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Turkey: Analysis From Washington -- Ankara Resists Russian Pressure

Washington, 15 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey has rebuffed Russian demands for a revision of Ankara's current regulations on the use of the straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, a move with serious ecological, economic and geopolitical consequences.

At a meeting of the International Maritime Organization in London this week, the Russian delegation demanded that Ankara modify its 1994 regulations that allow Turkey to limit passage through the narrow straits in order to prevent an environmental disaster in Istanbul.

According to Moscow, the Turkish rules violate the 1936 Montreux Convention which has governed international shipping passage through these narrow waters.

But speaking to the Anatolia news agency on Monday, the leader of the Turkish delegation to the London maritime talks said Turkey would not yield on this point. Guven Erkaya said a history of accidents in the straits, some of which had cost many lives, prevented Ankara from backing down.

Erkaya pointed out that Russia in particular is currently shipping some 60 million tons of crude oil through the Turkish straits every year. And he strongly implied that Russian ships were among the worst polluters of the environment and thus the greatest threat.

Turkish environmental concerns about the straits are very real. The narrow passages of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles are filled with pollution and border the enormous city of Istanbul. But in fact, Turkey's real concerns lie elsewhere.

First of all, Turkey is engaged in an intense competition with Russia for control of the route that will carry petroleum from the Caspian basin to the West. Russia wants the oil to flow to Novorossiisk and thence via the Black Sea and the straits to the West.

Turkey prefers that the oil flow via the Baku-Ceyhan route, one that would carry oil from the Caspian basin via Georgia to the Black Sea and then cross Turkey by pipeline to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Second, and flowing from the first, Turkey and Russia are engaged in an intense competition for economic and geopolitical influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. If Turkey is able to limit Russia's ability to export oil via the straits, Ankara will be able to gain the upper hand because it will hold the key to wealth and power in those regions.

If Moscow can force Turkey to back down, however, Russia will be the winner. And Russia will be able to maintain its dominant position in both regions, regardless of any other decision that either these countries or the international community may make in the future.

And third, to a great extent, Russian demands on Turkey represent a kind of test of Western support for Ankara. In the past year, the European Union has refused to consider Turkey as a candidate for membership, and many Western countries have focused more attention on developing relations with Russia than on enlarging them with Turkey.

As a result, the Turks are likely to view the line-up of countries at the London maritime meetings on this issue as a test of just how interested the West is in keeping its links with Ankara or sacrificing them in the name of gaining influence in Russia by deferring to Moscow.

Consequently, this superficially technical issue about Turkey's 1994 rules is likely to be one on which the fate of a great number of countries will depend, Turkey in the first instance of course, but also those of the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

And because its impact on this region is likely to be so great, any decision on the Russian demand and the Turkish rejection of it will affect Russia and the West as well, even if many of the countries involved fail to see just what is at stake.