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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Conflict Over the Straits

Turkey recently announced a new unilateral policy that will seriously effect the passage of civilian ships through the Black Sea Straits. Russia, as one of the main users of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, has issued a firm protest against this decision in Ankara.

The problem of the Black Sea Straits has a very long history. Over the last 300 years, Russia and Turkey have concluded many bilateral contracts and agreements concerning the passage of foreign military and merchant ships through the straits. It was not until 1936 in Montreaux, however, that the first multi-national convention on the Black Sea Straits was accepted. It was signed by the U.S.S.R., Italy, England, France, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and, Japan.

This document guaranteed free passage for merchant vessels from all nations and legislated the order of passage for military ships.

Nonetheless, Russian diplomacy has long aimed at renegotiating the Montreaux convention. During World War Two, the Turks -- forgetting all about their obligations -- closed the straits to the warships of the Soviet Union and its allies. Shipping from the fascist bloc continued unimpeded.

The Soviet government sent a note to Ankara in 1946 which suggested that negotiations be initiated to create a system of rules that would ensure the security of all the Black Sea countries. That note went unanswered. Another note in 1953 containing the same proposal met with the same response.

To this day, the Turks allow "courtesy calls" by major American and British warships, including those capable of launching nuclear strikes. "Isn't this a direct violation of the Montreaux convention?" is the question being asked at Russia's Foreign Ministry.

Now, apparently, just about everyone in Turkey has decided that the convention is outdated: Not the entire convention, only certain parts. The Turks note that the number of ships passing through the straits and their tonnage and dimensions have increased sharply. The new, strict rules primarily concern nuclear-powered tankers or those carrying nuclear wastes and chemical materials. Most of these ships come from Russia and Kazakstan.

Turkish experts believe that these tankers present a real danger to coastal cities, especially to Istanbul and its 10 million inhabitants, which would be subject to ecological disaster in the event of an accident in the straits. Incidentally, at the end of the 1980s, a large-tonnage Soviet ship in the straits, as a result of infringement of navigational rules, actually rammed a residential building.

Captains must now receive permission for passage from Turkey's Secretariat of Maritime Affairs and take a local pilot on board. Ships transporting oil or any other dangerous cargo must inform the appropriate authorities in Turkey at least 24 hours before the proposed passage.

As many as 50,000 ships pass through the straits each year. Nearly 60 percent of them are carrying oil, natural gas, poisonous chemicals or nuclear waste. Now the Turks have announced that they will no longer allow dangerous materials to pass through the narrow straits. They demand, for example, that oil from Azerbaidjan be transported to Turkey by pipeline.

In their opinion, Central Asia and Russia could also use this artery.The pipeline could pass through either Armenia or Iran, although the Armenian-Azeri conflict makes the first option fairly unrealistic. The route through Iran is also controversial, as many Western banks do not wish to invest in the Iranian economy.

At any rate, a pipeline would take quite a while to build. In the meantime, closing the Black Sea Straits to oil tankers would significantly harm the interests of the region's main oil exporter -- Russia.

Russia's Foreign Ministry sees political motives behind Ankara's actions. Diplomats believe that the Turks are trying to strengthen their political and economic positions in the Moslem republics of the former USSR -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenia and Kirgizia. Turkey has already granted over a billion dollars in export credits and loans and is educating tens of thousands of students from these states in its universities.

At the same time, Moscow has been strengthening its position in the Caucasus, especially in Abkhazia, Georgia and Armenia. Moscow has accomplished this through peacekeeping activities and by reaching agreements with these countries regarding maintaining Russian forces and military bases.

Although the Russians say the Turks have no right to restrict shipping, Turkey has now begun a regular policy of unilaterally restricting passage conditions. In recent months, the Turkish government has approved over 20 rules limiting the free passage of ships in the straits. Representatives of Russia's Foreign Ministry admit that the waters of the straits are at the same time the territorial waters of the ports on the shore. As a result, it is as if ships were passing through the territory of the ports, thus falling under Turkish jurisdiction.

However, according to shipowners and tanker captains, the new regulations, in their present form, will lead to an backlog of tankers in the straits. This situation will, of course, not increase the safety of the passage, but will create additional dangers.

The Russian side has repeatedly emphasized that, in principle, Moscow shares Ankara's concern with the problem of guaranteeing the safety of shipping in the Black Sea Straits and minimizing the risk of ecological disaster. At the same time, as stated in a special memo from the Foreign Ministry, Turkey's new regulations clearly deviate from the framework for solving such important matters.

The document stresses: "The freedom of maritime communications through the Black Sea and the straits is of the utmost importance to the economies of Russia and other Black Sea countries. Russia does not recognize as lawful the institution of any prohibitive shipping order in the straits."

Gennady Charodeyev is a reporter for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.