Northern Cyprus: Gambling behind the green line

2 August 2010
Adevărul Bucharest

A new sort of nation building? In a casino near Kyrenia, in the Turkish part of Cyprus
A new sort of nation building? In a casino near Kyrenia, in the Turkish part of Cyprus

Under the weight of an international embargo, the Turkish part of Cyprus is trying to develop its own economic resources. The latest initiative: building casinos to attract foreign tourists.

Can a country be built on casino revenues? Yes, say the leaders of Northern Cyprus. The territory, which resulted from the separation of the Turkish and Greek communities following the Turkish invasion of 1974, became a self-proclaimed independent state in 1983, though it is only recognised by Ankara. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has since been subjected to a severe international embargo.

Turkey, the "mother country" as the Turkish Cypriots refer to it, is its only link to the outside world. All international flights must go through Ankara or Istanbul, and Turkey is the unique source of goods in the shops. It also controls banking resources, and the island's currency is the Turkish lira. Northern Cyprus "exports" mainly citrus fruits, along with a raki of notable quality.

A godsend for Northern Cyprus

But the real influx of money from Turkey comes via the gaming tables. The effects of the crash are not being felt here because the Turkish economy is experiencing growth in spite the world's economic crisis. The central bank of Northern Cyprus has resources in excess of $4.5bn for a "state" of just more that 200,000 inhabitants. A good deal of these cash reserves come from casino taxes.

Forbidden in Turkey, casinos have become a godsend for Northern Cyprus. And not only wealthy Turks take their chances there: tourists from Israel or Western Europe (mostly British) have defied the embargo to come place their bets. For the July 20 celebration of the self-proclaimed republic, a new five-star hotel-casino opened in Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish), a picturesque port city on the north coast of the island.

Northern Cyprus a betting token?

Speaking of the region's isolation is not as simple as it might seem. On the one hand, 30,000 to 40,000 Turkish soldiers are stationed there, and military zones, surrounded by barbed wire, are seen nearly everywhere. But many Turkish Cypriots also hold passports of the Republic of Cyprus and can therefore travel as any other European citizen, able to cross the "green line" separating the two parts of the island. Numerous Turks even work in the Greek zone, where salaries are nearly 50% higher than in the north, where monthly salaries average around 600 euros.

The relationship between Turkish Cypriots and the "mother country" is not entirely amicable, as the Ankara government has reduced subsidies for the island. And the greatest fear is that Turkey will eventually use Northern Cyprus as a betting token in its bid to join the European Union.

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