As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government moves ahead with plans for the new 45-kilometer Istanbul Canal, there are major questions to raise not only about how this project will play out domestically in Turkey, but also how it will impact the Montreux Convention of 1936 as well as the state of Turkish-Russian relations.
Despite the logic behind this mega-project, the Istanbul Canal has generated significant controversy in Turkey as a polarizing issue. Much of the opposition to this artificial waterway linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara stem from questions about the Montreux Convention as well as environmental and financial concerns.
For 85 years, the Convention has regulated navigation via Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, requiring freedom of civilian shipping while limiting the passage of war vessels. It has been critical to the preservation of the Black Sea’s balance of power.
According to Turkey’s leadership, this artificial waterway will not be subject to the Montreux Convention. As Erdogan put it last year, the Istanbul Canal will be “totally outside Montreux.” But Russian diplomats were quick to voice disagreement with Russia’s ambassador to Turkey saying that the Convention sets certain limits to be obeyed during the passage in and out of the Black Sea, and a new artery does not change those limits.
By imposing strict limits on non-Black Sea countries coming into these waters, the Montreux Convention has left Turkey and Russia as the top two military powers there.
Ever since Turkey joined NATO in 1951, Moscow has seen the Montreux Convention as important to the Soviet Union/Russia’s interests in seeing to it that the US and other NATO members maintain a presence in the Black Sea that is capped off at a level acceptable to the Kremlin.
The Istanbul Canal clearly has major implications for Turkey’s relationship with Russia at a time in which various conflicts from Nagorno-Karabakh to Syria and Libya have fueled tensions in bilateral affairs.
However, Turkish and Russian officials have addressed potential problems that the Istanbul Canal could create in Ankara-Moscow relations. Last month, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finished talks with his Turkish counterpart, he said that Moscow was “satisfied with interaction with our Turkish friends and colleagues on the issues of implementing the Montreux Convention” and that the two sides had “established…that the plans to construct the Istanbul Canal will not have any effect on the parameters of presence of foreign navies in the Black Sea.”
Nonetheless, concerns about the Istanbul Canal putting the Montreux Convention on the rocks prompted dozens of retired Turkish diplomats and admirals to sign on to a statement and a letter warning against this mega-project earlier this year. The 120 former ambassadors argued that the Istanbul Canal would have negative implications for Turkey’s “absolute sovereignty.”
Opposition parties in Turkey have also expressed similar concerns. Meral Aksener, who heads the Iyi Party, has referred to the Istanbul Canal as a “freak system.”
Unveiled a decade ago, this multi-billion-dollar project will connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, bypassing the Bosporus Strait. Erdogan and supporters of the Istanbul Canal see this project as a source of national pride, maintaining that it will enable Turkey to play a greater role in terms of global commerce while doing much to help the country’s largest city and economic capital.
It is entirely understandable why the Turkish president is concerned about the Bosporus Strait and wants to see an alternative fee-paying route which is more efficient and safer. Large cargo ships have difficulty navigating the Strait, which experiences high levels of traffic as one of the world’s busiest waterways. In fact, 12 percent of the global grain trade goes through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits.
One of the objectives behind the Istanbul Canal, which will be built on the province’s European side, is to minimize the risks of accidents resulting from hazardous shipments coming through the Bosporus Strait. Moreover, given that such traffic through this channel pollutes Istanbul, the canal’s proponents argue that the project is worth investing in because it will make the city cleaner.
Turkey’s Transport Minister Cahit Turhan has gone on record claiming that in 2035 there will be roughly 50,000 ships passing through this new canal, before reaching 70,000 in 2050. Turhan maintains that these 50,000 vessels using Istanbul Canal will increase Turkey’s national revenue by approximately $5 billion.
Looking ahead, the Istanbul Canal is set to remain the source for significant controversy not only in Turkey, but also in Russia and other countries. It is possible that Ankara will push to revise the Montreux Convention while leveraging the ambitious project. Under such circumstances, tensions between Moscow and NATO could heat up while raising important questions about the balance of power in the Black Sea region.