000) and £100,000 ($190,000).

Of the 335 sold so far, about 85% have gone to British buyers.

Developers tell potential buyers that the Orams ruling - delivered in a court south of Cyprus's green line - is unenforceable in the north, and that any unification settlement will have to recognise the status quo.

Some compensation may be payable under such a settlement.

Last year's UN Annan plan recommended an assessment based on 1974 values - but Aga director Tahir Soycan says this will be "silly money" compared to the land's current value, and that his company will cover its customers' costs.

Mr Soycan said sales fell initially when buyers heard about the Orams case, but have recovered almost fully.

The owner of North Cyprus Properties (NCP), Osman Ozter, says the case has had no impact on his business, which he says increased five times last year, and could treble again in the next 12 months.

But he admits that land with "Turkish title" - that was owned before 1974 by Turkish Cypriots - commands a higher price than the contested es-deger (exchange) land - Greek Cypriot land given to Turkish Cypriot refugees from the south in compensation for what they left behind.

British warned

Uncertainty over the legal status of that land may be holding some buyers back.

The British parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned this month that British citizens intending to buy property in northern Cyprus "risk exposing themselves to legal action by Greek Cypriots who may be the rightful owners of those properties".


Concrete hulks have sprouted across northern Cyprus

And Mrs Orams advised buyers to wait until her case was concluded before going ahead with a purchase.

"I think it's just wisdom - I don't think anyone would buy anything in conditions of uncertainty," she said.

She and her husband have applied for the case in Cyprus to be heard again.

But if the courts uphold their original judgement, lawyer Mr Candounas says he will use Cyprus' new EU membership to try to have the judgement registered in the UK, and will go after the Orams' assets there.

Mr Ozter says even if the British market dries up, it will not hold back the "incredible" property boom.

"There are other markets - the Israeli, Russian, and Arab markets," he says.

'Get-rich-quick'

Those hoping either to live in Cyprus or to make a profit on property do not seem put off by the risk.

The grey hulks of half-built buildings dot the landscape around Kyrenia, while estate agents, furniture stores and swimming pool services dominate every parade of shops.

The benefits of the boom are reaching many quarters.

But critics of the rampant construction are not limited to those south of the border.

Some lament the impact it is having on the beautiful scenery.

Nikki Newhouse, editor of northern Cyprus' Essential magazine, published in English and Turkish, condemns the "frequently unscrupulous, often insane building practices" and the "get-rich-quick attitude" behind the boom."