On April 17 the organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) held its 18th meeting of members’ foreign ministers in Kiev, Ukraine. The only countries to send their foreign ministers to the meeting, however, were Turkey and Ukraine. All of the other BSEC 10 members sent lower-ranking representatives. The poor turnout has prompted officials from Turkey, which was the main driving force behind the creation of the BSEC, to question whether the organization has a future.
The BSEC was created on June 25, 1992, when the heads of state and government from 11 countries met in Istanbul to issue what became known as the Bosphorus Statement, which committed them to establishing an organization to encourage political and economic cooperation between member states in order to ensure peace, stability, prosperity and good-neighborly relations in the Black Sea region (www.bsec-organization.org). The BSEC founding members were Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. In 2004 Serbia became the 12th state to join the organization.
The main architect behind the BSEC was Turkish President Turgut Ozal (1927-1993), who saw it as an opportunity to extend Turkish soft power into a region opening up to the rest of the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Turkish officials even talked of the BSEC eventually becoming a rival to the EU. The BSEC was always, however, a concept that promised to work better in theory than in practice. Historically, unlike the cultural cross-fertilization in the Mediterranean, for example, the Black Sea has tended to separate rather than unite the people living along its shores. More confusingly, only six BSEC members are littoral states and several, most strikingly Albania, have only ever had the most tenuous links with the Black Sea.
More immediately, at the time the BSEC was established, most of the founding states were suspicious of, and several openly hostile to, at least one of the organization’s other members. As a result, during the BSEC’s early years, officials from member states often privately admitted that their country’s main motive for participation was more defensive that constructive; namely, a desire to ensure that the organization was not used by their rivals to secure an advantage in their bilateral disputes.
Even though the BSEC has failed to failed to fulfill Ozal’s hopes that it would serve as a platform for the extension of Turkish influence, Ankara has been reluctant to relinquish its role in the organization. It currently hosts the BSEC Permanent International Secretariat, the organization’s administrative center, in an opulent mansion on the European shore of the Bosphorus.
The BSEC chair is rotated among its members for six-month periods. Ukraine will hold the chair until May 1, when it will be handed over to Albania. As a result, Ukraine also hosted the foreign ministers’ meeting on April 17.
In a press bulletin released after the meeting, the BSEC announced that members had agreed to the creation of a €2 million Hellenic Development Fund, which will be entirely financed by Greece and will be used to support regional cooperation. The participants failed, however, to agree on plans to simplify visa requirements for businesspeople and truck drivers visiting member states.
But the main conclusion of the meeting was in itself a tacit admission of the difficulties faced by the BSEC in encouraging regional cooperation. The meeting approved the introduction of a fast-track process, which effectively enables some members to opt out of BSEC policies. In a press bulletin released after the meeting, the BSEC announced, “This new modality of cooperation will allow the BSEC member states to proceed with the implementation of certain policies that other members may not wish or may not be able to follow” (www.bsec-organization.org).
However, speaking after the meeting, officials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry focused not so much on the practical difficulties faced by the BSEC as the apparent lack of enthusiasm among member states for even trying to make the organization work. In an unusually frank evaluation, one unnamed Turkish official pointed out that that the 10 member states that failed to send their foreign ministers to the meeting in Kiev included Albania, which will take over the chair of the organization at the beginning of May.
“This is a scandal,” said the official. “This looks like the beginning of the end for the organization” (Turkish Daily News, April 22).
Another Turkish official was slightly more optimistic. “We can’t deny that the BSEC is facing difficulty as far as functioning as an efficient multinational mechanism, but there is still hope to rescue it,” he said (Turkish Daily News, April 22).
In reality, for reasons similar to those that have crippled the BSEC since its inception, few member states are likely to want to risk withdrawing from the organization. But, if an obituary would be premature, the prognosis is not encouraging; and what was once vaunted as a motor for regional cooperation now looks increasingly moribund.