Professors Harry Anastasiou and Birol Yesilada laugh and joke with each other in Yesilada’s office, discussing an upcoming think-tank with an air of giddy anticipation.
Observing the way they interact, it would be hard to tell that the two professors come from two ethnic groups that have been in conflict for over 50 years.
Both Anastasiou and Yesilada are from Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean which has literally been split in two between its main ethnic groups, Greek and Turkish, since 1974. A “green line” separates the two sides of the capital city, Nicosia, making it the only divided capital city in the world.
Anastasiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Yesilada, a Turkish Cypriot, come from opposite sides. Now both professors, who teach in the graduate conflict resolution program at Portland State University, have come together to form the Peace Initiatives Project (PIP), a program aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the island’s long-standing conflict in Cyprus. It marks the first time that a Greek and Turkish Cypriot professor have collaborated in an effort for peace.
Through the PIP, the professors hope to augment the peace movement within Cyprus by providing assistance to bi-communal peace projects on the island, creating opportunities for Greek and Turkish Cypriot students to study at PSU, for students from the U.S. to study in Cyprus, and by example through their collaboration.
“By working together, we want to embody the vision for peace and resolution,” Anastasiou said.
The two professors incorporate their experiences in Cyprus into the classes they teach at PSU, using the island as a case study in conflict resolution. The professors also sometimes speak in each other’s classes to provide different perspectives on Greek and Turkish issues.
Both Yesilada and Anastasiou have been involved in the Cyprus peace movement for a long time, and began working together before coming to PSU.
Anastasiou began teaching in Cyprus in 1980, and started designing courses studying the conflict at that time. He then became involved in many bi-communal peace projects and organizing meetings in the neutral “green line.” Yesilada, who moved to the United States from Cyprus in 1971, met Anastasiou while he was working as an advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus.
The PIP began as a collaboration between Anastasiou and Yesilada on the internet, but was officially inaugurated in May, 2002. The PIP has begun to attract international attention to PSU and play an influential role in this crucial time in the peace process.
Through their unified effort, the professors said that they hope they can give something back to their homeland, and prevent the repetition of mistakes which have perpetuated violence.
“The new generations do not deserve to live under the cloud of our father’s mistakes,” Yesilada said.
Most recently, the two professors have been invited to a conference at the Western Policy Center in Washington, D.C. February 26, which will examine U.S. policies regarding a settlement in Cyprus. The conference will be attended by members of the National Security Council, the Department of the State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many other important agencies.
“You (Yesilada), and Professor Anastasiou are establishing an excellent reputation for developing a balanced approach to Greek-Turkish issues,” Col. Stephen R. Norton, Ret., a senior policy advisor for the Western Policy Center said in a letter to Yesilada.
“This is putting PSU on the map,” Anastasiou said. “This was the whole idea of setting up this project, that we could make a contribution to developing policy.”
The PIP, which according to Yesilada is still in its infancy, is gaining notoriety at a time when the peace process in Cyprus is at a crucial juncture .
Cyprus will be entering the European Union on May 1. If the two sides can unify peacefully, Cyprus will be admitted as a unified state, otherwise, only the Greek section, which occupies about two thirds of the island, will be admitted.
In 2002, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan drafted a 137-page peace plan that would reunite the country, forming two equal states, but the two governments of Cyprus have not yet agreed to the plan.
This week, President Denktash and Greek Cyprus Leader Tassos Papadopolus are meeting with Annan at the U.N. in an effort to come to an agreement on the Annan Plan and EU accession, with each side able to make revisions to the plan.
If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, the Secretary-General will assume the responsibility of creating the final plan for Cyprus.
To Anastasiou and Yesilada, the Annan Plan represents the last great hope to end the long conflict in Cyprus.
“Cyprus has a unique opportunity to resolve the Greek and Turkish conflict through the EU,” Yesilada said. “If they miss this boat on the Annan Plan, it may be the end of the road completely,”
The peace efforts have tremendous obstacles to overcome, however, if they hope to be successful, according to Anastasiou and Yesilada. The two sides of the country have a history of conflict spanning almost a century, and many Greek and Turkish Cypriots deep-seeded resentment towards one another for the violence of the past.
“If you go to Cyprus, you will not have any shortage of people telling you horror stories,” Yesilada said.
Yesilada, who was born in Cyprus during the anti-colonial war against Britain, said that his memory of his own childhood is filled with many violent experiences. In fact, there were only three years of peace, from 1960-63 during the time he lived there.
“I try not to remember those things,” Yesilada said of his early life in Cyprus, “Those childhood experiences have left a deep mark.”
Yesilada emphasized the importance of people putting these past experiences behind them.
“Part of the problem is that people dwell on those experiences,” he said.
In addition to resentment, the government of Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, lead by President Rauf Denktash, has been opposed to plans to unify Cyprus for many years, fearing that if the island were unified, the Turkish minority would not be fairly represented.
However, the Republican Turkish Party, which supports the Annan Plan won 50 percent of the parliamentary seats in an election in December 2003, which has given some new hope to supporters of the plan.
“For the first time, the pro-peace voice was heard,” Anastasiou said of the election.
Because of the pro-Annan Plan party’s newfound power, leader Mehemet Ali Talat is now included in negotiations with Denktash regarding the unification of Cyprus.
Both Anastasiou and Yesilada remain hopeful for a peaceful resolution in Cyprus, but according to Anastasiou, Cyprus’ future is still uncertain.
“I’ve had too many cases where you get your hopes up and lose hope when negotiations fail,” Yesilada said.
“It could go either way,” Anastasiou said of the Annan Plan’s prospects. “What is clear is that if negotiations fail, all parties stand to lose a great deal, but if they succeed, the gains received would be extraordinary.”