New risk of havoc in the Black Sea
More than 100 retired Turkish navy admirals last week delivered what the government perceived to be an ultimatum. A prosecution was initiated and arrest warrants issued for about 13 of them. The situation was exacerbated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hypersensitivity to anything that originates from the attitude of the military, as Turkey’s history is rich in military interventions.
Everything started with a comment by Mustafa Sentop, the speaker of the Turkish parliament. While answering a question during a television interview, he said the Turkish president had the power to withdraw from the 1936Montreux Convention, which regulates naval traffic through the Turkish straits.
This issue is indirectly linked to an audacious proposed infrastructure project to dig a canal that would link the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, bypassing the Bosporus. Erdogan calls it his “crazy project.” Environmentalists and the political opposition are strongly against it for budgetary and environmental reasons. These aspects have never been thoroughly debated.
The Turkish straits are the only international waterways whose status is regulated by an international convention. The Montreux Convention makes a clear distinction between the riparian and non-riparian countries of the Black Sea, which is a closed sea. There are numerous restrictions on the naval vessels of non-riparian countries, such as that they are not allowed to stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea. The convention also states that no more than nine naval vessels are allowed to cross the Turkish straits at a time, while non-riparian naval vessels heavier than 10,000 tons are not allowed through. In the case of war, Turkey has the right to block the passage of ships from belligerent countries, as well as merchant ships carrying weapons to countries that are fighting Turkey. Ankara may also block passage in case of the imminent threat of war.
This regulatory role was entrusted to Turkey because of the worsening security situation in Europe in the run up to the Second World War. Such an atmosphere may not arise again. The convention was initially in effect for a period of 20 years, renewable by tacit consent. The fifth renewal date will be in 2036. That no state has so far objected to its renewal indicates that the convention has struck a fair balance among the interests of all parties.
Skeptics in Turkey are inclined to presume that it might be Washington’s finger stirring up the issue
The US is not party to the convention, but it would like to have a naval presence in the Black Sea. In 2008, during the South Ossetian crisis between Russia and Georgia, the US wanted to send a 68,000-ton hospital ship through the Turkish Straits, but Turkey informed Washington that this would contradict the terms of the Montreux Convention, so the US had to send a smaller vessel instead.
If the Istanbul Canal is eventually dug — as Erdogan says he is determined to do — a new controversy may arise. If the US asked Turkey to let a naval vessel beyond the tonnage authorized by the Montreux Convention transit to the Black Sea, not through the Bosporus but through the canal, what would Ankara’s response be? It could either state that the convention’s restrictions were valid only for passage through the Bosphorus, and allow the vessel through; or reject the request on the ground that the convention is meant to maintain a power balance in the Black Sea, not just passage through the Bosphorus. It would, therefore, be irrelevant whether a US naval vessel entered the Black Sea through the Bosphorus or the new canal — as long as the naval ships of non-riparian countries were in the Black Sea, the power balance would be upset, to the detriment of the riparian nations.
Because of the canal connection, Erdogan links the retired admirals’ letter with this issue and perceives an indirect threat to his “crazy project.” The admirals’ concern is the preservation of the power balance that was established in 1936. Such an opportunity may not arise again if Turkey decides to withdraw from the convention. Skeptics in Turkey are inclined to presume that it might be Washington’s finger stirring up the Montreux Convention issue in order to establish a strong naval presence in the Black Sea, where Russia remains the dominant military power. Because of the involvement of too many actors with differing agendas, this issue has become like the fable of blind men describing an elephant.
Few in Turkey are aware that the collapse of the Montreux regime has the potential to wreak havoc on the stability in the Black Sea area, with no guarantees of Turkey regaining its previous competences.
*Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar