The peculiar solution

Observations on Cyprus

Two days before he became the communist president of one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world, Demetris Christofias - Soviet-educated leader of Cyprus's Akel party, football lover and the man who could reunite the divided island - had a tantrum.

Perhaps my question caught him off-guard as he entered his party offices in Nicosia. Or perhaps it was the strain of competing in the most bitter elections fought since Cyprus won independence from the British in 1960.

"How could you?" he fumed. "How could you ask if I am a communist? I'm no Castro of the Mediterranean. I'm not having this conversation. I'm going," he bellowed, heading for the lifts.

"But sir," I implored, "you must come back. This is the question everyone in Europe will want answered." Whereupon Comrade Christofias turned on his heels, arms outstretched in embrace, chubby cheeks trembling, silver helmet of hair bobbing, eyes wide open. "Your question is highly provocative," he gasped. "But my child, let me kiss you. Let me explain. My party, you have to know, is a peculiar party, that's what it is. Peculiar. Peculiar."

And therein lies the paradox of a victory that makes Cyprus the first EU member to be led by a man who speaks Russian better than English and keeps busts of Lenin at party headquarters, yet wants nothing more than to embrace the west's robust capitalist system.

The 61-year-old builder's son once described Britain as an "evil demon" responsible for Cyprus's woes, and the collapse of the Soviet Union as "a crime against humanity". But he is also an artful pragmatist, bent on reunifying his war-partitioned country. Raising the hammer and sickle over the presidential palace won't, say commentators, be part of his agenda. Akel, they insist, is more "old Labour" than "old Brezhnev".

"He is a communist leader more in name whose party has a Marxist-Leninist ideology but whose policies are distinctly social democratic," says Michalis Papapetrou, a former government spokesman and a moderate voice on the Cypriot political scene. "He will be careful not to give the impression he is changing the social system and definitely, in his international relations, will be much more constructive than [his predecessor] Tassos Papadopoulos."

Christofias's election as the sixth president of Cyprus marks the end of what many have called a "dark age" under the firebrand, Turk-hating Papadopoulos, who tearfully appealed to Greek Cypriots to reject a UN reunification plan in 2004, after which Cyprus drifted into international isolation. "He had absolute control over the media and ruled like an autocrat," says Papapetrou.

The ousting of Papadopoulos and the ascent of Comrade Christofias underline just how much Greek Cypriots want a second chance to resolve a problem that has defied international mediation since the Turkish army marched in and seized the island's northern third in 1974. More than any other Greek Cypriot politician, Christofias and his "peculiar" party renew hopes of a settlement.

Within minutes of Christofias's victory, the Turkish Cypriot leader and fellow leftist Mehmet Ali Talat called to congratulate him and urge a meeting. Keen to be the man who pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of uniting the two sides in a "bizonal, bicommunal federation", Christofias extended a "hand of friendship" to Turkish Cypriots in his victory speech.

Veteran Cyprus observers talk of a deal before the end of the year.