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Cyprus President-Elect Promises Reunification Talks

Hours after the polls in Cyprus closed, president-elect President Dimitris Christofias promised to begin reunification talks with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart. Yet the process is likely to be slow and difficult.

Supporters of Communist President-elect Dimitris Christofias wave Cyprus and Che Guevara flags during victory celebrations

Score one for the communists

In an acceptance speech before a stadium of cheering supporters after polls closed Sunday, Feb. 24, Christofias said he'd already spoken with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat about arranging a meeting.

"I offer a hand of friendship and cooperation to the Turkish Cypriots and their leadership. I urge them to work together with us for the common good of the people in a climate of peace," Christofias said Sunday.

Talat, who heads the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, called Christofias to congratulate him shortly after his win, and the two have agreed to meet, an aide to Talat told AFP.

Reunification became a major election theme as Cypriots signaled their frustration with the former government's unwillingness to negotiate. Christofias' election victory has revived hopes that a peace process can be resumed.

Country remains divided

Two U.N. peacekeepers walk along the barbed wires and barrels that mark so-called Green Line which separates Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities

Cyprus remains visibly divided

The last round of talks broke down in 2004 after Greek Cypriots rejected a United Nations plan and joined the European Union alone.

The Mediterranean island, a former British colony and favorite tourist destination, has been divided since an Athens-supported coup in 1974 caused the Turkish government to send troops into the north. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Ankara, which has 30,000 troops stationed there.

The Greek Cypriot government in the south, which is internationally recognized, is separated from the northern half of the island by a UN-controlled "Green Line." The ongoing tensions have complicated the relationship between Greece and Turkey and been an obstacle to Turkey's efforts to join the EU.

Papadopoulos' surprising defeat

President-elect Dimitris Christofias waves to his supporters during a victory rally

Dimitris Christofias wants to restart negotiations

But Cypriots signaled they were ready for a changed during the first round of presidential elections on Feb. 17. In a surprise result, incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos, who had taken a hard-line stance against negotiations, was eliminated from the race.

Christofias, of the communist AKEL party, won 53.36 percent of the votes. His rival, Ionnis Kasoulides, a conservative and former foreign minister, received 46.64 percent of the votes.

After the first round of voting, the two leading candidates began courting supporters of parties which had backed Papadopoulos. Christofias picked up the endorsement of three small parties after making important concessions.

Christofias reportedly promised the center-right DIKO party of Papadopoulos three ministries, including foreign affairs, and the socialist EDEK party two. The deal could make it more difficult to enter into negotiations with Turkish Cypriots as the DIKO and EDEK parties have historically been less flexible.

Experts have warned that any negotiation process that could lead to reunification will be slow and difficult.

Communists score a win

Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat

Talat has agreed to a meeting

Soviet-educated Christofias, 62, is the only communist leader in the 27-member EU and the first to lead Cyprus. Christofias has said he will not interfere with the country's market economy, despite his party's Leninist roots.

The election results have also worried some in the EU as Christofias' AKEL party has strong ties with Moscow and is considered skeptical of the EU and NATO. Christofias has rejected claims that he's anti-European and said he will not nationalize the economy or do away with any international agreements.

Christofias will serve a five-year term. Christofias said his first order of business would be to pursue UN-mediated peace talks.

"Today the public spoke. ... There are many difficulties before us, but from tomorrow we unite our efforts to achieve the reunification of our country," Christofias said in his victory speech Sunday.

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