“We see Kanal Istanbul as a project to save the future of Istanbul … to ensure the safety of life and property of Istanbul’s Bosphorus and the citizens around it.”Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
These were the words of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June 2021, at the ceremony of Sazlidere Bridge, discussing the planned route of Kanal Istanbul. Since 2011, Erdogan has been pushing for the construction of a new canal to link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. He hopes the proposal will bring prosperity to Turkey by, among other factors, reducing traffic on the Bosphorus Strait, generating new revenue, creating jobs, and building a new hub where life can develop and flourish in the capital. However, this project has been vastly criticized by the public and poses major concerns in a multitude of spheres from the environment to the geopolitical balance of the region.
Bosphorus, Montreux, and The New Kid on the Block
In order to understand the importance of Kanal Istanbul, one must look to the history and geography that surround the region.
The Bosphorus Strait is situated in the heart of Istanbul, where it separates Europe and Asia, is the sole water linkage between the Black and the Marmara Seas. In conjunction with the Dardanelles, it is the only waterway to link the Black Sea, to the Mediterranean and, consequently, to the world. It comes as no surprise that it is a highly crowded strait, thus anchoring its position on the world stage, both in the trade and political spheres. Who controls the Bosphorus has a privileged position over international trade. As a way of illustration, in 2019 around 41,112 vessels carrying a total of 638.9 million gross tons of cargo passed through this notoriously narrow strait.
Its singular position, in essence, means that the Bosphorus constitutes the only way for nations of significant weight, such as Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine, to reach the Mediterranean by sea. As such, its strategic importance dates back millennia, to the 5th century BC and the city of Scythia, extending to the present day and has been the stage of major conflicts most notably during the Russo-Turkish War and World War I.
In 1936, in order to regulate and address the long-running question of who and how the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles should be regulated and controlled, the major powers of the time signed the Montreux Convention, which was later registered next to the League of Nations Treaty Series. The convention, still in force, institutes the core principle of Freedom of Passage by stating in Article 1 that “[t]he High Contracting Parties recognize and affirm the principle of freedom of passage and navigation by the sea in the Straits”. Article 2 similarly holds that “[i]n time of peace, merchant vessels shall enjoy complete freedom of passage and navigation in the Straits, by day and by night, under any flag with any kind of cargo.”
Regulating both merchant and military vessels, the convention puts the control of the straits and their crossing in the hands of Turkey. It authorizes this State to impose restrictions on military ships and bar the passage of merchant ships, including those belonging to states currently at war with Turkey (Articles 4 and 5 of the Montreux Convention). Restrictions from size to cargo capacity are imposed on military vessels, impairing, to a significant extent, the crossing of this type of ship, most notably with regards to non-Black Sea nations. Furthermore, though the convention restricts Russia, the most prominent Black Sea nation, in sending military ships to the Mediterranean, it also ensures that no outside forces can enter past the straits, therefore ensuring Soviet dominance of the region.
It is, in essence, this balance of forces that the proposed Kanal Istanbul is accused of threatening. Insofar as the convention does not refer to this new waterway, it cannot be said to regulate it, meaning that apart from the ability of Turkey to impose charges in its crossing, a possibility that Erdogan openly tends to exploit, it also allows for freer movement of military ships in and out of the Black Sea. In all, the restrictions imposed by the Montreux Convention do not apply to the new canal.
Russia’s Stance on the Matter
Though cautious, Russia does not seem to be particularly concerned by the project. According to Aleksei Erkhov, the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, the Montreux Convention would not be changed by the construction, and as long as that remains true, Kanal Istanbul is merely a Turkish matter. Economically speaking, the new canal would not stop the free passageway in the Bosphorus, leaving the choice between the waterways to the discretion of companies and their cost-benefit analysis. Traffic-wise, and, most importantly, in terms of military concerns, the new canal does not infringe on the Dardanelles strait, the crossing of which is necessary to reach the Mediterranean and vice-versa. Erkhov stressed that, even if it were to be of concern, the project is bound to be “very long term” and regardless, the legal regime imposed by the convention limits not only the crossings through the straits but also the number of vessels and amount of cargo within the Black Sea (see Article 18 Montreux Convention).
Even though no direct threats to Russia’s dominance over the region may arise, nothing can be said to the effects it might have on the geopolitical relations of the Black Sea powers. Boris Dolgov, a Senior Research Fellow of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has cleverly pointed out that Russia’s foreign policy and interest may change with the new canal.
He highlights the fact that Russian troop supply in Syria is carried out through the Bosphorus and a new canal may hinder or divert that. Similarly, it has been theorized that the canal may be a way for Turkey to excuse a withdrawal from the Montreux Convention, with the new waterway being just another puzzle piece in Turkey’s plan to become a central power and further enforce itself in the region, bolstering its influence and expansionist goals. The canal would also create space for pretensions, like the one demonstrated by the USA during the 2008 Russia-Georgia crisis, to augment outside military power in the region. This situation is currently being prevented by the convention.
Other Major Implications
Firstly, it seems important to mention that the project has been said to cost around $20 billion. However, taking into account the collaterals of, for example, displacement and reconstruction of highways, roads, water pipes, power lines, entire neighborhoods, etc. the cost is said to average $250 billion which clearly poses monetary challenges. Major Turkish banks are part of the Global Sustainability Pact, and the immense environmental implications of the project will create barriers the access to these funds, not to mention that recent Private-Public Partnerships, used to build new infrastructure all over Turkey, have definitely put a strain on the government’s pockets.
Such a big project is also bound to originate some type of corruption schema. Many are speculated to benefit from land around the canal’s planned route, both with personal and political ties to Erdogan and Turkey’s government at large. Around 60% of the area within the boundaries of the canal is private property.
Environmentally speaking, we are talking about a project that will pass through wooded areas that house major freshwater sources that have supplied Istanbul since the 17th century. Furthermore, the Kanal is likely to upset the natural equilibrium of the currents and counter-currents of the Black and Marmara Seas, turning it into a tube where polluted water from the Black Sea may reach the Mediterranean. Whole ecosystems and the sustainability of endemic species are bound to be disrupted, in what seems to be a clear violation of the Bern Convention which the country is a part of.
As for the population of Istanbul, there seems to be general discontent and disapproval. Public opinion surveys, conducted by independent research institutions have corroborated this. Despite being painted by Erdogan as the crown jewel of a vast list of public mega-project, public resistance seems to only focus on the negative impacts, the majority of which are outlined above.
- Should the Convention be revised as some have suggested in the past?
- Could the Region become a hub for conflict and tension?
- Should Kanal Instambul’s construction go ahead?
- If passage through the Bosphorus remains possible and free, would we really see the alleged benefits in decongestion and trade increase in the waterways?