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Turkey: Ankara Threatens To Impose Limits In Bosporus

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkey has raised an outcry over Bosporus oil traffic since the first major Caspian pipeline began operation last month. But the project, which was years in the making, should have come as no surprise to those concerned with Turkey's transit policies. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Washington, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The opening of a Caspian pipeline has raised fears in Turkey about oil traffic in the Bosporus and concerns about shipping limits that Ankara has threatened to impose.

Turkish officials including State Minister Ramazan Mirzaoglu have warned of the rising risk of an oil spill near the historic city of Istanbul due to the new pipeline that carries oil from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea. The 1,580-kilometer line, which runs from the giant Tengiz oil field to Russia's port of Novorossiysk, was inaugurated on 26 March.

Mirzaoglu, who is charged with maritime affairs, said last month that oil traffic through the Bosporus will double when the Kazakh oil starts to flow. The "Turkish Daily News" quoted the minister as saying, "Once transportation of Kazakh oils by tankers through the straits begins, a gridlock of traffic in the straits will occur."

Turkish Environment Minister Fevzi Aytekin recently said that tankers carrying Kazakh oil should be "stopped and searched," the country's Anadolu Agency reported. Such steps are strongly opposed by countries including Russia, which say they would violate the 1936 Montreux Treaty that guarantees free passage through the straits.

But for a variety of reasons, Turkey said little about the consequences of the new pipeline from Kazakhstan while it was under construction since 1999. The $2.5 billion project of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which was planned for over five years, was never firmly opposed by Turkish authorities. As a result, the sudden alarms after the pipeline was finished last month have come as something of a surprise.

One analyst, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that Turkey may have initially believed that more Tengiz oil would be refined or re-exported by Black Sea countries, but such plans have taken time to materialize.

Much of the confusion over Turkey's policy on oil transit stems from the fact that it has not treated all Caspian oil in the same way. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have both shipped their oil through the Black Sea, but Turkey has used different strategies to influence their exports.

Until now, most of the arguments against oil traffic through the Bosporus have been aimed at promoting an overland route for Azerbaijani oil from Baku to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

While Turkey's environmental concerns are justified, they have often sparked skepticism because of the country's economic interest in moving Azerbaijani oil by pipeline. The route to Ceyhan will reward Ankara with transit fees for decades to come.

By contrast, Turkey always assumed that Kazakh oil from Tengiz would be exported through Novorossiysk. Some of the oil has already been moving through the Bosporus for several years, thanks to transit through Georgian ports. That oil is now likely to shift over to the new pipeline, reaching the Bosporus from a different point.

Over the past two years, a series of Turkish delegations have visited Kazakhstan, but not to lobby against the pipeline from Tengiz. Instead, the effort has been to convince President Nursultan Nazarbayev to back the route to Ceyhan by shipping more of his oil from the country's newest Caspian resource, the giant field known as Kashagan.

The curious part of Turkey's position is that it is simultaneously seeking more Caspian oil and less. It wants to assure that there will be plenty of oil to fill pipelines and pay transit fees, but not so much that it will clog the Bosporus. Unfortunately, oil development in other countries is hard to manage in this way.

Politically, it is also difficult to discourage exports of Tengiz oil while encouraging oil from Kashagan, when both benefit Kazakhstan. Tanker restrictions could pose serious problems with Russia, a powerful neighbor that supplies most of Turkey's gas. Russia owns a 24 percent interest in the pipeline from Tengiz.

Turkey's case on the Bosporus has also been harmed by a wide range of official figures to depict the scope of the problem. Since last month, officials have said at various points that Kazakh oil would increase Bosporus traffic by as much as triple and as little as one-fourth. Delays for tankers have been estimated at hours, days, or weeks.

In addition, Turkey has conceded that its own business interests are served by increased shipping through the Bosporus. While stressing that the oil traffic must be safe, officials have not said that they want it to cease despite the risks.

At a recent press conference, Mirzaoglu said, "We accept in principle that the more commercial vessels come to (the) Black Sea after passing through the Turkish Straits, the more Turkey obtains benefits." Like all business ventures, Turkey's oil transit has both benefits and costs.

Ultimately, there may be little that Turkey can do about Bosporus oil traffic beyond promoting safety measures and its pipeline policy. But if Ankara hoped to influence the routes for Kazakh exports, it may have missed its chance to take more effective steps before the pipeline from Tengiz was built.