Leftist victory revives hopes for a united Cyprus

The leader of the Cypriot Communist Party, Demetris Christofias, won the presidential election yesterday, reviving hopes for a solution on the divided island that could have ramifications well beyond Cyprus.

Mr Christofias won 53.36 per cent of the vote, becoming the island's first communist president, albeit a communist who accepts the country's market economy. His right-wing rival, Ioannis Kassoulides, had 46.64 per cent.

While much of the focus beyond Cyprus has been on Mr Christofias's communist background and education in Moscow, on the island voters have been more concerned with a solution to Europe's longest running conflict.

The election comes four years after Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected a UN-backed plan to reunite the island, which has been split between Turkish and Greek zones since Turkey invaded in 1974 to crush a coup backed by the junta then in power in Athens.

The outgoing president, Tassos Papadopoulos, surprisingly defeated in a first round of voting last weekend, was a hardliner who put all his energy into scuppering the so-called Annan plan. Mr Christofias has made it clear he has no intention of continuing with Mr Papadopoulos' intransigence. "We will roll up our sleeves and work hard so that our island is reunified," he told reporters after voting in Nicosia.

A deputy in Mr Christofias's Akel party, Takis Hadjigeorgiou says he expects the new President to start pushing for a restart to talks "as of Monday".

While 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots voted against the Annan plan in 2004, sabotaging four and a half years of negotiations, recent polls suggest that most now support efforts to find a solution.

Once a pariah state recognised only by Turkey, Turkish northern Cyprus has begun creeping out of three decades of international isolation since 2004, and getting wealthier.

Greek Cypriots from the north are aware this is probably their last chance to recuperate lost property, or get financial restitution.

"If we can't solve this problem, life will solve it," said Makarios Drousiotis, a prominent Greek Cypriot commentator. "If no common ground is found within a year, de facto separation will become permanent."

Cypriots are not the only ones likely to be affected by the election result. It looks set to give a major push to Turkey's struggling European Union bid, boosting Brussels' tarnished credentials as a truly international actor in the process.

Made an EU member a month after it rejected the UN plan, Mr Papadopoulos's Cyprus reneged on a 1999 promise not to block Turkey's accession progress by vetoing Turkish-EU negotiations in a number of critical issues.

"Those opposed to Turkey's EU membership are doing everything they can to get Turkey to walk away of its own accord," said Hugh Pope, co-author of a report on Cyprus published last month by the International Crisis Group.

Turkey's continued refusal fully to recognise Cyprus "is the most effective tool they have to do that". In retaliation for what it perceives as Brussels being held hostage by Cyprus, Turkey has used its Nato membership to block EU-Nato co-operation over peacekeepers in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The fear among Turkish pro-Europeans is that, while both sides in Cyprus, the EU, the US and the UN are keen to see talks resume, Cyprus' diplomatic guerrilla tactics have so angered Turkey that it might be less enthusiastic.

"We gave a hand and they took an arm", a senior Turkish government official said, referring to Turkey's 2004 decision to back the UN plan after three decades of hawkish posturing had convinced the world that it was the main obstacle to a solution on the island.

Turkish public support for the EU accession process has slumped since then from 70 per cent to about 40 per cent. Despite recent promises from Turkey's Foreign Minister that 2008 "will be an EU year", Europe appears to have all but disappeared from the government's agenda.