LB Travels: Northern Cyprus | Property Law

9 min read

This week, we’ll travel to a different part of the world. It is a land with no legal identity, recognised only by Turkey and relies on the Turkish postal system for its mail. It also gives us the chance to look at a fundamental aspect of law—property.

It might be said that Instagram “influencers” have ruined every picturesque travel location out there. Take the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, or Dubrovnik of Game of Thrones fame (which we covered last week).

Northern Cyprus, known also as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), remains obscure for now and tucked away from en-masse tourism. Given the UN embargo, the only flights to Northern Cyprus routes through Turkey. Or you could cross over on foot from the Republic of Cyprus, which considers Northern Cyprus its territory. To do this, you’ll have to pass through the UN-controlled buffer zone known as the “Green Line”.

The UN-controlled buffer zone, also known as the “Green Line”. (Photo credit: Free To Use Sounds)

Veni, vidi, vici?

The island of Cyprus has a mystical history. A land fought over by many over the centuries, of different empires, cultures and religious persuasions. Northern Cyprus covers around 40% of the north-east half of the island. It sits in one of the world’s most disputed and politically tumultuous zones. The fact that every place has a Turkish and Greek name variation is a reminder of a time when both populations lived peacefully side by side. Since the 1974 partition and population exchange between the two sides, only the Turkish remain.

The strategic importance of the island was well understood throughout time. It is a historical patchwork—with early settlement by the Ancient Greeks during the Late Bronze Age. This was followed by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Alexander the Great and his successors of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt, and the Romans. After the Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western halves, the Byzantine Empire (330 – 1191) ruled Cyprus. In 1191, Richard the Lionheart of England conquered Cyprus on his way to the Third Crusade.

Walking into Kyrenia Castle.

It is said that Cyprus was too much of a hot potato for Richard the Lionheart given his unpopularity, though it’s impossible to know. He tried selling Cyprus to the Knights Templar, but they returned it within a year (sorry, do you offer refunds?) and he quickly sold or gave Cyprus to Guy of Lusignan. The Lusignan family went on to rule Cyprus and fortify many of its existing castles (1192 – 1489). This was until they were conquered by the Genoese army, bringing Venetian rule (1489 – 1570). In 1571, the Ottoman Empire took over. In 1878, the Ottoman Empire assigned Cyprus to the British in exchange for defending against the Russians. So, pretty much everyone was interested in this island!

Büyük Han, the largest caravanserai on the island of Cyprus, where merchants could stop for a rest during Ottoman times.

More on its recent history in a bit.

Not just sand and surf

Today, Northern Cyprus is a land relatively untouched by Western capitalism, primarily due to its unrecognised legal status. Its economy is driven by tourism, casinos and… you wouldn’t think it—university education. Properties for rent or sale are in British pounds, likely a hangover from the days of British rule. While there are no golden arches of McDonald’s in sight, there are businesses that make rather IP-questionable allusions to known fast-food brands. The only exception to all of this is Gloria Jeans, which set up shop in Northern Cyprus in 2007.

The harbour of Kyrenia (Greek) / Girne (Turkish).

In summer, the dry heat is scorching. The locals take cover under the brittle shade, sipping Ayran, a cold yoghurt drink with a dash of salt. The British holidayers have also discovered (or never left?!) Northern Cyprus and resolutely opt to bake under the summer sun with a cold beer in hand. Almost as if they could never sate their desire for sunshine.

In the evenings, the picturesque harbour in the northern city of Kyrenia (Greek) / Girne (Turkish) comes to life with a buzz of activity. The air loses its oppressive heat of the midday and the balmy wind gently envelopes you—it’s what the locals might call “limonata” weather—like lemonade. By the sea, one might sit enjoying a plate of grilled fish and a salad.

Fish restaurants abound.

Aside from the beaches, stunning relics of medieval history dot the landscape in Northern Cyprus.

Bellapais Abbey is a short drive away from Kyrenia / Girne. It fell into disrepair during Venetian rule when it was stripped of its treasures. The abbey is one of the most stunning places I have ever been, which overlooks the Mediterranean.

In the city of Famagusta (Greek) / Gazimagusa (Turkish), a church turned mosque dominates with its gothic style. In front of the church, a grand fig tree spreads its branches. It was planted around the same time the church was built, around 700 years ago.

Then: Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, now: Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque.

To the furthest northern pointy end of Northern Cyprus is Karpas (Greek) / Karpaz (Turkish), a relatively untouched portion of the island. You have to survive more than a few potholes to reach the end, but it is well worth the journey. Friendly wild donkeys stray on the road and may attempt to lick your car. The Apostolos Andreas Monastery, once the place for many pilgrimages, stands at the edge of the water at the end of your trip.

