- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Demetris Christofias, the Soviet-educated leader of the communist AKEL party, swept to victory yesterday in the second round of Greek-Cypriot presidential elections and will become the first communist head of state in the 27-nation European Union.

Supporters poured into the streets carrying Cypriot flags and pictures of the iconic Cuban communist hero Che Guevera after hearing that Mr. Christofias had received 53.5 percent of the vote in the two-man contest against his conservative opponent, former Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Commentators immediately speculated that the divided Mediterranean island will forge closer links to Moscow and focus less on European solidarity.

Mr. Chrislofias acted immediately on a campaign promise — also made by his opponent — to seek better relations with the breakaway Turkish community that occupies the northern part of the island.

A spokesman for Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat said the two had already spoken by telephone and agreed to meet “at the earliest possible date” to revive reunification efforts, Reuters news agency reported.

The incoming president’s Progressive Party of the Working People, which uses the Greek acronym AKEL, opposed a United Nations-sponsored plan for reunification when it was put to Greek Cypriots in a failed referendum in 2004.

But Mr. Christofias supported the proposed federation during his campaign and said he had maintained contacts with the Turkish-Cypriot leadership since the referendum.

He denied yesterday that his policies would harm relations with the European Union or with the international business community, particularly with offshore foreign companies based in Cyprus and working in the Middle East.

His conservative opponents stressed his volatile political record, including support, until last year, for President Tassos Papadopoulos, who was eliminated in the election’s first round a week ago.

AKEL is a conundrum to Western analysts and diplomats. The largest political party in Cyprus, it has no specific economic or political program. Yet much of its leadership, including Mr. Christofias, has benefited from scholarships in Russia, lavished on Cyprus when the former Soviet Union attempted to destabilize the strategic island after its independence from Britain in 1960.

The party describes itself as communist and has a reputation for being skeptical of the European Union. It also is distrustful of NATO.

Yet, its rank-and-file includes members of the affluent Greek-Cypriot business community and land owners. The Cypriot Greek Orthodox Church — the biggest landowner on the island — endorsed the candidacy of Mr. Kasoulides.

Mr. Christofias speaks Russian and maintains good relations with Russia’s new leadership — particularly with President Vladimir Putin — and has been strongly critical of President Bush and British leaders. Western diplomats in Nicosia worry that he will be difficult to deal with.

“While Christofias has been at pains to persuade the business world that it has nothing to fear from his election, assuring that he was totally committed to a mixed economy and would not impose new taxes, his ideology remains a serious handicap,” said the English-language daily Cyprus Mail.

“The naive ideas he has been peddling in the campaign … are far from reassuring [as] is his distrust of the free market, which he disparagingly dismisses as neo-liberalism while supporting state intervention in the mixed economy.”

Because of his initial opposition to the introduction in January of the common European currency, the euro, one of the anti-Christofias slogans was: “Farewell to the euro, bring in the ruble.”

The new president likes to describe himself as “the man of the people,” vaunting his humble origins. He has been a militant AKEL member all his life, was the head of its youth wing and, in 1988, became the party’s secretary-general.

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