NICOSIA (Reuters) - Newly-elected Cyprus President Demetris Christofias came under immediate pressure on Monday to make good on promised efforts to reunite the divided Mediterranean island.
Christofias, 62, has agreed to meet the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north. The European Union, the United States and Britain urged him to waste no time to end the division hindering Turkey’s European Union accession efforts.
“I believe that soon an exploratory meeting will be arranged,” Christofias told journalists on Monday, while Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat asked for swift talks.
“I genuinely congratulate Mr Christofias and I call on him to cooperate in the process of negotiations which should start as soon as possible,” he told a news conference in the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia.
A communist party leader who says he will not tamper with the island’s market economy, Christofias rode a wave of discontent with his predecessor’s hard-line policies towards Turkish Cypriots to win Sunday’s runoff election.
“I would strongly encourage you to grasp this chance and without delay start negotiations under United Nations auspices with the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community on a comprehensive settlement,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement to Christofias.
The United States and Britain also issued statements saying 2008 offered a window of opportunity and offering support.
Analysts said both sides are aware this may be the last chance for Cyprus, whose division is also a source of tension between NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
“You have two presidents whose parties have worked hard to re-unite Cyprus for 34 years. If they don’t do it, who will?” said Mete Hatay, a researcher for the PRIO peace institute in Nicosia.
The Cypriot press hailed the day as historic, both because Christofias becomes the island’s first communist president and the only one in the 27-member EU, but also as an opportunity to end the island’s stalemate.
“After five wasted years ... he has a moral obligation to try to make up for lost ground,” wrote the Cyprus Mail daily.
The island has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Reunification efforts broke down in 2004 when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. plan and a divided Cyprus joined the EU soon after.
Ankara’s EU entry negotiations have been partly suspended because of the deadlock over Cyprus. The EU recognises the Greek-Cypriot government in the south, where voting took place on Sunday, while only Turkey recognises the breakaway north.
The surprise elimination of incumbent President Tassos Papadopoulos, who lead the opposition to the U.N. plan, in the first round on February 17 raised hopes the Greek Cypriots might be ready for a deal.
“Now there are no more excuses ... no one is left on the stage to block a solution,” said Sener Levent, editor of the Turkish Cypriot Afrika newspaper in a column.
The 2004 plan, which had been approved by Turkish Cypriots, called for a loose federation of separate states. A U.N. team was expected on the island by early April to assess the potential for a settlement, diplomats said.
“Mediators want to see Talat and Christofias talking, that is the first crucial step,” said a Western diplomat in Nicosia. “Mediators will facilitate but the initiatives and proposals must come from the Cypriots.”
Additional reporting by Simon Bahceli; Writing by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Janet Lawrence