Leonidas Kyrkos, a veteran leftist politician who once nearly faced the firing squad and eventually became one of Greece's most respected politicians, died early Sunday after a long illness, Greek media reported. He was 86.
A longtime member of the Greek Communist Party, Kyrkos was among a group of reformers who left the party in 1968 to form their own group.
He was also instrumental in creating the Coalition of the Left, which briefly reunited the reformists with the Communists and other independent leftists in 1989 and participated in an unprecedented, if short-lived, coalition with the New Democracy conservatives.
"Leonidas Kyrkos was one of the last survivors of the heroic and unlucky generation that lived through the tumultuous period from the Metaxas dictatorship to the dictatorship of the colonels," former conservative Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, himself a member of that generation, said in a statement.
"He was always a fighter ... and a morally impeccable and brave democrat who ... always put national above party interest," he added.
Opposition leader Antonis Samaras, leader of conservative New Democracy, said "he was lucky enough to become beloved throughout the political spectrum ... stubbornly attached to his ideals. He was also unusually candid in his self-criticism."
Significantly, among the almost universal outpouring of praise Sunday, the Greek Communist party was the only one that failed to release a statement.
Kyrkos was born on Oct. 12, 1924, the son of a politician who, over a 30-year-plus career, was successively elected as a liberal, a conservative and, after World War II, a leftist member of parliament. Kyrkos himself joined the communist youth while still in his teens and, beginning in 1941, joined the resistance against the German occupier. He entered the University of Athens Medical School but never graduated.
In the civil war that followed Greece's liberation from the Germans in 1944, Kyrkos was arrested and sentenced to death for his membership in the Communist Party. He and several other activists were days from facing the firing squad when an international outcry forced the Greek government to suspend the executions in September 1949.
Released under an amnesty in 1953, Kyrkos worked as a journalist in left-wing daily Avgi, eventually becoming its editor, from 1958-61.
Elected to Parliament in 1961 with the United Democratic Left (EDA), essentially a front organization for the banned Communist Party, Kyrkos, along with several others, became increasingly at odds with the Communist leadership, which was based in the Soviet bloc. This eventually led to a party split in 1968, with Kyrkos joining the reformists in a new leftist party.
When a group of colonels imposed a dictatorship in 1967, Kyrkos was jailed for five years. Upon the restoration of democracy in 1974, he again became a deputy until 1981, when he was elected to the European Parliament, serving until 1985. He was again a deputy from 1989 to 1993.
In his later years, Kyrkos became increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as the Left Coalition's slide toward hard left positions and, especially, its increasing Euroskepticism. In 2010, he gave his support to a group of moderates who split from the Coalition to form Democratic Left and he openly advocated collaboration with the ruling socialists.
Kyrkos' health had visibly declined over the past few years, but he continued to intervene in politics, although rarely, and published two volumes of memoirs.