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Cypriot unity hopes rest on Vassiliou

A victory for George Vassiliou in next Sunday's run-off presidential election in Cyprus will do much to keep the divided island's politics on the international agenda at a time when the world is losing patience with one of Europe's longest-running ethnic conflicts, writes Leonard Doyle.

For the past 28 years, the United Nations has been keeping the peace between the island's increasingly prosperous inhabitants. Officials complain that the UN patrols encounter more traffic jams of expensive cars than they do tense situations. As a result, pressure is growing to shut down the UN operation.

Mr Vassiliou, 61, a multi-millionaire businessman and President since 1988, won the first round of the election on Sunday, with the backing of the Communist Party and the small left-wing party Adisok, gaining 41.15 per cent. The next poll will pit him against the conservative Glafcos Clerides, 73, who won 36.74 of the first-round vote.

If Mr Vassiliou is elected for a second five-year term it will re- ignite the hopes of Greek Cypriots that the island will be united once again as part of what UN officials call a 'bi-zonal, bi-communal' federation of Greeks and Turks. For his accomplishments in getting face-to-face negotiations started with Rauf Denktash, his Turkish Cypriot opposite number, Mr Vassiliou is already being compared favourably with Archbishop Makarios, who led the country to independence from Britain in 1960.

The hopes that he will help re- unite the country through negotiation are not widely shared by international observers, however. Beliefs that the United States would lean on Turkey to extract concessions from Turkish Cypriots have proven unfounded. The diplomatic leverage appears to be working the other way round as the US needs access to air bases in mainland Turkey and Turkish Cyprus to run reconnaissance operations against Iraq.