Amid great fanfare, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev assembled in Athens on March 15 to initial an agreement on a $1.25 billion, 173-mile-long pipeline running from Bulgaria’s Black Sea Burgas port to Greece’s Adriatic port of Alexandropolis (Southeast European Times, March 19).
The line, 15 years in the planning, is scheduled for completion in 2009. When it begins operating at full capacity, the pipeline will transit 35 million tons annually, or 700,000 barrels, of Russian and Kazakh oil to Western markets each day. The pipeline is the second massive engineering project to unlock post-Soviet hydrocarbon riches and contrasts favorably with the 1,092-mile-long, $3.6 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, inaugurated last year, which snakes from the Caspian to its terminus in Turkey’s Ceyhan Mediterranean port.
The Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline will be constructed with the potential to carry up to 50 million barrels per year. The pipeline represents yet another setback for Turkey in its efforts to position itself as a European “energy hub.”
For Turkey, the Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, it will relieve tanker traffic in the Turkish Straits by reducing the number of vessels coming from Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk loaded with Russian and Kazakh crude. Turkey has repeatedly complained about the rising volume of maritime traffic, to little avail, as unrestricted merchantmen access is guaranteed under the 1936 Montreaux Convention. The pipeline also puts paid a Turkish alternative proposed to Russia, a pipeline running north from its Black Sea Samsun port to Ceyhan. But with the Burgas-Alexandropolis project ready to launch, Turkey was unable to secure Russian interest and funding for its alternative (Zaman, March 16).
The Bosporus is now the world’s busiest maritime strait; only the Straits of Malacca have a higher volume of traffic. The Bosporus and its southern Dardanelles neighbors now carry three times the traffic of the Suez Canal, according to Turkish maritime authorities, with tankers of 200,000 tons or more transiting the Bosporus every 10-20 minutes (Zaman, March 19). The passage poses significant environmental and safety risks to Istanbul, whose population makes it one of Europe’s largest cities, and unique in that no other European city has volatile cargo transiting through each day. In 2006 more than 36,000 vessels transited the Turkish Straits, with tankers carrying over 140 million tons of oil. While Ankara would desperately love to lessen this maritime burden, the ideal world would include revenue-sharing pipelines across Turkish territory, and the Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline is yet another rude awakening from that dream.
The pipeline’s consequences extend beyond enriching the EU transit countries to raising troubling questions about Europe’s growing dependency on Russian energy exports. Moscow already provides one-third of Europe’s oil and 40% of its natural gas. Analysts note nervously that a consortium of state-owned Russian companies will hold 51% of the new line, including Gazprom, Rosneft, and pipeline monopoly operator Transneft, with the remainder of the equity divided between Bulgaria and Greece. Since 2005 Putin visited Greece twice to move the project along and was not above a little political arm-twisting, warning Greece and Bulgaria in February that Russia would develop alternative routes if a final pipeline agreement was quickly concluded. Turkey is already dependent on Russian natural gas, importing 67% of its needs via the undersea Black Sea Blue Stream pipeline (Turkish Daily News, March 9). Turkey had hoped to interest Russia in a “Blue Stream 2” natural gas pipeline that would have bypassed Ukraine, but the project seems dead in the water. The 743-mile-long, $3.2 billion Blue Stream pipeline, opened in 2005, was contracted to provide Turkey with 8 billion cubic meters of gas in 2006. Blue Stream, along with other trade ventures, produced $20 billion in bilateral Russian-Turkish trade last year, making Russia now Turkey’s biggest trading partner and making Turkey Russia’s third-largest natural gas consumer.
This dependency, coupled with the picture of Russia repeatedly interfering with energy supplies to Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics to exert political pressure, has caused Ankara to seek out alternative sources of energy, most notably Turkmenistan. When Turkmenistan’s leader Saparmurat Niyazov died unexpectedly on December 21, 2006, Turkey sent a high-powered delegation, headed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also attended the February 14 inauguration of Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov in Ashgabat. Washington is less than enchanted by Turkish efforts to reach out to Iran for natural gas supplies as well.
The picture is not entirely bleak for Ankara however, as in 2008 a Turkish-Greek-Italian pipeline pumping natural gas from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East to Europe is projected to begin operations. Geography is immutable, and countries seeking to exploit Caspian resources in an increasingly volatile world, especially the EU member states currently considering Turkey’s application to join the 25-state grouping, should come to see Turkey’s stability as a reliable energy transit corridor an asset in an increasingly fractious part of the globe.