Cyprus Elects Communist President

Associated Press
Monday, February 25, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus, Feb. 24 -- Communist leader Demetris Christofias won a crucial presidential runoff in Cyprus on Sunday. He pledged to restart moribund talks to reunify the island and immediately agreed to meet the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots.

Jubilant supporters flooded the streets of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital, waving Cypriot and Che Guevara flags, honking car horns and lighting flares.

"We have a common vision . . . to reunite our people, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots," Christofias said in his victory speech.

"I extend a hand of friendship to the Turkish Cypriot people and their leadership," he said, thanking Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat for telephoning to congratulate him and saying he looked forward to "substantial cooperation for the benefit of both communities."

According to an official at Talat's office, the two men said they wanted to meet "soon" but had not set a date or venue.

The win by Christofias makes the strategically important island a rarity among its European Union partners -- a country led by a president with firmly communist roots.

The 61-year-old Soviet-educated history professor won comfortably with 53.37 percent of the vote, compared with 46.63 percent for former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Both had campaigned on promises to reunify the island, which split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.

Reunification would remove one of the obstacles to Turkey's efforts to join the E.U. And it could ease strong objections to Kosovo's new independence among Greek Cypriots, who fear it would act as a precedent for Turkish Cypriots in north Cyprus.

A solution would also "improve the prospects for diplomatic breakthroughs between NATO allies Greece and Turkey . . . and stabilize the eastern Mediterranean region," said John Sitilides, of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

Christofias's election campaign sought to distance him from his communist roots, presenting him as a "progressive socialist" and pointing out that some of his policies support the free market.

Reunification talks have been stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N.-drafted peace plan in a referendum in 2004, although there have been meetings since then between Talat and outgoing President Tassos Papadopoulos. Turkish Cypriots, whose breakaway state in the north of the island is recognized only by Turkey, accepted the plan.

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