Let me begin with a quotation: “I attributed great significance to the success of this Conference in the name of international legitimacy. Hence, I strived to be successful with the task entrusted to me. Turkey has emerged from here to the world as the standard bearer of legitimacy, the guardian of international compromise and the defender of the regulation of peace. Everything that has dignified Turkey is a gain for her friends. I wish to state openly that it was this feeling which gave me the strength to work to the best of my abilities. For Turkey’s gain is, by extension, my country’s gain.”
This excerpt is from the closing statement of Mr. Nicolas Politis, the Chief Representative of Greece and Deputy Chairman of the Montreux Conference where the Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits was concluded in July 1936. Mr. Politis had skillfully presided over the drafting of the Convention.
Indeed, Turkey’s was an exceptional balancing act. When she invited the Parties to modify those provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne concerning the demilitarized status of and passage through the Straits, the challenge clearly was to restore her full sovereign control over the Straits and their approaches on land on the one hand, and strike a lasting balance between the security and interests of the riparian States of the Black Sea and other sea-faring nations, on the other. The clear arrangements concerning the rights and limitations for each set of states under the Montreux Convention have survived for over 83 years, under the strict management of Turkey. It has served exceptionally well for the peace and stability in the Black Sea region.
It is therefore not surprising to see that the rehashed Kanal Istanbul project has triggered a lively debate over its possible impact also on the Montreux regime. For, if the project, which will cut through the European peninsular segment of Istanbul, materializes, the physical spread of the geography which formed the basis of the 1936 Convention will have been altered.
Turkey’s pro-government media have been publishing mostly identical texts briefly detailing the physical features of and the commercial motives for the project, while remaining essentially silent on its international ramifications, except for implying that the constraints of the current contractual arrangement will be overcome. They instantly add, without articulating, that the project is far greater than meets the eye, as it will be enforcing Turkey’s sovereign entitlement. Therefore, they expect also the critics to fall into line behind this “national issue” or otherwise find themselves in betrayal, the typical claim which has been repeatedly evoked previously concerning the government’s international escapades of questionable validity.
Naturally, a livelier discussion is taking root among the critics of the project. The intelligent and informed analyses on the possible economic, social, demographic, environmental, seismic, cultural, geopolitical and legal consequences of the anticipated colossal earth moving are already voluminous and available for all to see, and therefore will not be repeated here. As for the Montreux regime, there is an emerging consensus among them that it will be affected by the project in a serious way.
This concern is well placed. But how this concern is framed will be important. For attributing undue potency to the canal will carry the risk of lending certain credence to the government’s tendency to test the Convention. The narrative of the government and its de facto coalition partner is already evolving towards qualifying the canal project as a high national cause. In the current polarizing atmosphere, one should not be surprised if those who uphold the Convention are soon accused of timidity and even treachery.
The Montreux Convention is based on the explicit, unqualified acceptance by the participating States, declared before and at the Conference, of Turkey’s full sovereign control over the Straits and their surrounding areas. This nature of the Convention is central to its existence and this centrality should be taken with the seriousness it deserves. Any attempt to temper with the Montreux regime may bring into question the entire balance which gave it life. And then there is Article 28, which states that “The freedom of transit and navigation affirmed in Article 1 of the present Convention shall however continue without limit of time”, meaning if the Convention expires or is denounced, Turkey loses its control over the navigation through the Straits.
Second, while the Convention regulates transit and navigation in the Straits (meaning the Straits of Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus), its receiving end is the Black Sea. The freedoms and limitations brought on merchant vessels (Articles 2-7), vessels of war (Articles 8-22) and aircraft (Article 23) navigating to and from the Black Sea determine the scope of the Straits regime. The impact on the Convention of a new, artificial outlet to the Black Sea needs to be assessed at least in equal measure with these stipulations existing concomitantly with the passage regulations through the Straits. Adding a canal will not transform the Black Sea into a different one. True, the canal will remain outside the provisions of the Convention. But the tonnage and other limitations are eventually for the Black Sea. This is probably why other riparian States as well as the international community have kept largely silent on this aspect of the “canal” debate in Turkey until now.
These factors alone will limit the weight of any claim that with Kanal Istanbul there can be a free ride.
In any event, poking the Convention will likely bring about the kind of complications causing headache to governments and international law experts alike for some time. Then again, it will be too hypothetical to say that we are beginning to move towards the post- Montreux era.
The true nature of the canal project has nothing to do with a high cause. It is only the desired ultimate stage of the construction spree that has so typically defined the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.
The prioritization of construction and speculative zoning was a strategic decision for the Islamist leadership. It was designated as an essential pillar for building and expanding a “new sociology” (I am using their term). The idea they drew on was less from successful development models and more from the oil revenue-based Gulf Arab economies. They provided a safe template for rentier capitalism, except that in Turkey’s case real estate income would replace oil and gas revenue. It was safe because zoning and building generated huge value and wealth simply from earth. It was safe also because it was a one-time production activity, and afterwards, like the oil flowing from the pipeline, the rent would keep pouring. And, ultimately, it was safe because non-productive economic activity did not require particularly interrogative, freedom-loving minds, a crucial necessity also for the technological advancement of a society and economy. Hence the growth of bland concrete jungles.
The “crazy project” was initially pronounced in 2011. In the years that followed, the idea remained mostly dormant, only to be reminded of intermittently to test the mood. It has recently been reignited, in earnest. This timing coincides with the deepening economic downturn at home and Turkey’s deteriorating standing abroad. Support for the AKP is declining and the total strength of the two-party bloc behind the President is fifteen percent lower than what it was several years ago. It seems like a structural shift. In addition, two new political parties are emerging from AKP’s former senior ranks. But most important of all, Turkey is going through a full-scale governance crisis. The leadership has long demonstrated its disinterest in addressing the causes of the current woes and instead chosen to legally, physically and materially reinforce the government’s fortunes. Kanal Istanbul may well be the “coup de grace” in this context. The project looks like Dubai in the reverse, both for its chosen site and for the fate awaiting it.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.