05.07.2021 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

Erdogan Changes the Political Landscape


At the end of June, one of the leading Jordanian newspapers, Assabeel, published an article about how Erdogan “is returning Turkey back to a leading role in the international arena”, and listed what the publication considers the most successful steps of the Turkish leader in recent years. In particular, it is noted that he defused a significant part of the controversial problems in the Eastern Mediterranean, having destroyed the anti-Turkish coalition, which included Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel. As for the Western world, he opposed French attempts to isolate Turkey, met with American President Joe Biden, settled the conflict with the United States over the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and returned the country to the program for the production of American F-35 fighters, while also strengthening Turkey’s position within NATO. In Transcaucasia, he significantly strengthened political, military and economic relations with Azerbaijan after helping it defeat Armenia. In the Arab world, the Turkish leader became one of the main defenders of Jerusalem, providing political support to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which increased his popularity among the Arabs, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Somalia and strengthened relations with Libya, by providing military and economic assistance, which expanded Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean.

And now, while inflexibly pursuing a policy of strengthening his own authority within the country and abroad, Erdogan began to implement not only the political, military and economic expansion of Turkey, but also to adjust the natural geography of the region with the construction of the Istanbul Canal. It is noteworthy that over the past two decades, Erdogan began to demonstrate a clear inclination towards urban megaprojects. In Istanbul alone, for example, the president ordered the construction of the largest airport in the world and the largest mosque in Turkey, a tunnel under the Bosporus and also a third bridge across the Bosporus too. Now the Istanbul Canal ought to be added to this list.

As indicated, the length of the canal will amount to 45 km, and its capacity will be 160 vessels per day (this figure for the Bosporus is 118-125 vessels). Full completion is expected in seven years, although there are plans to partially launch it as early as 2023, when the country will celebrate its centenary.

According to the Turkish authorities, the Istanbul project is mainly aimed at decongesting the Bosphorus and reducing the risks of accidents which led to large queues of ships in the region since 2019 after new rules for the passage of ships through the straits had been introduced by Turkey, which provoked a slight panic in the oil market. In addition, the Turkish authorities hope to increase the touristic appeal and strategic importance of Istanbul. “Two cities will be built on the right and left banks of Turkey’s new artificial waterway. These cities will improve the image of Istanbul,” President Erdogan said earlier.

However, behind these propaganda exhortations of the Turkish President, Erdogan’s intention to make Turkey independent from the Montreux Convention is clearly visible, and moreover, his design that many others will have to depend on Turkey. In general, the size of the Istanbul Canal declared by Ankara is sufficient enough to fit both supertankers and giant container ships, as well as nuclear submarines along with aircraft carriers. From this point of view, the completion of its construction will have a direct impact on the balance of power in the Black Sea. The question of concern to all in connection with the new Canal project is whether it will allow to bypass the Montreux Treaty, thereby providing unrestricted access to the Black Sea for the naval forces of non-Black Sea countries. Moreover, the Turkish leader has already confirmed that the Canal will be used not only by commercial vessels, but also by warships. However, it is important not to forget that the Istanbul Canal overlaps only with the Bosporus, but not the Dardanelles which connect the Aegean Sea with the Marmara Sea, and that the Montreux Convention imposes restrictions on both straits. Therefore, for unrestricted freedom of passage of all NATO warships through the Istanbul Canal, if Turkey decides to do so under pressure, for example, from Washington, it will have to withdraw from this international instrument, which will depend upon the political decision of the authorities of this country and the determination of the country’s political direction in the future.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent dreamed as far back as in the 16th century of building such a canal that would connect the Black and Marmara Seas and become an alternative to the Bosporus. In the 18th century, Sultan Mustafa III twice tried to implement the project, but failed due to economic reasons.  Therefore, it is not surprising that this project was at the forefront of numerous plans to implement Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ideas even when he was prime minister, and he officially announced this plan in 2011. Launching the construction of the Istanbul Canal at the end of June and clearly hoping thereby to raise his popularity before the elections in 2023, the Turkish president emphasized that it will be a “new page” in Turkey’s development, among other things, it will be called upon to support the Turkish economy, which has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic.

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoğlu and even Erdogan himself, revealed some details on the implementation of the construction of the Istanbul Canal. So, according to them both, this project will cost Ankara about $ 15 billion, of which about $ 1.4 billion will be allocated to the construction of bridges. The costs are planned to be covered within ten years by transit fees.

However, the financial costs of this project are highly controversial in Turkey.  At a recent conference in France, developers estimated the real final cost of the project at $ 65 billion, which is $ 50 billion more than the amount announced by Erdogan. At the same time, the sources of funding for the Istanbul Canal are still largely unknown. Some banks are abandoning the project as they signed the UN-backed principles of responsible banking, which call for avoiding harm to people and the planet (and the construction of the new canal is considered very harmful to the environment). Therefore, Turkey is discussing the participation of investors from China and Qatar and there are even reports Bill Gates could possibly purchase land near the canal.

With the construction of the Istanbul Canal, Turkey hopes to make money on the transit of ships through it, since international ships can still pass free of charge along the existing route through the Bosporus. 50 ships pass through the Suez Canal daily, bringing Egypt $ 6 billion in transit fees a year. On the other hand, twice as many ships transit through the Bosporus in a single day, but this does not bring Turkey any profit, since, unlike the Suez Canal, the Bosporus is a free international sea route, despite being located in the territorial waters of Turkey.  This was determined by the Montreux Convention for both Turkish straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, in 1936.

In search for the most profitable way to finance the project, Ankara is exploring the plan to pledge the expected transit fees. However, as long as the Montreux Convention is in effect, proceeds will not begin to flow in, because as long as ships can freely pass through the Bosporus, they will not voluntarily choose the expensive route through the new canal, former German ambassador Mithat Rende said to Frankfurter Allgemeine. According to him, it would be a big mistake to withdraw from the Montreux Convention: if it ceases to operate, the 1982 UN Straits Agreement will enter into force, and Turkey has never signed it. In addition, an attempt to redirect commercial ship traffic from the Bosporus to a toll passage through the Istanbul Canal could result in strategic damage to Turkey, as if the passage between the Black and Marmara Seas becomes more expensive in the future, other routes will be more economically viable.

According to a number of experts, the launch of the project is of particular importance against the background of the recent drop in ratings in the country of Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party. So, according to the latest data from the Eurasia Public Opinion Research Centre (AKAM), the current Turkish leader is being clearly bypassed by two of his main opponents – the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu and the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş. So, in the second round of the presidential election, 49.6% of voters would be ready to vote for the head of Istanbul (34.7% for the president). As for the ratio of support by potential voters to Yavaş and Erdogan in a hypothetical second round, it could look like 48.2% and 32% of the votes, respectively.

It is noteworthy that within Turkey, the project is hotly debated, primarily due to its economic feasibility and issues of compliance with the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (the Bosporus and Dardanelles). In addition, experts predict serious environmental problems, primarily related to risks for the drinking sources of Istanbul, which is why many banks refused to finance this project. And purely in economic terms, the Istanbul Canal looks more costly than profitable.

Given the growing doubts in Turkish society, the leader of the opposition Good Party (İYİ), Meral Akşener, called on the country’s government to hold a national referendum on June 30 to decide on the construction of the artificial Istanbul Canal, Hürriyet Daily News reported.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.