Istanbul, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's decision to send a flotilla of up to eight war ships to the Adriatic Sea has once again put the spotlight on Turkish foreign policy, the Turkish Straits and Turkey's role in the Balkans.
This is believed to be the largest group of Russian war ships to pass through the straits and through the heart of Istanbul in the last five years.
Russia informed Turkey of its intentions last Friday (March 26), but the issue only became public knowledge yesterday (Wednesday) when the Turkish Foreign Ministry granted permission for eight Russian war ships to transit through the Turkish Straits under the Montreux Convention.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sermet Atacanli, told reporters in Ankara last night that Russia's request for the right of the war ships to pass through the straits is in line with the tonnage and time limits stipulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. He says Turkey has informed the signatories of the treaty, as well as NATO, on the passage of the ships.
The Montreux Convention governs the use of the Turkish Straits, which link the Black Sea with the Aegean through the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles. The route has become increasingly congested with ever-larger oil tankers and freighters. Traffic is now regulated and largely one way at any given time in a bid to reduce the chance of accidents.
According to the 63-year-old agreement, states bordering the Black Sea can send up to nine of their war ships through the straits in peacetime, provided they inform the Turkish authorities of their intentions at least eight days in advance. Other countries must inform Turkey at least 14 days in advance.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Atacanli says the Russian flotilla will consist of one cruiser, two destroyers, two patrol ships and three support ships and will pass through the straits beginning as early as Saturday through next Thursday (April 8).
But the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quotes a spokesman at the Russian Navy's General Staff as saying a total of seven anti-submarine and missile-carrying frigates, reconnaissance and escort ships will traverse the straits, not necessarily in one group.
The agency says the Sevastapol-based flotilla will traverse the straits in two groups on Sunday and Tuesday and will include the battleship Admiral Golovko, the anti-submarine ships Kerch and Sderzhanny, and the patrol ships Pytlivy and Ladny.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit says "the move of the Russian fleet to the Mediterranean, especially to the Adriatic, will embolden Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic." Ecevit said only Russia can make Milosevic stop the genocide in Kosovo, adding that if Russia were to withdraw its full support of Yugoslavia, Milosevic would "choose the way of reason."
Similarly, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin -- commenting on the Russian move -- said Washington is "obviously concerned by the signal such a large deployment might send to Belgrade and the other countries in the region." Rubin said that -- although the Russian Foreign Ministry has made it clear Russia does not intend to become entangled in the conflict in the Balkans, and though President Boris Yeltsin made that clear earlier this week -- Washington "does not see the deployment of these ships as a particularly helpful gesture."
In Brussels, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that -- while NATO has noted what he termed "this move of Russian naval assets through the straits and into the Mediterranean" -- NATO is counting on Yeltsin to keep his word that Russia does not intend to become involved militarily over Kosovo.
A leading Turkish legal expert on the straits -- Professor Hakan Baykal (director of the Marmara University Research Center for the Law of the Sea in Istanbul) -- told RFE/RL today that the Turkish government acted responsibly in granting the Russian war ships permission to transit the straits. He says Turkey's public silence for five days on Russia's application is normal since Ankara's response constituted a political decision to a legal question.
Baykal notes that in time of war, if Turkey is not a belligerent, it must allow the transit of war ships from Black Sea states, while if Turkey is either a belligerent or threatened with the imminent danger of war, "the passage of war ships through the straits is left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish government."
"If Turkey thinks that it is close to being attacked, that it is on the verge of war, it will not allow Russia's ships to pass through the straits."
Baykal notes that the annex of the Montreux Convention specifies the type and tonnage of war ships, limiting the size and quantity of cannon permitted to pass through the straits, and stipulating that they must pass in daylight.
Turkey, a member of NATO, is participating in the air strikes against Yugoslavia with 11 F-16's currently based in Italy, which are flying "air defense and patrolling tasks." A Turkish frigate is also standing by in the Adriatic Sea.
Thus, it could be argued that Turkey is a belligerent in the Yugoslav conflict. Nevertheless, it would appear Ankara's political decision to let the Russian war ships pass through the straits was made to avoid a direct conflict with Russia that could have put Istanbul -- with its population of well over 10 million -- in harm's way.
Nilufer Narli -- a professor of public administration at Marmara University -- says Turkey is afraid the fighting in Kosovo could spread through the region and touch off a Balkan war. She says Turkey is also very disturbed by the parallels that some foreign observers have been drawing between Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and the Turkish military's 15-year campaign to suppress the Kurdistan Workers' Party in southeastern Anatolia. A further complicating factor, she notes, are the April 18 parliamentary and local elections in Turkey.
"Turkey has to adopt a very balanced policy in the region because it can be accused of being a Muslim country, sympathizing with the Albanian Kosovo people, or being more tolerant of the Albanians."
Narli notes that -- due to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire when Turkey ruled over the Balkan peninsula for centuries -- "Turks feel they are responsible for the region, while Serbs may see Turkey as a continuation of the Ottoman empire, and maybe as an enemy."
Turkey has numerous cultural, historical and blood ties with Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. Some 4,400 Kosovo residents have fled to Turkey in the past 10 days, and Turkey has expressed concern for the fate of some 60,000 ethnic Turkish residents of Kosovo.