The stunning election of a Communist president in Cyprus last month promised a new direction for the divided country. Now, newly elected president Dimitris Christofias has taken a historic step toward the long-sought reunification of Cyprus.

On March 21, Christofias met with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and the chief of the UN mission in Nicosia, Michael Moller, to hammer out a path towards settlement of what Cypriots call the “Cyprus problem.”

The “problem” dates back to 1974, when right-wing elements in Cyprus, supported by a Greek military dictatorship, staged a coup, briefly taking power. The right-wingers sought to annex the island nation to Greece. Turkey used the coup and the pending annexation as a pretense to invade Cyprus, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Turkish minority there. As a consequence of these events, Turkey continues to occupy the northern third of the island to this day.

Christofias, a historian who previously served as president of the Cypriot House of Representatives, the country’s parliament, is the leader of AKEL (Progressive Party of Working People), Cyprus’ Communist Party. It is the island’s biggest party with deep roots among the people. During his election campaign Christofias pledged to make reunification his first order of business.

Thousands of people, including both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, turned out to cheer the announcement of his Feb. 24 electoral victory. Christofias told them, “As president of the Republic of Cyprus I have the responsibility of uniting and representing all the citizens.’’ He added, ‘’We have a clear vision, a vision to reunite our Cyprus, rid the country of the Turkish occupation and its consequences, turn it into a happy homeland for all its children, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.’’

“We are pursuing a just settlement, a solution based on UN resolutions and decisions, the high-level agreements of 1977 and 1979, the European and international law,’’ Christofias said.

He wasted no time in moving to make good on this pledge.

At the March 21 meeting, Christofias and Talat agreed to open up two crossing points along the “Green Line,” the UN-patrolled barrier that separates the Cypriot and Turkish sectors of the island, and to set up committees and working groups to prepare for full-fledged negotiations within three months.

As an initial conciliatory measure, military checkpoints on Nicosia’s Ledra Street were dismantled by order of the mayor, Eleni Mavrou, months before the presidential election. Mavrou is a leading member of AKEL. Now, following up on February’s presidential victory, Christofias has brought this initial peace initiative to a qualitatively higher level — Ledra Street is one of the two crossing points opened in the new talks.

It took over 30 years, but Cyprus’ new AKEL government is working to turn the negative developments of the past around.

In his victory speech, Christofias told Cypriots that “our vision is a fairer society with economic development, coupled with more social justice, a modern state that will stand by its citizens in need.’’

He said he would put special emphasis on “all that unites us.

“I am president from the people and will be president for the people,’’ he concluded.

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