The outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022 shed light on the strategic role of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, as well as the Montreux Convention which governs navigation through the Turkish straits.
The purpose of the Montreux Convention of 1936 is to regulate transit and navigation from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. Its ratification, after centuries of instability, enabled the establishment of a legal and geopolitical status-quo. Despite being considered as the guardian of the Convention, Turkey has officially launched on the 26th of June 2021, the digging operation of a ten billion dollars national project called “Canal Istanbul”. Described as an alternative to the Bosporus strait, it will connect the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, which raised environmental, economic, political concerns among the national and international community.
Announced as operational by 2023, President Erdogan declared that challenging the Montreux Convention was always possible. The Turkish government might seek to implement a new legal framework to the canal to boost national economy at the risk of destabilizing even more the current legal and geopolitical environment of this region.
An uncertain balance between financial goals and international law’s requirements?
The Convention ensures the application of the principle of freedom of navigation through the Turkish Straits while regulating access to vessels regarding their nature (civilian or warships), flag, and gross tonnage. Designated as a major strategic waterways, it is estimated that approximatively 55 000 vessels are sailing through the Turkish straits each year.
As the Convention does not entitle Turkey to introduce new transit fee, the “Canal Istanbul” new regulation could establish a toll, which could generate substantial benefits. Indeed, Ankara expects “Canal Istanbul” to be profitable within a decade. However, in order to persuade vessels to navigate through the canal, national authorities might try to enact restrictive transit measures in the Bosporus Strait (environmental, safety, navigation). Were they to hamper navigation, it could be considered as a violation of the principle of freedom of navigation established by the Montreux Convention.
The implementation of a new legal framework for “Canal Istanbul” might lead to legal uncertainty. Two different sets of rules could apply to the same area. Besides, will the Canal be subjected to the Convention or to Turkish national law? Would the Canal be considered as part of Turkey internal waters or as an International Canal and thus subjected to a specific treaty? Should the Montreux Convention be applied, amended or should a new Treaty regarding navigation between the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea be enacted?
A quest for profitability at the expense of political and strategical stability?
The Montreux Convention enabled the creation of a geopolitical status-quo, especially between NATO countries and Russia. On one hand, it helps controlling the deployment of Russian naval forces to the Mediterranean or Black Sea in peacetime while guarantying the transit of the Alliance’s navies in the Black Sea. On the other hand, in order to protect the Russian bastion, the Convention restricts to 21 days the deployment in the Black Sea of non-neighbouring states’ warships.
In wartime, Turkey has an almost discretionary decision-making power concerning the passage of foreign warships.“Canal Istanbul” construction could disrupt this status-quo, which remains necessary to a region subject to exponential tensions. This project demonstrates Turkey’s influence in the region as the Guardian of the Montreux Convention, but it also highlights its weakness. Indeed, if it is decided to abandon the text, it could open the gate to the straits’ internationalization as prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea despite Turkey is not a party. Therefore, the Country could lose a significant influence over the waterway.
Should Ankara decide to challenge the Convention, it would be an opportunity for NATO to suggest the removal of navigation restrictions on warships. Such historical change could be fueled by Western countries promise to navigate through “Canal Istanbul” in order to allow Turkey to monetize what is already called its “crazy project”.