The Montreux Convention and the straits
You must have heard about the myths of Lausanne, the 1923 treaty that shaped modern Turkey. One of the more colorful myths is that there are secret clauses attached to the Treaty of Lausanne, and Turkey’s representative when it was signed, İsmet Pasha, pledged to the West to get Turkish youths addicted to football in order to “distance them from spirituality,” while also hiring women in public employment in order to “loosen their morals.”
Another myth is that the Treaty of Lausanne is limited to 100 years and is due to expire in 2023, meaning that we should expect a lot to happen in 2023.
Other myths are built around the fact that the United States never approved the treaty.
These days there are also plenty of myths circulating about the Montreux Convention of 1936, which regulates international access to the Bosphorus and Dardenelles Straits. One myth is around the fact that the Montreux Convention must be reviewed every 20 years, so in 2016 there will be lots of pressure on Turkey to change the convention.
Amid current tension between Ankara and Moscow, you can see that these myths resurface according to current political conjecture and propaganda. You will also see that in 2016 there will be no crisis over annulling or amending the Montreux Convention.
But where does this ides of a 2016 amendment come from? The Montreux Convention was signed on July 20, 1936. It completed what the Treaty of Lausanne lacked about access to the straits.
The convention, which grants free passage to ships under certain rules, states that it is valid for 20 years. It includes a clause that two years prior to the expiry of these 20 years, an annulment can be demanded by a signatory state. When no annulment is demanded, the convention is automatically extended.
Because naval traffic is very dynamic, signatory states at every five-year interval can demand amendments to clauses of the convention. Until today, no signatory state apart from Stalin’s Soviet Union has ever demanded an annulment to any of the clauses.
Claims that will see such demands in 2016 are nothing more than conspiracy theories. There is no incident whatsoever confirming this.
Would Russia make such a demand? Well, the time limit has already passed so there cannot be an amendment to the Montreux Convention – whether demanded by Russia or any other state.
More importantly, if Montreux is abolished with Russia’s initiative, it means that U.S. aircraft carriers will be able to pass through to the Black Sea. Russia would not dare to risk that.
Because it is based on such equilibriums, the Montreux Convention has been in place for 79 years, and it will continue to be so.
In 1936, around 5,000 ships passed through the straits annually. Today this figure is over 50,000, with approximately 10,000 of them tankers carrying around 150 million tons of oil and the like.
Clearly there is a very heavy and dangerous burden on the straits. Serious accidents have happened.
But nevertheless Montreux is still valid. In 1994, Turkey issued a code to regulate safe passage, not to amend Montreux. Russia seriously opposed even this code. Greece and the Black Sea countries also criticized. But after negotiations were held at the International Maritime Organization, the code was accepted after some clauses were moderated. It has since been effective without any complaints.
In the Treaty of Lausanne, our sovereignty on the straits was missing. No Turkish soldiers were permitted to be deployed on the straits and naval traffic was managed by an international commission.
The rise of fascism in Europe made England and France come closer to Turkey. Atatürk and his colleagues made good use of this conjuncture. After two-month negotiations, on July 20, 1936, all states from all sides (apart from Mussolini) signed the Montreux Convention.
Two years later, Mussolini had to sign it also.
Turkey’s annexation of the southern province Hatay and the signing of an alliance between Ankara, the U.K. and France were other diplomatic successes achieved around the same conjuncture.
Obviously, in order to understand foreign policy topics today, one has to read a little diplomatic history…