26 April 2013, 16:52

Turkey’s “new Bosporus”: risks and benefits

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Turkey’s government has given the go-ahead to the Canal Istanbul project linking the Black and Marmara Seas and allowing ships to bypass the crowded Bosphorus Strait. Its construction may seem economically controversial, but may appear geopolitically beneficial, experts say.

The idea was first voiced by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his election campaign back in 2011. The project aims to relieve the congested Bosphorus Strait as well as to improve the Strait’s ecology and navigation safety by shifting tanker traffic to the new canal.

The project looks perfect at first site, but experts believe it’s an absolute utopia. The minimum costs are estimated at 20 bln dollars while the Canal is expected to go into operation by 2023. Therefore, the payback period of the project is now almost impossible to estimate.

The project is expected to be mainly funded by the government while private investors are to contribute one third of the needed sum.

Viktor Nadein-Raevsky, analyst from the Russian-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, shared his view on the idea.

"The new canal will increase the shipping capacity but it will be a toll route while now international obligations don’t allow Turkey levy passage fees through its natural straits (though it manages to find certain loopholes). The Istanbul Canal will certainly be a major step forward for Turkey but I have doubts about the return of the project."

Transit tolls to pass through the new canal will be higher, thus pushing other Black Sea countries to switch to alternative and cheaper shipping routes.

However, political benefits of the new project seem to be more evident.

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits gives freedom of passage through the Turkish Straits only to merchant vessels while military vessels and subs are subject to some restrictions. The maximum aggregate tonnage which non-riparian States may have in the Black Sea is 45,000 tons.

The new canal will see no such restrictions which shifts regional military and political focus in the region to Turkey and its NATO allies, says Viktor Nadein-Raevsky.

Let’s be frank – the new canal is needed by the US to boost its influence in the region and Russia will not be pleased with the

fact. As for Turkey, it is also unlikely to benefit the new balance of power - while its regional status will rise tactically, strategically the country will be involved in a rather controversial affair with unpredictable results.

This could put Turkey’s reputation of an independent geopolitical entity under threat– so the question is whether Ankara is ready to trade its reputation for geopolitical benefits or not.

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