The current debate shows that the Turkish government has gained a leverage to set the tone in the domestic politics and chooses to make ambiguous statements to keep the issue warm at the political level. In the long run, the statements of the officials from the highest level indicate the Montreux regime would prevail even after the construction of the canal, up until a better one is formulated, writes Valdai Club expert Hasan Selim Özertem.
In 2011 President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled his “crazy project”, Canal İstanbul. It is a new passageway to the Black Sea in parallel to the Bosphorus. On April 7th, Erdoğan announced that preparations for the bidding process was ready and the ground-breaking event would take place in summer of 2021. It is claimed that investors from China are interested in the project. Still, the multi-billion-dollar project has a contested character. Beyond its economic and ecological implications, as in the recent case of 104 admirals’ declaration, some groups claim that the canal has a potential to undermine the Montreux regime. This makes the project a political phenomenon.
Why Montreux Convention is back on the agenda?
Montreux Convention approved by signatories of Lausanne Treaty, except Italy, in 1936. It is seen as one of the main pillars of Turkish Republic’s sovereignty along with Lausanne Treaty. It also played a role in defining Turkey’s position in a divided world order within the ranks of NATO after the World War II. Turkey decided to bandwagon with the West, when the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov demanded a change in the Montreux regime, along with some territorial claims, from Ambassador Selim Sarper in June 1945.
After Erdoğan’s announcement of Canal Istanbul in 2011 a new debate has started in Turkey, including the fate of the Montreux Convention. It had lost momentum in time, due to dramatic political developments in Turkish politics since 2013. Yet, the Justice of Development Party (JDP) brought it back to the agenda during the 2019 municipality elections as part of its campaign. Nevertheless, losing the mayorship of Istanbul to the candidate of Nation Alliance and then outbreak of the COVID-19 pushed the topic down in the agenda.
On March 20th, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention with a presidential decree (The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence) sparked a new debate about the president’s judiciary authority and the role of the parliament at the public level. In line with these discussions, Haberturk’s columnist Muharrem Sarıkaya made a comparison with the withdrawal decision and asked to the speaker of the Parliament whether it is possible to withdraw from other conventions, including the Montreux Convention. Mustafa Şentop responded that in technical terms it was possible, but not probable. In those days, the government took the advantage of blockade of Suez Canal by a vessel and brought back the canal project back to the table. The developments in Ukraine’s Donbas region and the US’ decision to send its warships to the Black Sea further contributed to the debate in the political arena.
What does Montreux regime mean?
When Turkey signed the Lausanne Treaty, the straits were demilitarized and an international commission was established to govern the passages from the straits. Considering the transforming political environment in world politics during the 1930s, Turkey declared that there was a need for a change in the regime and militarization of the straits with its national forces. Signatories, including the Soviet Union, agreed with Turkey and signed the Montreux Convention. According to this agreement the civilian vessels are free to pass through the straits based on certain regulations, but there are certain limitations for military vessels. For instance, entrance of military vessels non-littoral states to the Black Sea are limited with tonnage and time. Besides, the passage of aircraft carriers is not allowed, while Black Sea powers’ submarines shall pass through the straits during the daytime on the surface and singly. Furthermore, there is an obligation for both non-littoral (15 days) and littoral states (8 days) to notify Turkish authorities before passing through the straits.
These rules give an upper hand to Ankara, while contributing to the stability and predictability in the Black Sea. This was seen in the Georgia war in 2008, when Turkey barred the passage of the US vessels through the straits due to non-compliance with tonnage limitations. However, there are claims that the regime could be undermined with the construction of a new canal in Istanbul. For instance, in 2019 retired ambassador Mithat Rende argues in an interview that after the construction of the canal some may say that the conditions have changed and we need to bring the Montreux Convention back to the table.
It should be underlined here that the Montreux Convention regulates the transit passages from the straits as a package. In the document, “the straits” refer to the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. Moreover, it also regulates the entrance into the Black Sea in terms of time of stay and tonnage. In this regard, the experts argue that the construction of a canal does not change the status of the Montreux Convention. In an interview to the Rossiya 24, Russian Ambassador to Ankara, Aleksey Yerhov expressed his view in line with this argument.
What is the ongoing debate in Turkey?
President Erdoğan says that Turkey would have full sovereignty over the canal. On April 5th, he further stated that “We currently have neither any efforts nor intention to leave the Montreux Convention", but added that his administration would not hesitate in the future to review any agreements to get a better deal for Turkey.
Former member of the parliament and retired ambassador Şükrü Elekdağ said in an interview, any change in the Convention has a potential to bring regulations in parallel with the United Nations Convention on Law of Sea (UNCLOS), which would remove current limitations and allow transit passages of military vessels through the straits. He says that such a change would undermine Turkey’s security. From this point of view, the rationale points out that Turkey would be inclined to preserve the current status quo even after the construction of the canal.
Looking at the government’s mega projects in the last two decades, the canal project is another multibillion-dollar investment in the Marmara region. The government has undertaken so many build-operate-transfer projects with state guarantees, which also include 30-billion-euro worth Istanbul Airport project. It is expected to build a new city around the canal with a population over a million people. Such a project is compared with $2.3 trillion dollar infrastructure package to stimulate the economy in the US’. It would create a new investment zone for Turkey’s construction sector, which played a locomotive role in the economy in since 2000s, and supported by the JDP governments. Moreover, the government expects an annual income between $2-8 billion from the vessel passages from the canal. Erdoğan says that the maximum capacity that the Bosphorus could handle is 25000 vessels per year. So, he argues that the canal would contribute to the safety of the historical peninsula. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reminds the previous accidents in the Bosphorus and says that some commercial vessels that cannot pass through the Bosporus due to technical or other reasons like LPG tankers can use Canal Istanbul.
Counter arguments of the opposition claim that the Montreux Convention allows a free passage to commercial vessels, and Turkey has no authority to force use of an alternative route. Moreover, the annual income of the state from the passages from the straits is around $150 million, and considering the operational costs and possible limited passages such a canal would not be feasible for a project that is estimated to cost $10-20 billion considering the declining traffic. The opposition claims that in such a scenario, the project would be financed by Turkish tax payers rather than creating income for Turkish Treasury.
In the long run the Black Sea has a potential to transform into a more competitive economic zone. In this regard, such an alternative can be an advantage and some companies would prefer to make payments to reach to their destinations earlier. Thus, from an economic point of view, the problem is calculation of breakeven point and its potential burden for Turkish taxpayers. Yet, the development of such a project will not be limited with passageway and the possible rent around the canal is making it more attractive for the investors.
From political perspective, the status quo serves to the interests of both Turkey and the littoral states. Both President Vladimir Putin and President Erdoğan agreed in this in their latest telephone conversation on April 9th. Furthermore, the Montreux regime represents a practical legal basis for Turkey to avoid any clash between great powers while maintaining its security and sovereignty on the straits. However, the current debate shows that the government has gained a leverage to set the tone in the domestic politics and chooses to make ambiguous statements to keep the issue warm at the political level. In the long run, the statements of the officials from the highest level indicate the Montreux regime would prevail even after the construction of the canal, up until a better one is formulated.