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Can Christofias heal the Cyprus divide?

By Tabitha Morgan
BBC News, Nicosia

Demetris Christofias interviewed by reporters at party headquarters in 2007
Communist Demetris Christofias has strong links with the north
A new era in the political history of Cyprus has begun with the victory of left-winger Demetris Christofias in presidential elections.

It was the first time that a leader of the Greek Cypriot communist party (Akel) had entered the presidential race.

Mr Christofias fought off a challenge from Ioannis Kasoulides, the right wing leader of the Disy party. When news of his victory reached Akel headquarters in Nicosia a cacophony of cheering and car horns rang out across the city.

The election may have been presented as a contest between left and right. But the campaign was ultimately all about the Cyprus problem and the candidates' proposals for reuniting the divided island.

In the first round of polling the previous Sunday, Mr Christofias and Mr Kasoulides edged out the incumbent President, Tassos Papadopoulos.

Resuming talks

In 2004, Mr Papadopoulos had advised Greek Cypriots to reject a UN-backed reunification plan. Since then there have been no direct negotiations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

In the first round of voting, 60% of the Greek Cypriot electorate backed either Mr Christofias or Mr Kasoulides, both of whom promised the early resumption of reunification talks.

Mr Christofias, a builder's son, educated in Soviet-era Russia, prides himself on having the common touch.

He has also established strong ties with the Turkish Cypriot labour movement and is one of only a few Greek Cypriot politicians to have crossed to the Turkish-occupied north of the island to visit Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.

AKEL supporters outside party headquarters on 24 February
Celebrating Christofias supporters hope Cyprus has a better future

According to Mr Christofias' party spokesman, Andros Kyprianou, the new president's links with Turkish Cypriot leaders "will make it relatively easy to have bilateral talks with them".

Confidence undermined

During the election campaign Mr Christofias called for a solution to the Cyprus problem that would "reunite the state, the people, the institutions and the economy."

But any future negotiations may not go as smoothly as Mr Christofias would wish. Turkish Cypriot confidence in the left-wing leader was undermined when, in 2004, as a junior coalition partner he joined with then president Tassos Papadopoulos, in calling on Greek Cypriots to reject the UN re-unification plan.

Academic Niazi Kizilurek, one of a handful of Turkish Cypriots who live in the mainly Greek Cypriot south, believes that "the 'no' vote of Christofias created considerable disappointment amongst the Turkish Cypriot community".

At the time, Mr Christofias argued that this was a tactical decision. But the votes of his left-wing supporters in effect perpetuated the island's division, leaving the Turkish Cypriot community internationally unrecognised, while their Greek Cypriot compatriots joined the European Union.

Complications

The new president has said that he will immediately request meetings with Mr Talat and the UN secretary general, with a view to resuming negotiations.

The UN administered Green Line in Nicosia
Cyprus has been divided since 1974

There is another possible complication. In order to secure victory, Mr Christofias revived his partnership with the party of the defeated president, promising it the influential foreign ministry in exchange for support in Sunday's poll.

In addition, there are still major issues to be resolved, like territorial claims, the return of property to Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees, the presence of Turkish troops in the north of the island, and the constitution of a unified state.

Selling a solution

Nevertheless the hope of many European governments will be that the Cyprus problem can be solved in order to clear the way for Turkey's EU accession.

With Turkish troops remaining in Cyprus and the island still divided, Ankara has little hope of being accepted into the union.

In seeking a settlement Mr Christofias will also need to take into account the overwhelming Greek Cypriot rejection of the UN plan.

Hubert Faustman, a political analyst at Nicosia University, says Mr Christofias "has to sell any solution to a population that considers the rejected plan to be unjust, unfair and one-sided in favour of the Turkish Cypriots. He has to come up with something substantially different".

Diplomats in Cyprus had hoped that the Greek Cypriot negotiator in future talks would be Mr Kasoulides, a strong supporter of European co-operation and a former MEP.

Mr Christofias, by contrast, has in the past sounded ambivalent on Europe. "He has a track record of being a Euro-sceptic," one diplomat said, "we will be watching carefully."


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