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Christofias becomes first communist Cyprus president

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Demetris Christofias, Soviet educated and with a penchant for Che Guevara t-shirts, made history on Sunday becoming Cyprus’s first communist president.

Newly-elected President of Cyprus Demetris Christofias waves to supporters in Nicosia February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

A builder’s son from a village now in Turkish held north Cyprus, Christofias, 62, portrays himself as a moderate who is best placed to revive reunification talks with Turkish Cypriots.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been separated since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Christofias’s Communist AKEL party has had traditionally good relations with Turkish Cypriots.

“We can find a common language of communication with Turkish Cypriots,” said Christofias.

Created in 1926 as the Communist Party of Cyprus, AKEL, is the island’s biggest party but had never before contested the presidency. It was instrumental in ensuring the election of five of the six presidents of the island post-independence in 1960.

Christofias backed incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos in 2003 but quit the governing alliance in July 2007, citing frustration at Papadopoulos’s negotiation tactics on ending Cyprus’s division.

Despite communism all but crumbling everywhere else in Europe, the AKEL headquarters still boast statues of Lenin and its members address one another as comrades.

AKEL swiftly punishes any dissent but also holds stakes in successful businesses ranging from printing works to crisp makers, and production of Zivania, a Cypriot spirit with fans on both sides of the divide.

“They are extremely pragmatic, Europe shouldn’t worry,” said Hubert Faustmann, a political analyst. “They should be polite and smile.”

A fluent Russian speaker with good ties with the Kremlin, Christofias acknowledges the economy works well and says he has no intention of rocking the boat.

Observers say AKEL is closer to European social democrat parties with their policies.

Opinion polls often show him as one of the island’s most popular politicians. A blunt, if long-winded speaker, he seldom attempts to cover up a heavy Cypriot accent.

He was educated in Moscow on a party scholarship and led the youth wing of AKEL. He was elected party Secretary-General in 1988 and elected president of Cyprus’s parliament in 2001.