The inauguration this week of a major oil pipeline linking the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan to the Russian sector of the Black Sea is likely to prompt a row with Turkey over safety concerns in the overloaded and risky Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. Turkey has already threatened to consider new rules regulating maritime traffic off the historical city of Istanbul. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch takes a closer look at Ankara's objections to the joint Russian-Kazakh project.
Prague, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this week (26 March), Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev inaugurated a new pipeline that should allow his country to ship part of its crude oil output to world markets without relying solely on Russia's transportation network.
But Turkey objects to the plan, saying it will further endanger navigation safety through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.
The 1,600-km long Caspian Pipeline Consortium pipeline will stretch between the giant Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. From there, crude oil will be loaded onto tankers and shipped to international markets.
It is expected to take three months before Kazakh crude oil reaches Novorossiisk through the new outlet. The first tanker carrying Tengiz crude is due to leave the Russian port at the end of June.
But on Wednesday (28 March) Turkey warned that the expected additional tankers from Novorossiisk will further imperil navigation through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.
Ankara says that the capacity of the straits has already reached its limits and that further traffic will force vessels to wait in line for passage, thus harming regional trade and environment.
State Minister Ramazan Mirzaoglu, who is in charge of maritime affairs, said Turkish authorities have already started reviewing passage rules following the opening of the Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline. He also said Ankara might impose restrictions on vessel traffic to ensure the safety of Istanbul's 12-million strong population.
Among new regulations to be considered are an obligation for the ships crossing the channels to be double-hulled and not to be older than permitted by international safety rules. Mirzaoglu also said the use of Turkish tugboats and pilots by foreign captains will be strongly encouraged.
Captain Cahit Istikbal is a straits pilot who has been working in the Turkish merchant fleet for more than 15 years. He is also the secretary-general of the Turkish Maritime Pilots Association, known by its English acronym as TUMPA.
Istikbal tells RFE/RL how perilous navigation in the straits is both for vessels and local residents:
"Maritime navigation in the straits is difficult because the straits are narrow and difficult waterways. There are strong currents [and] difficult meteorological conditions in the straits. There are also about 14 bends, some of them as [sharp] as 90 degrees. Vessels experience difficulties because of the current at these bends. So it is very dangerous and risky to pass through the straits."
The Bosphorus Strait -- also known as the Istanbul Strait -- commands access to the Marmara Sea, and is 31 km long with an average width of 1.5 km. At its narrowest point, it constricts to only 700 meters across.
The Bosphorus is one of the world's busiest waterways. TUMPA statistics show that an average 50,000 vessels pass through the strait every year. In addition, between 2,000 and 2,500 smaller ships use the Bosphorus to transport tourists and residents between Istanbul's European and Asian shores.
The straits have been the scene of major environmental disasters.
In March 1994, the Cyprus-flagged oil tanker "Nasia" collided with another ship, spilling approximately 20,000 tons of oil into the sea. Twenty-nine crew members died in the accident.
The latest incident occurred last week when a Saint Vincent-flagged cargo ship ran aground in the Bosphorus. TUMPA says the captain of the "Akado" did not request the help of a pilot before entering the Strait.
In May 1994, immediately after the wreck of the "Nasia" oil tanker, Turkey introduced new traffic regulations through its straits. Ankara says the new rules resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of accidents.
But many countries using the straits to enter the Mediterranean Sea protested the Turkish decision. Among them were Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.
Turkey says the 1994 regulations were partly approved by the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, the London-based United Nations agency that monitors maritime safety throughout the world.
IMO officials were not immediately available for comment.
Another UN agency, the Swedish-based World Maritime University, declined to comment on the issue.
Russia, which accounts for an estimated 25 percent of straits traffic, said the 1994 regulations were a violation of the Montreux Treaty that had been regulating passage in the area for almost 60 years. The treaty, which was signed in 1936 -- at a time when oil tankers did not yet exist -- guarantees free passage through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles in peacetime.
Moscow has said that Turkey's imposition of the regulations was both economically and politically motivated. Ankara denies the Russian accusations, saying its primary concern is environmental safety.
Turkey is promoting a U.S.-backed project, costing in the region of thousands of millions of dollars, to build an oil pipeline from the Azerbaijani capital Baku to its Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The first section of the line, linking Baku to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa, was inaugurated in 1998.
Azerbaijan currently exports part of its crude oil through a newly renovated Soviet pipeline running to Novorossiisk.
Russia is vying for control of Caspian oil export routes with both Iran and Turkey. Accordingly, Moscow opposes the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which its sees as a threat to its economic and security interests.
If completed, the Baku-Ceyhan line would seriously affect oil traffic through Novorossiisk. It would also loosen Russia's grip on Azerbaijan by offering Baku direct access to world oil markets.
The Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which will pump oil from Tengiz to Novorossiisk, consists of Russia, Kazakhstan, the Sultanate of Oman, and a number of major oil companies from the United States, Russia, Italy, and Britain.
Turkish minister Mirzaoglu said the amount of oil passing through the Bosphorus will be increased annually by 25 percent as a result of the new pipeline.
The Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline will have an initial export capacity of 560,000 barrels per day, or BPD. Kazakhstan expects to produce about 800,000 BPD of crude this year.
The New York-based tanker brokerage company Poten and Partners said yesterday (29 March) that oil flows running through the consortium's line will eventually reach more than 1.3 million BPD. It warned that the number of additional oil tankers needed to serve the pipeline may further choke the already congested Turkish straits.
The U.S.-based Chevron Corporation, which is part of the consortium and has a 50 percent stake in the Tengiz operation, has said oil tanker traffic through the straits will not be increased in the short term. The company says that oil is already reaching Novorossiisk by other means and therefore the opening of the line will not immediately put an additional traffic load on the straits.
But straits pilot Istikbal says already existing security concerns bode ill for the next two or three years, when the pipeline is expected to run at full capacity.
"We can certainly say that the straits are already overloaded by oil tankers. We are not against oil tankers. We want safety in the straits. The oil capacity of the Caspian region is too high. The straits are already loaded with 80 million tons per year. We cannot say that the safety level in the straits is acceptable at the moment. We should improve it. [If] we cannot improve the safety of the existing traffic, we cannot say that we can accept new oil tankers through the straits."
Earlier this year, Turkey started working on a new system to monitor maritime traffic through a network of radar towers. The towers will send data to two control centers meant to ensure navigation safety and provide help promptly in case of accidents. The Turkish pilots' group TUMPA expects the new system to be operational by the end of this year.
At the same time, Turkish scientists are considering plans to dig a 140-km canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. They say the canal will help ease traffic through the Straits.