Kanal İstanbul will not replace passage from straits

Kanal İstanbul will not replace passage from straits

All the countries around the Black Sea, as well as other interested powers like the United States, must be following the debates over Kanal Istanbul, the project to dig an artificial seaway parallel to the Bosphorus Strait.

The Dardanelles and the Marmara Sea together with the Bosphorus are strategic straits connecting the Black Sea with the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

Turkey is party to the Montreux Convention under which it is obliged to grant freedom of passage to merchant vessels, while vessels of war are subject to some restrictions.

In addition to their symbolic importance; separating Anatolia from Europe, the straits have played a crucial role in the world’s history.

The French and the British failure to capture the straits in 1915/16 changed the course of World War I and facilitated the Russian revolution.

A few decades later, at the end of World War 2, when the Soviet Union objected to Turkey’s control over the straits, which was agreed to by the Montreux Convention and started to apply pressure on Turkey. This threat was probably one of the key incentives for Turkey to apply for NATO membership.

Over the years, Turkey gained international respect including Russia’s for the strict implementation of the Montreux.

The only time the convention came back to the agenda was in the 1990s when increased vessel traffic, as well as transport of hazardous material like oil and gas in the narrow straits of the Bosphorus, started to threaten a city with a growing population. Turkey was able to make its case at the International Maritime Organization and succeeded in increasing its power to regulate maritime traffic.

It is thanks to the new set of rules agreed to in 1998 that no one objects when Turkey closes maritime traffic when there is intensive fog, or vessels pile up in long queues when Turkey slows down traffic to allow the passage of a big tanker carrying dangerous material. But it took years of negotiations to agree even on these new rules based on very legitimate humanitarian and environmental concerns.

That’s why it is only natural to expect that a project which can be perceived as an alternative to the straits should raise eyebrows in a few capitals. So far, we have not heard much of a voice coming from third parties. This is interesting especially when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself links Kanal Istanbul to Montreux Convention.

The underlying message is that Turkey is not getting its dues from the passages from the straits and therefore the losses would be compensated thanks to Kanal Istanbul.

However, there is no way Turkey can force third party vessels to pass from Kanal Istanbul unless the two coasts reunite miraculously due to some earthquake or a gigantic meteor from space falls over the Bosphorus blocking the maritime road.

Most probably this is also known to the strategists at the Presidential Palace. But in view of the domestic opposition to the canal, Montreux comes in handy to mobilize support from the traditional Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters and silence those who are against.

For decades the spoke persons of pious-conservative ideologies have targeted the agreements signed after World War One like Lausanne or Montreux, to hit the rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP); their secular foe. They tried to convey the message that secularist elites have not done enough to guarantee Turkey’s rights in international forums and was forced by foreign powers to compromise.

It is, therefore, no surprise to see that Montreux convention is being mentioned by the ruling elites; not because it will be replaced by Kanal Istanbul but because it will help them consolidate support thanks to their polarization tactics. That’s why instead of debates based on scientific findings or cost-benefit analysis, we will witness discussions on how the country’s former secular elite have caused losses to Turkey and how the current elites are trying to correct past mistakes.