NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Dimitris Christofias, Cyprus’ first communist president whose troubled tenure was marked by near financial ruin that necessitated an international rescue, uproar over a deadly Iranian munitions blast and failure to end the country’s ethnic division, died Friday. He was 72.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades confirmed his predecessor’s death in a written message, expressing “deep sorrow.” Anastasiades said he and Christofias may have been on divergent political paths, but he did what he thought was best for his country.
Conveying his condolences to the Christofias’ family, Anastasiades said his predecessor had been in frail health for many years.
Christofias, who was president from 2008-2013, had been in a critical condition since being admitted to Nicosia General hospital in May. Israeli doctors had assisted Cypriot colleagues in treating the former president. Christofias’ personal doctor Michael Minas told state-run Cyprus News Agency the former president died at 5:36 p.m. local time (1436 GMT; 10:36 a.m. EDT).
Condolences to Christofias’ family poured in from Greek Cypriot political leaders as well as the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots Mustafa Akinci, who did so in a tweet.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras praised Christofias as a “genuine leader” of the Cypriot people and a “great fighter of the Left” who was always on the frontline of the struggle for social justice and for reunifying Cyprus.
Anastasiades will chair a Cabinet meeting Saturday to work out the details of Christofias’ funeral arrangements.
Christofias was the only Cypriot president not to seek re-election, citing his failure to achieve his “life’s vision” of reunifying the country that had been split since Turkey invaded in 1974 following a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
After his March 2008 rise to power, Christofias was hailed as the leader with the best chance to achieve a peace breakthrough that had eluded his predecessors, thanks to long-standing ties with the Turkish Cypriot left-wing trade union movement.
But all the optimism faded as talks with two Turkish Cypriot leaders dragged on over five years without tangible results. Some faulted Christofias for allowing momentum to drain from the process.
“I will leave truly miserable, because what I had promised can’t happen given Turkey’s intransigence, so from here on in, I’ll suffer along with you as a common citizen,” he had told municipal officials shortly before leaving office in 2013.
Christofias’ “man-of-the-people” persona, which he often played up to underscore his working-class roots, endeared him to many.
His election offered a curious paradox of Cypriot politics — an avowed communist in charge of a country with a free-market economy that boasted membership in the European Union, which Christofias’ party had once denounced as being in league with the “imperialist” NATO alliance.
But as his presidency wore on and the economy began to tank, many came to view him as ill-equipped to govern, especially in matters of the economy.
The turning point in Christofias’ presidency came on July 11, 2011, when a 400-ton stash of seized Iranian munitions spontaneously combusted at a naval base where it had been stored, exposed to the elements, for nearly two years. The blast killed 13 people, wrecked the island’s main power station and sparked weeks of protests calling for Christofias’ resignation over his administration’s perceived ineptitude.
An ensuing inquiry into the blast found Christofias personally responsible for the disaster, something that he vehemently rejected, insisting that subordinates misled him and that a separate police report vindicated him.
“I’m easy with my conscience,” he said in a 2012 interview, insisting that he was the target of a “war of extermination” by his political opponents.
The disaster exacerbated an acute banking crisis that had locked Christofias into an acrimonious feud with former Central Bank Governor Athanasios Orphanides over who was to blame for it.
Another inquiry held Christofias primarily responsible for bringing the country to near-bankruptcy because he pursued “reckless” economic policies, ignored warnings over spending and worsened problems by delaying talks on an international bailout.
Christofias argued the inquiry was “illegal” and the report “fraught with untruths and slander” that offered cover to the banks, who he claimed were the real culprits.
Opinion polls showed Christofias to have scored some of the lowest approval ratings of any Cypriot president.
The son of a builder and one of five children, Soviet-educated Christofias’ decades-long involvement with Cyprus’ communist Progressive Party for the Working People (AKEL) culminated in 1988 when he became the party’s youngest-ever secretary-general at the age of 41.
Christofias underwent a lifesaving kidney transplant in 1999, in which the donor was his sister. He also had open-heart surgery earlier in that same year.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, two daughters and a son, and grandchildren.
This story has been corrected to show that the time of death was 5:36 p.m., not 5:40.p.m.