Turkey’s Stormy Spring

April 12, 2021

In a recent post I gave a summary of two weeks of disarray, confusion, and wobbling in Turkey. What the country has witnessed during the following two weeks gives me no other choice than to admit that my description was exaggeration. Actually, those two earlier weeks were a period of peace and calm by Turkish standards. Because a public appeal by retired admirals regarding the Canal Istanbul project, the Montreux Convention and respect for Ataturk’s secular legacy was presented by the government as a hint of a coup. The opposition was caught off guard and rode off in all directions. It was chaos. Yet, I could not help remembering the title of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s 1974 song, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”.

What led to this latest upheaval was the discussion around the Canal Istanbul project and the Montreux Convention. The idea of a canal was first announced in 2011 as a “crazy project”. It soon became another divisive topic. The government has consistently stated that the project will be realized “no matter what” meaning, if for nothing else, to underline Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) determination to never take a step back.

The opposition and many reasonable voices have objected to the project underlining its environmental impact, financial cost, and the additional risks it might create in case of a major earthquake. If a referendum were to be held on the project, the majority of Turks would solidly oppose it.

Indeed, why do Arab states not launch a canal project through northern UAE to join the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman? Why does Morocco not open a canal on its territory for a second connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean?  Because the straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar are already there. Moreover, both sides of the Turkish Straits are Turkish territory, under Turkey’s sovereignty.

As for the Montreux Convention I had said the following a year ago:

“Today, former USSR allies Bulgaria and Romania are members of NATO and the EU. Ukraine and Georgia are independent states. In other words, the picture has changed. Yet, the fundamental reality remains: The Montreux Convention diligently implemented by Turkey has prevented the Black Sea from becoming an area of military confrontation even in the darkest days of the Cold War. Many Black Sea coastal states may have chosen different paths for themselves. But they too would probably prefer the status quo to new tensions.”[i]

As the canal project and the Montreux Convention became linked in a baffling debate, the JDP government could have reiterated its commitment to the latter and allow a fair debate on the former. But lack of transparency is a huge problem and leads to endless conspiracy theories. In this particular case, Qatar, China, Ukrainian conflict and particularly Washington related suppositions added to confusion.

Why the government chose not to end this totally unnecessary debate and disconnect the two earlier begs the question. Could it be that the JDP leadership saw this as another opportunity to highlight its “assertive foreign policy”? Could it be that the government wanted to avoid a more focused debate on its canal project? Who knows…

Last Monday, President Erdogan said that Montreux Convention which transferred the control of the Turkish Straits from an international commission to Turkey was an achievement at the time; that the government has neither a plan nor any intent to withdraw from the Montreux Convention. “But if a need emerges in the future, we will not shy away from reviewing any convention to offer our country something better,” he added.

And on Tuesday, Russia’s diplomatic barrage started.

First, Mr. Aleksey Yerhov, the Russian Ambassador in Ankara told a Russian tv channel that the Montreux Convention is the cornerstone of regional security and changing it is out of the question.

On Friday, Ambassador Yerhov was followed by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko. In connection with the news that the US would be sending two of its warships through the Straits to the Black Sea, Mr. Grushko said that all movements by warships in the Black Sea must be in line with the Montreux Convention.

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said there is no alternative to the Convention.

And again, on Friday, Presidents Erdogan and Putin had a telephone conversation.[ii] The Kremlin readouts of these calls always make it clear who has picked up the phone first. In case the caller is President Erdogan the readout says, “at the initiative of the Turkish side”. If not, the readout ignores this detail. So, one can conclude that it was President Putin who called. The call came at a time of rising tensions between Kiev and Moscow, the news of American naval vessels’ passage to the Black Sea and a day before the arrival of President Zelensky in Istanbul for the 9th meeting of the Turkey-Ukraine High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council.

The readout then gave a list of the topics taken up by the two Presidents. It started with “countering the spread of the coronavirus” and continued with “potential joint production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine”, “health of Russian tourists”, “Libya”, “Syria”, “the crisis in Ukraine”, “Nagorno-Karabakh”. At the very end, the readout said:

“In the context of Turkey’s plans to build the Istanbul Canal, the Russian President noted the importance of preserving the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits with a view to ensuring regional stability and security.”

My guess is that President Putin called his Turkish counterpart to reiterate Russia’s position regarding the Montreux Convention and brief him on Ukraine developments, but the Kremlin readout purposely mentioned the Convention at the very end to avoid giving the impression that this was a problem.

Finally on Saturday, in his joint press conference with President Zelensky, President Erdogan said, ““Our primary goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, serenity and cooperation,” marking hopefully, the end of the debate on the Montreux Convention.


[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2020/01/28/the-montreux-convention-russias-perspective/

[ii] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/65338

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