Montreux Treaty is being challenged by the construction of the Istanbul Canal

Istanbul Canal treaty

A new mega-project has been launched - the Istanbul Canal, connecting the Marmara and Black Seas. It will be an alternative to the Bosporus Strait, and thus challenges the Montreux Treaty and opens the path for further NATO pressure against Russia.

However, there is major opposition to the project, not only from local environmentalists who fear that harm will outweigh the benefits and local economists who do not see the feasibility of the project, but also foreign states. Regional countries are concerned that the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits and Turkey’s compliance with its obligations in the Black Sea will be undermined.

“Today we are opening a new page for Turkey's development, laying the first stone by building a bridge over the Istanbul Canal,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the bridge ground-breaking ceremony on June 26. “We see Canal Istanbul as a project to save the future of Istanbul … to ensure the safety of life and property of Istanbul’s Bosporus and the citizens around it.”

Erdoğan ensured that all the necessary studies, including the impact of construction on the environment, have already been carried out. Along with the canal, that Erdoğan admitted was a “crazy project,” there will be residential quarters, parks, tourist facilities and a technology development zone.

The Turkish president justified his “crazy project” because, as he claimed, “every year, 45,000 ships sail across the Bosporus. Every big ship poses a risk. They carry different cargoes, any accident will be a threat, which could lead to fires and destruction, including cultural property.”

It is planned to take six years and $15 billion, but the real figure was estimated at a recent developer’s conference in France to be $65 billion. It is the largest infrastructure initiative in Turkish history and is meant to be a part of Erdoğan’s legacy.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has spoken out against the project and even called for a referendum. Environmentalists are worried that the Black Sea could become shallow and the Marmara Sea ecosystem disrupted. More importantly from a local perspective, Istanbul's water supply is also under threat as the canal will absorb freshwater supplies.

However, the biggest issue surrounding the canal from an international perspective is the fate of the Montreux Treaty governing movements between the Black Sea via the Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits. According to the treaty, there is free movement for merchant shipping and Turkey cannot charge a toll. Turkey does control the movement of non-Black Sea warships though. According to the treaty, non-Black Sea warships cannot stay in the Black Sea for more than three weeks, and their total tonnage should not exceed 45,000 tons.

In April, admirals and former admirals of the Turkish Navy were arrested after writing an open letter urging the Turkish president to not go ahead with his “crazy project,” fearing how it would impact the Montreux Treaty. Erdoğan quickly assured that the treaty will remain valid, but fears remain that the Istanbul Canal will allow Ankara to bypass its positions, especially as Turkey is a serial violator of treaties, such as the Lausanne Treaty.

Turkey says that the project is not related to the treaty and does not comply with it in principle because the construction is artificial. The Istanbul canal is a completely different channel that may become an issue for the Montreux Treaty in the future. Black Sea countries are opposed to the canal, with the exception of Ukraine and Georgia. These two countries would actually like an increase in NATO participation in the Black Sea.

At the same time, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece object to any changes to the Montreux Treaty. Although Greece is not a Black Sea state, it is located at the mouth of the Dardanelle Strait. However, the three countries are NATO members and the country that would be most affected by any change in the treaty or status quo is Russia, especially in light of last week’s provocation by Britain near Crimea. Moscow does not want non-Black Sea countries, especially NATO members, to circumvent the treaty and increase the presence of their naval forces – but Turkey will open a path towards this with the opening of the canal. The U.S., Britain, and other leading NATO believe the Montreux Treaty is outdated as it restricts the number of ships in the Black Sea in their effort to maintain pressure against Russia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that there will be no changes to the Montreux Treaty. However, it is of course easy to make such a claim before construction has ended. Turkey is quite capable of resorting to manipulation as the status of the new channel has not yet been indicated. The very fact of the debate shows that Ankara aims to become a more significant player, not only in the region but also on the world stage.