If the newly voiced concern for the safety of Istanbul's 10 million inhabitants seems sudden, there is a sub-text. The timing of Turkey's objections has much to do with a great game for control of future oil pipeline routes from Central Asia, Azerbaijan and even, to the alarm of Moscow, some from Russia itself.
Turkey would be forced to introduce some kind of quota system for the congested shipping lane if supertankers became common, Turkish oil, pipeline and Foreign Ministry officials warned recently. The officials maintained that this did not contradict the right of all ships of all flags and cargoes to pass unchallenged and unpiloted, as guaranteed in the Montreux Convention of 1936 and a century of international treaties.
'It is not possible for large amounts of oil to pass . . . We don't want to raise Montreaux. But we are not afraid to challenge it,' said Tevfik Okyayuz, a senior Foreign Ministry official. If no action is taken, Turkey reckons, there could be an annual 150m tonnes of Russian, Kazakh and Azeri oil to ship out of the Black Sea within 10 years. That could mean at least 1,200 ships blocking the Bosporus for 300 days a year.
The man in charge of Turkey's international waterways and air lanes said Ankara was worried about safety. The 250-metre supertankers must negotiate 14 turns amid the tricky currents of the Bosporus, which flow fastest at its 700-metre wide narrowest point. One Romanian tanker disaster in 1979 covered Istanbul in a pall of oily smoke for days. 'The European Community is talking about a 15-mile exclusion zone near uninhabited places like the Shetlands. In the Bosporus it can be as little as 50 metres, and 10 million people live in Istanbul. This is asking Turkey for too much of a sacrifice,' an official said.
Deep foghorns on misty nights signal the waterway's dangers, and every couple of months the owners of Bosporus-side villas awake to find another cargo ship beached nearby. But there is more at stake.
Tankers and pipelines are of vital interest to Turkey as it seeks to become a strategic player in the region and chief conduit to international markets of what some Turkish newspapers call 'our oil' from the newly independent Turkic states of the former Soviet Union.
Ankara is determined that pipelines should be connected via Georgia to its big oil terminal at Yumurtalik in the Mediterranean bay of Iskenderun (Alexandretta), not through Iran to the Gulf or through Russia or any other country's Black Sea ports. The officials claim that loading is impossible for 165 days at the loading buoys at the Russian port of Novorossiysk.
The key to this policy is Azerbaijan. The former Azeri government agreed in March that the Turkish route was best, but after a virtual coup d'etat in June, the new government started to review the terms of a June agreement for offshore oil production sharing with a consortium led by British Petroleum.
Turkey insists that the project is on track.' We are not worried at all. We have no political problems (with the new Azeri regime),'said Mr Okyayuz. Ankara hopes to persuade Kazakhstan to piggy-back on to the dollars 1.5bn ( pounds 1.1bn) 1,400km Azeri oil pipeline. Protocols have been signed for a Turkmen natural-gas pipeline to transit Turkey on its way to gas-hungry Europe. If it overcomes problems with Georgia, Russia could cheaply join the pipeline system, Turkish officials believe.
'There are also about dollars 1bn in transit fees at stake. That is why we are offering incentives. Nobody gives anything for free,' said Mr Okyayuz. 'But there's a wrong image. Turkey is pushing the pipelines to save the Bosporus, not just to get pipelines.'
The statistics are frightening. From just a few ships a month when the Montreux Convention was signed in 1936, the straits were used by some 60 ships a day last year, not counting domestic Turkish traffic. Gross annual cargo is rising again after falling from a peak of about 1.5m tons in 1989.
Sea traffic is increasing with the opening up to the Black Sea of the Rhine-Danube and Volga-Don river systems. Increasing oil sales for cash by former East-bloc countries brought 7 million tons of oil through the straits last year, and return cargoes of imports will eventually flow back to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Turks believe that, because of long investment lead-times, the issue must be decided now, despite ethnic fighting in the Caucasus and Kurdish troubles along the pipeline's route through south-eastern Turkey. Russian officials have been invited to hear Turkey's warnings that the straits will soon be a zero-sum game.
Moscow's reservations were voiced by the Russian ambassador to Turkey, who pointed out that the pipeline route favoured by Ankara is plagued by fighting in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey's Kurdish south-east. Talk of pipelines was all very well, he said, but the Montreux Convention was vital to Russia and small tankers provided the best interim solution. 'We should not allow any one country to have a monopoly on the region . . . control of the pipe valve,' said Albert Chernishev. 'If it wasn't for the straits, Russia would have to go round to the Pacific or the (Baltic) north.'
Turkey would do well to remember Russian suspicion of Turks. Determination to control the straits triggered threatening Soviet powerplays and brought a Tsarist army to the gates of Istanbul.
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