NICOSIA, Cyprus — At a recent political rally in a converted movie theater, George Vassiliou, a businessman and candidate for president, appeared a bit uncomfortable on the dais, wedged between two stalwart members of the Cyprus Communist Party in rumpled gray suits.
Vassiliou seemed elegant in a blue pinstripe and conservative tie. But he soon had the audience of party faithful jumping in the aisles, waving banners and shouting, "Cyprus is voting for Vassiliou."
In Western Europe in recent years, Communist parties have tried to win votes by demonstrating their independence from Moscow and shedding their doctrinaire rhetoric about the impending class struggle. By contrast, the Communist Party in Cyprus, the oldest and one of the largest parties on the island, still hews close to the Moscow line. The party leader, Ezekias Papaioannou, has Stalinist credentials dating back to the Spanish Civil War and has led the party unchallenged since the end of World War II.
Yet this year AKEL, as the party is known after its initials in Greek, is working all-out to elect Vassiliou despite an odd disparity: He is a self-made millionaire, captain of industry and ebullient proselytizer for the capitalist way.
Vassiliou's resume reads like it was that of a demon in the eyes of Communist Party traditionalists--managing director of a conglomerate, former vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, member of the board of directors of the country's largest bank and economic adviser to the Church of Cyprus.
Even though Vassiliou's parents helped to found the Communist Party in the 1920s, the alliance of mogul and party is a tribute to the Byzantine nature of political maneuvering in Cyprus.
"It's not a question of right and left," said Doris Christofides, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. "We decided who would be best for all the people. We are willing to let the economic questions on our program wait until later."
Vassiliou, 57, who made a fortune conducting market research in the Middle East for multinational corporations, acknowledged in an interview that he expects "the bulk of my support" to come from the Communists in the first round of balloting on Sunday. There are four candidates, and there will be a runoff Feb. 21 for the two top finishers if there is no clear winner in the first round.
Despite the high degree of Communist support--Vassiliou is also supported by the tiny Liberal Party--he describes himself as an independent. He said he has made no special promises to AKEL besides what is spelled out in his campaign manifesto.
In addition to Communist Party support, Vassiliou has some distinct capitalist advantages: He intro duced opinion polls to the island, and his vast marketing firm has the expertise to mount a high-technology, American-style campaign effort.
Vassiliou said he is a firm believer in the country's free economy and in maintaining Cyprus' status as a nonaligned nation. He has openly disagreed with the Communists about bringing Cyprus into the European Economic Community. He supports it; the party is opposed.
"I'm committed to do what my program says," Vassiliou said. "There's no \o7 quid pro quo \f7 for the Communists."
If he is elected, though, the Hungarian-educated Vassiliou could be faced with some uncomfortable decisions about the future of British and American facilities on the island, which include radio listening posts and radar stations in the Trodos Mountains.
For the moment, however, the unusual alliance seems directed at derailing the reelection campaign of President Spyros Kyprianou, who is seeking a third term.
Kyprianou, who became the Greek Cypriot leader by acclamation in 1977 after the death of Archbishop Makarios, was supported by the Communists until 1984, when they had a falling out over the terms of a proposed peace settlement with Turkish Cypriots.
The island, which has been racked by strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriots virtually since independence in 1960, was invaded by the Turkish army in 1974. The Turkish troops remained on the northern third of the island, where Turkish Cypriots have established their own republic.
Vassiliou is fairly vague about how he would come to grips with the Turkish problem, saying that he would achieve a consensus and then mobilize an international campaign to force Turkey to accept a settlement. But he does not directly address the issue of how he would go about coming to terms with the Turkish Cypriots.
Kyprianou has attempted to outflank Vassiliou and his other two opponents--conservative leader Glafcos Clerides and Socialist Vassos Lysarides--by proclaiming that any candidate advocating change on the Turkish question is playing into the hands of Turkey.
The economy of Cyprus has enjoyed a remarkable boom under Kyprianou, but the issue appears not to have helped him significantly.