Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to see the construction of a canal near Istanbul that would link the Black and Marmara seas as a lynchpin of his political legacy.
But political experts and economists are viewing the project with caution, worrying that it could have a destabilizing impact on existing energy and security arrangements.
At a project presentation in April, featuring techno music and flashing lights, Prime Minister Erdoğan predicted that his “dream” project “will outshine the Panama and Suez canals.” It will be, he said, “one of the biggest projects of the century.”
In truth, the scale of the planned Istanbul canal is well short of both the Suez and Panama routes, but at 48 kilometers long, it would still represent a mammoth engineering feat. The canal, to be dug just west of Istanbul, would provide an alternative to the Bosphorus waterway for accessing the Mediterranean Sea.
The Bosphorus, which bisects Istanbul, is the only southern sea route to world markets for Black Sea countries Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Romania. In 2009, according to Turkish Coast Guard figures, over 50,000 ships, including more than 9,000 tankers carrying 145 million tons of hazardous cargo, passed through the Bosphorus.
That makes for a congested – and potentially hazardous – waterway. Though fees for using the Bosphorus are nominal, Erdoğan claims that ships would be willing to pay a premium to opt for the new Istanbul canal and avoid the current one-to two-day wait on average for the Bosphorus.
If so, the Istanbul canal could potentially undermine the viability of another dream project – the 3,900-kilometer-long Nabucco gas pipeline, argues Kadir Has University’s Associate Professor of International Relations Emre Iseri.
"Turkey always argues that pipelines like Nabucco are to relieve pressure on the Bosphorus. With the canal, that argument could become redundant,” said Iseri, an energy policy expert. “And with improving and cheaper Liquefied Natural Gas technology transportation by tanker is becoming increasingly more competitive than pipelines.”
The Istanbul canal, unlike the Bosphorus, would be designed to handle the world's largest supertankers.
That detail no doubt has caught the attention of one key projected Nabucco supplier, Azerbaijan, which signed an agreement last year with Georgia and Romania for the transportation of some 6- to 8-billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas per year via Black Sea tankers. Eager to expand into European markets, Azerbaijan’s SOCAR (State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic) has lately pushed away from the contentious Nabucco project.
Conceivably, that may mean that Erdoğan’s “crazy project” may not be so crazy for Moscow, which is pushing ahead with a rival gas pipeline to Nabucco that would run under the Black Sea, via Turkey, and into Europe. "As long as [the Istanbul canal] is under the Montreux convention, it is compatible with [Russia’s] energy security vision, because what they like to do is to diversify their markets,” commented Iseri. “They [Russian leaders] want to protect their monopoly [on gas supplies to Europe]. They don’t want to bother with [an] expensive pipeline passing through transit countries."
The 1936 Montreux convention, which helped end centuries of conflict between Russia and Turkey over the Bosphorus, guarantees the right of civilian cargo ships to use the Bosphorus in times of peace.
Russian diplomats in Istanbul profess to have no knowledge of the planned Istanbul canal. "The first thing we knew about this was when the Turkish prime minister made his announcement. We knew nothing about it," said embassy spokesperson Igor Mityakov. "There are still a lot of questions and the interests of the Black Sea nations must be taken into consideration.”
"How will the new canal be profitable when there is free passage through the Bosphorus?” Mityakov continued. “This is a question a lot of people are asking,"
How quickly the canal can be completed is another unknown variable. The tentative completion date, 2023, would coincide with the Republic of Turkey’s 100th anniversary.
Aside from energy transit, the possible strategic uses of an Istanbul canal could become a source of tension, Kadir Has University’s Iseri contends. The Montreux Convention, which imposes strict limits on warships using the Bosphorus, "enabled the Black Sea to become a peace lake throughout the Cold War and after,” he said. “Russia would probably like to be sure that Turkey would put limits on warships that pass [through] the canal.”
During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, US military ships delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia were restricted to only 24 days in the Black Sea.
Other unknowns also loom ahead. The canal has been presented as a means to reduce the chances of a devastating tanker spill on the Bosphorus; yet environmentalists have warned that the new waterway would itself posess fresh challenges.
The two seas that the canal would connect have different salt levels and altering the salinity of the Black Sea could potentially threaten some of Europe's most important rivers, such as the Danube and Volga, environmental critics say. Government supporters have cast doubts on such claims. The problem is that no one knows for sure: to date, no independent environmental impact study has been conducted for the proposed canal.
"[T]he environmental impact could be huge; so huge that the project won’t be feasible," asserted Cengiz Aktar, a professor of international relations at Bahcesehir University. "All the Black Sea countries have to be consulted. Has there been this consultation? I don't think so."