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Turkey: Ruling Party's Victory A Boost To Black Sea Stability?

The EU sees potential in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Yayyip Erdogan (file photo) (epa) July 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As Turkish citizens ponder what the Justice and Development Party's easy win in Turkey's recent parliamentary elections means for their future, citizens of neighboring countries are watching developments in Ankara with great interest.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has hailed the victory of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party and its commitment to reforms. But he also warned that Turkey is not ready -- and nor is the EU -- for it to become a member, "neither tomorrow nor the day after tomorrow."

Nevertheless, for the Black Sea region, the election represents another milestone in the Muslim country's shift toward Europe that, observers say, will have positive economic and security implications for the entire region.

Energy Corridor

Of the six countries that share the Black Sea coast (Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Russia), just two -- Romanian and Bulgaria -- are members of the 27-member EU. The Black Sea region as a whole is considered to also include Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Greece, and Moldova -- all of which are members of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC).

Because it sits between Europe and the energy-rich Russian and Caspian Sea region, the Black Sea region is a natural transit corridor for gas and oil.

More than 40 percent of Europe's natural gas is imported -- half of it from Russia. And as energy security has emerged as a key concern in the EU, the bloc has begun looking for ways to diversify its sources.

In April, the EU launched a "Black Sea Synergy" initiative aimed at encouraging energy and transportation projects, as well as regional stability. And for first time, an EU representative in June attended the BSEC's annual meeting.
"With respect to security, the European Union needs to project stability and security into its Eastern neighborhood, and increasingly to the Caspian basin and the South Caucasus. Turkey could definitely be instrumental in that."

The organization has several regional pipeline projects in the works, each aimed at the region becoming an energy corridor for gas and oil supplies going west. The EU is backing those pipeline projects, as well as the proposed construction of a 2,000-kilometer coastal highway to facilitate regional trade.

The region's closer cooperation with the European Union on energy issues can't please Russia, which has competing plans for the rich energy resources of the Black Sea and Caspian regions.

But Turkey's close relations with the West have not come at the detriment of its relationship with Russia, says Julian Lee, a senior energy analyst with the Center for Global Energy Studies.

"I think that the relationship between Turkey and the European Union, and Turkey and NATO, is one that has been developing over a number of years," Lee notes. "That doesn't seem to have stopped Russian interest in investing in Turkey, in using Turkey as a possible export route into Europe and elsewhere."

Resurgent Power

Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington and an expert on Russian and Western security and energy policies in Eurasia, calls Russia "the resurgent power in the region" -- one that won't easily cede its position.

"The Black Sea region is where the future balance of power in Eurasia will be decided both in terms of location -- in terms of power projection from NATO Europe to the greater Middle East -- and of course in terms of non-Russian energy transit to Europe," Socor says. "So it's time, in my view, for the EU and U.S. and certainly NATO, to refocus their agenda for the Black Sea region."

Socor is an accession skeptic -- he sees little likelihood that Turkey will one day soon join the European Union.

But that doesn't mean Turkey and the EU won't become closer partners on key issues, he says, noting the "growing consensus" in Europe to offer Turkey some kind of privileged arrangement that falls short of EU membership but contains cooperation agreements on key issues.

"Accession prospect is simply out of the question. But it would be to the mutual advantage of Turkey and the European Union to enter into reciprocal arrangements regarding security and energy transit," Socor says. "With respect to security, the European Union needs to project stability and security into its Eastern neighborhood, and increasingly to the Caspian basin and the South Caucasus. Turkey could definitely be instrumental in that."

Turkey plays a prominent role in the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (file photo)

Turkey's geographical location makes it a natural transit corridor for Caspian energy to Europe, but Socor says the United States and European Union realized "very late" the importance of being able to access gas and oil supplies from places like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and Turkey's role in bringing it West.

Their interest now is a source of reassurance to Black Sea countries looking for evidence that the West has a stake in their future, he says. When combined with the pro-European results from the Turkish elections, Russia's efforts to maintain its dominance in the region look weakened, as countries that may have been nervous about being brought under its influence might be encouraged.

But for those states, there is an additional worry -- that the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are distracting it from paying closer attention to political and security developments elsewhere.

"Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Georgia are really concerned about the resurgence of Russian power and about the strategic destruction of the United States and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan," Socor says. "Clearly, these countries do look for reassurance of the U.S. and EU interest, and EU and U.S. firmness in facing the kind of security issues that Russia has recently raised."

Socor notes that those issues directly involve the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Though unrelated, he says, Russia has "thrown them all into a pot in the hopes of using them collectively as leverage with the West."

The issues include Moscow's threat to suspend participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, the critical reevaluation of the treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces, and the claim that U.S. military installations on the Black Sea in Romania and Bulgaria are upsetting the post-Cold War balance of power in Europe.

Regional Bargaining Chip

Socor also says Russia's "obstruction on Kosovo" and what he calls "the perennial issue of the so-called frozen conflicts" are examples of how Russia is seeking trade-offs with the West for its acquiescence.

"This is why the countries in the Black Sea region do expect their allies in the West to demonstrate firmness and not to relegate the Black Sea security issues to second place, behind other priorities," Socor says. "Because this is the Russian calculation, that the United States, NATO, [and] the European Union to some extent, are so preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, [and] Kosovo, that they might neglect, or relegate to second place, those issues on which Russia is pressing them in the Black Sea. And this must not be allowed to happen."

Bulent Aliriza directs the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and is an expert on Caspian Sea energy issues.

He tells RFE that, "If you're sitting in Tbilisi -- which is on the 'wrong end of the Black Sea' in terms of joining NATO and joining the EU -- and the country between you and Europe appears to be moving toward a closer relationship to Europe, then you feel slightly more comfortable."

But he also says that although Turkey is viewed by Europe as an indispensable factor in its drive to diversify energy resources, the practical implications of that partnership has gotten bogged down in Europe's conflicted feelings about its "very important relationship with Russia."

Until Europe decides who it needs more, it seems Turkey's future may remain an open question.