Donkeys hanging out. (Photo credit: Michal Klajban)

In the middle of the island of Cyprus, the city of Nicosia (Greek) / Lefkoşa (Turkish) is a divided city. Through it runs the UN Green Line, which stretches for 180 km across the island. The buffer zone is only a few metres wide in some parts and a few kilometres wide in other areas. While there are no winners in divided cities, the local fauna and animal species are thriving with the lack of human interference. There have been sightings of native animals that were endangered or presumed extinct.

Parked in North Nicosia (Greek) / Lefkoşa (Turkish) in Northern Cyprus.

Now we get to more recent history. In the years leading up to 1974, tensions grew between the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) and the Turkish Resistance Organisation (TMT). In part, the flames were fanned during British rule, where its strategy was to create tensions between the two groups who had otherwise lived peacefully together for centuries.

On 15 July 1974, there was a coup d’état by Greek army officers against the president of Cyprus, driven by the ultra right-wing and nationalistic EOKA-B. It’s here that the history gets murky—how events are emphasised depends on which side you’re hearing the story from. The Turkish military responded swiftly on 20 July by entering Cyprus from the north over its concerns about Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish military called its response the “Cyprus Peace Operation”, while the Greek Cypriots considered it an invasion. These terms are still used today.

Do you have title?

With this, we turn to property law.

One of the major complexities of purchasing land in Northern Cyprus, aside from its unrecognised legal status, is the question of land titles.

In April 2009, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) handed down its judgment in Apostolides v Orams which made some waves.

Apostolides was a Greek Cypriot national. He had brought an action against a British couple (the Orams) in the District Court of Nicosia, claiming that they were illegally on land that belonged to his family when they fled in 1974. He sought damages, delivery up of the land, restoration (including knocking down the villa, pool and fencing), monthly rent, and the “cessation of any other unlawful intervention”. The Orams claimed that they had purchased the land in 2002 in good faith from a third party who had acquired it from the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

Apostolides was successful and then tried to enforce the judgment against the Orams in the UK. The UK High Court declined to hear the matter and referred it to the ECJ, which found that under a European Union Council Regulation No 44/2001, that:

  • the District Court of Nicosia could make orders in relation to the land, even though the Republic of Cyprus had no effective control over it; and
  • the court of a Member State was effectively required to recognise and enforce judgments given by the courts of another Member State.

This case returned to the High Court in the UK, where the three judges unanimously found that Apostolidis could enforce his judgment. It is not evident where the story of Apostolidis and the Orams ends up, but it raises some fascinating insights.

First of all, there is a wonderful circularity in the ECJ’s judgment—which points to the moot-value of trying to get land transferred back (i.e. specific performance)—when the courts have no actual ability to enforce it:

“The fact that claimants might encounter difficulties in having judgments enforced in the northern area cannot deprive them of their enforceability and, therefore, does not prevent the courts of the Member State in which enforcement is sought from declaring such judgments enforceable.”

ECJ judgment at [70] (Advocate General, J. Kokott)

Second, one of the unintended consequences of Brexit is that Greek Cypriot nationals may no longer be able to enforce judgments against British nationals. It’s no insignificant matter, given the large number of Brits who have bought land in Northern Cyprus.

In 2005, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, noted how litigation over land in Northern Cyprus was a roadblock to reunification:

“On the island, the benefits of the EU membership of Cyprus are becoming manifest. However, in the area of property, it has opened up new fronts of litigation and acrimony. Already, hundreds of Greek Cypriot claims against Turkey for the loss of property rights in the north are pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Additionally, in 2005, Greek Cypriots approached courts in the south for EU arrest warrants against foreigners buying or selling Greek Cypriot property in the north. In this regard, Turkish Cypriot authorities have warned that they will arrest and detain those attempting to serve court summonses. The prospect of an increase of litigation in property cases on either side poses a serious threat to people-to-people relationships and to the reconciliation process. Property rights continue to be an extremely sensitive issue on both sides and it is widely believed that only a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem can bring closure to the property issue.”

Side note: Australia’s Torrens system

For a bit of contrast, the majority of land in Australia is subject to the Torrens title system. It takes its name after Sir Robert Richard Torrens, who implemented the system.

The Torrens system is a land registration and transfer system, which provides conclusive title of the person recorded as the owner on the register (what lawyers call “indefeasibility”). Previously, the entire chain of title deeds had to be transferred if the land was sold. This created problems, including if there was a missing title deed or the handwriting was illegible.

There are three principles underlying the Torrens system:

“1. The land titles Register accurately and completely reflects the current ownership and interests about a person’s land.

2. Because the land titles Register contains all the information about the person’s land, it means that ownership and other interests do not have to be proved by long complicated documents, such as title deeds.

3. Government guarantee provides for compensation to a person who suffers loss of land or a registered interest.”

General law titles still exist, but it is such a small proportion of land in Australia that it is not a significant issue.

Postnote:

For now, reunification back on the island of Cyprus seems to be a distant hope—at least until both sides resolve the property question.

Looking to the Mediterranean through the crumbling stones of time, Bellapais Abbey.

Further reading:

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