The great cliché about Turkey oft-uttered by outside commentators tends to focus on its strategic geography: east-west divide, north-south ditto, Europe meets Asia, cultural crossroads and the like. The central artery of that idea threads through Istanbul in the form of a waterway, the Bosphorus. Historically and indeed in the present you couldn’t invent a more geostrategically fraught zone. Which is why, to stabilize the problem, the Montreux Convention of 1937 was conceived. And why no power has dared to mess with the international treaty all this time – it’s a trembling pile of dynamite, one that could touch off seismic levels of confrontation if flouted. And yet Turkey’s quasi-strongman leader, President Erdogan, is daring to do just that with the Kanal Istanbul project.
What do we mean by potential conflict? The Montreux agreement allows only a very limited amount of military hardware to pass through the Bosphorus at any given time. Moscow doesn’t like it too much because it limits Russia’s ability to rush warships or materielle from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. By the same token, though, it prevents an armada of Nato warships suddenly to enter the Black Sea and threaten Russia’s strategic power there. At the same time, Turkey cannot on a whim impose its own unilateral embargo on any other nation’s ships or seaborne supplies, military or otherwise. It’s Turkish territory but Ankara is bound by the international rules. That’s a brief snapshot of the treaty’s multi-layered complexities – but enough to give a glimpse of what’s at stake.
President Erdogan’s pet project – Kanal Istanbul – conceives of a second Bosphorus some miles west of the real one, one that creates a new man-made waterway like the Suez Canal affording passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean (and vice-versa). It will operate free of the Montreux Convention rules. The project’s apologists argue that it will ease the long queues and delays that many ships currently suffer at the straits along with the pollution they discharge while waiting. An artificial strait without nature’s currents will reduce the kind of accidents that bedevil ships passing through the Bosphorus’s treacherous contours, especially tankers carrying huge amounts of inflammable petrochemicals. And of course there’s the potential economic windfall – the added revenues from fees levied on ships going through. So far so good, in theory. Many critics don’t buy it. They have noted all manner of downsides – environmental, economic, and strategic. And very convincing they sound too, on a huge scale. Most recently over a hundred former Turkish naval officers signed a petition deploring the new canal’s dangerous potential effects on Montreux and national security. Ten of them, admirals, were promptly arrested for coup-like behavior.
What nobody has properly analyzed is why, considering the pitfalls, would Erdogan embark on such a dicey boondoggle at all. It’s no secret that companies close to his family and political party have purchased tracts of land along the proposed strait. That’s one reason. Here’s an NPR piece outlining that and the other glaring issues e.g. it’s likely to lose money.
Several more possible agendas haven’t yet been mentioned by outside commentators (including the NPR segment) so here’s a brief round-up:
1) The terrain of the proposed route is, where populated, largely inhabited by well-heeled, relatively genteel demographics who tend to favor the opposition. Erdogan has made a habit of physically dispersing established neighborhoods of such clusters. Hence the notorious Gezi Park protests where he wanted to build a huge mosque abutting Istanbul’s oldest night life district. The planned massive development projects around the canal will probably replace that population with more loyalist demographics, not least among working-class construction laborers and even recent Syrian refugees in search of work and grateful to Erdogan. Not to mention the droves of new-money denizens who’ve prospered under his regime – and the anonymous investor-purchasers from around the globe who become stakeholders in his survival.
2) The pyramiding of Turkey’s economy will intensify as loyalist oligarchs and foreign allies such as Qatar get favored treatment in the construction expenditures (see above NPR article). Pyramiding means concentrating large chunks of the economy in a few loyalist hands. Whenever Erdogan loses traction through the popular vote (as happened in municipal elections) he tends to tighten control over the country by other means. Turkey’s economy is still quite variegated from textiles to tourism to food exports to light industry and the like. That makes control harder. Erdogan strives to dominate the economic heights on the model of oil economies dependent on narrow-sourced but massive revenues. In that model (not unlike Russia’s too) the really big money is loyal to him and provides much of the country’s employment. Hence he likes really huge projects that can shape the macro-economy.
3) Exactly such elephantine projects draw hidden money looking for a home – both in the region and globally. Real estate and construction tends to attract anonymous global off-shore money because the investing companies are often opaquely owned (a complaint frequently directed at, for example, international real estate ownership even in London.) Turkey’s neighborhood is awash in such shadowy funds. All the illicit petrodollars in the region, for example. Remember the US prosecution of Halkbank for dealing in sanctioned Iranian oil money? And that’s potentially just one slice of the pie. Oligarchs from many of the post-Soviet states tend to favor the Turkish riviera with homes and yachts. Russian-dominated ‘black-hole’ regions such as Georgia’s separatist enclave Abkhazia (just above Turkey) generate such funds aplenty. Add to that the global Islamist black-economy looking to back Erdogan’s support of Sunni forces in Syria and the region. The numbers, all told, can add up to a significant if hidden chunk of the national budget.
4) This is the kind of project, with all the likely international participation both shadowy and official, that offers a hedge against possible US sanctions. We saw how, in the Trump era, Turkey suffered sanctions twice, each time severely rattling the economy. Erdogan has kept a very close eye on that eventuality, not least because it can unseat his hold on power by inducing a sudden recession. The threat certainly limits his ability to maneuver against Nato, EU and US interests. So he has sought ways to soften the impact of possible embargoes in particular of the Magnitsky sort which can weaken his allies or family members, threaten his pyramiding plans or simply crater the national economy. Hence the deal he signed with Venezuela guaranteeing Turkish access to supplies of gold. Here is my column on how the countries invested in the Maduro regime of Venezuela are there chiefly for access to sanctions-busting currency-substitutes, like gold and oil and uranium.
Vast construction projects offer a channel for the infusion of stateless funds. Unrecorded money flowing in and out provides a solid hedge against sanctions.
5) Finally, and not least, there’s the geostrategic calculation. For at least its last two centuries the Ottoman Empire survived by playing larger powers off against each other. Not for nothing is Erdogan dubbed a neo-Ottomanist. He purchased Russian missiles but never deployed them, thus hoping to assuage both Moscow and Washington. He speaks to Putin regularly but makes noises of support for Ukraine. Controlling the only sea link between north and south at the strategic navel of the world, especially without treaty limitations, gives him massive geo-strategic leverage. What does that mean in practice? For one thing it adds to the tools in his tool chest for keeping the West off his back. America decides to sanction Turkey? He lets Russian warships through to the Mediterranean in the kind of numbers hitherto limited by Montreux. Moscow decides to impose a pipeline embargo on, say, oil from Central Asia? Ships can take it through Kanal Istanbul instead without diminishing the volume. Just as crucially he can threaten Moscow’s domination of the Black Sea by allowing easy passage of US naval vessels into Russian waters. In much larger numbers than is permitted under Montreux. When Putin recently massed troops along Ukraine’s border, the US threatened to send two warships up the Bosphorus. Russia backed off. Imagine the threat of an entire flotilla. None of this needs to happen in actuality. The fact that Erdogan can facilitate it, virtually realigning the global balance of power each time, gives him (and Turkey) a kind of deciding vote over the tipping point. It’s very unlikely that any global hegemon wants him or Turkey to have such a vote – which is why the arrested former admirals worried about the canal’s effect on Turkey’s security.