The aftershocks of the conflict in Georgia continue to dominate regional politics, highlighting the difficulties Turkey encounters in conducting its foreign policy in dangerous neighborhoods. The latest U.S. move to utilize military vessels to provide humanitarian aid to the war-torn areas of Georgia demonstrated starkly how Turkey has been forced to engage in a delicate act of balancing to preserve its interests. By maintaining strict adherence to the 1936 Montreux Convention regulating the rules of transit through Turkish straits, Turkey had a powerful legal backing for its cautious policy of balancing the demands of its long-term ally, the United States, and its increasingly assertive neighbor, Russia. Turkish policy experts, however, believe that an escalation of tensions, forcing Turkey to choose sides, is quite likely. Moreover, Turkey should be prepared to discuss the revision of Montreux, which it has jealously guarded.
The U.S. State Department announced on August 20 that the United States obtained Turkey’s approval for the passage of two U.S. Navy destroyers and one Coast Guard cutter to the Black Sea, which would transport humanitarian aid, subject to Montreux regulations. The week preceding this announcement was full of speculation concerning U.S. demands from Turkey for the passage of larger ships, to which Turkey responded negatively because their tonnage well exceeded the limitations set by Montreux. Despite denials by both parties of any pending negotiations, it was later understood that the American side dropped its original plan for sending two large military hospital ships and agreed for smaller ships in compliance with Montreux terms. Moreover, although Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza said the United States wanted to use military cargo ships (Zaman, August 21), the shipment was eventually made by destroyers. The episode led many to draw parallels with the notorious March 1, 2003, decision of the Turkish Parliament, indicating a crisis between the two allies. News reports claimed that U.S. pressed for requests in violation of Montreux provisions, and that American officials criticized Turkey’s “irresponsible” resistance to such simple demands. In Turkey, opposition parties called on the government not to bow to these pressures nor deviate from Montreux Convention (Referans, August 20).
The ability to reach a compromise without escalating this situation was a significant reflection of the maturity of both parties. It was, nonetheless, unclear whether the United States fully complied with the Montreux, which requires an eight-day advance notification from non-littoral countries before sending their warships through the Straits. Since U.S. and Turkish officials denied such a request until August 19, the State Department’s announcement of ‘Turkey’s approval’ on August 20 seemed dubious (Radikal, August 21). As a matter of fact, Montreux does not require the same condition for humanitarian aid, which is, however, subject to different tonnage limitations. Given that the supplies are carried with military vessels, the controversy still remains. The Deputy Chair of Republican People’s Party, Onur Oymen, who is a retired senior diplomat, initiated a parliamentary inquiry asking Foreign Minister Ali Babacan to clarify exactly what provisions of the Montreux applied to these ships (ANKA, August 22). The Prime Minister Erdogan slammed the opposition and the media for their ignorance but did not address these criticisms (Anatolian Agency, August 23).
The U.S.S. destroyer McFaul eventually arrived at Batumi port on August 24, carrying the first shipment of humanitarian relief supplies. The implications of this development for Turkey remain a matter of contention. Russian diplomats in Ankara seem to be pleased with Turkey’s sensitivity in enforcing compliance with Montreux and are keen on preserving the status quo (Murat Yetkin, Radikal, August 26). However, they question the authenticity of U.S. claims for providing humanitarian aid, and believe that it will increase tensions and undermine the stability. If the intention was genuine, the U.S. should not have insisted on carrying aid by military ships; civilian vessels or other transportation means would have served the same purpose (Radikal, August 23). The same argument is shared by many Turkish analysts who increasingly view American policy as a mere show of strength in the Black Sea as part of a growing confrontation, or a new ‘Cold War’ of sorts (for instance: Fikret Bila, Milliyet, August 24; also see reference to Onur Oymen).
Further increasing Turkish observers’ skepticism, coincidentally, Spanish, German and Polish warships also transited the Straits around the same time. The Turkish Foreign Ministry clarified the situation by announcing that they were part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 and their activities were scheduled for transit through the Straits in October 2007. They will be visiting ports in NATO members Bulgaria and Romania (August 22, www.mfa.gov.tr). Nonetheless, many see the two developments intertwined and believe that the escalation between the United States and Russia already started. Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of the two breakaway regions of Georgia and Medvedev’s announcement of severing ties with NATO are viewed as reactions to U.S. policies (Zaman, August 26). Strategist Sinan Ogan drew attention to increased risks generated by the presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea: an accidental exchange between U.S. and Russian ships may spark a fight between the two powers, destabilizing the whole region. Fearing that the U.S. expression of support through this move may lead Georgia to act more belligerently, and underlining that Turkey is the only neutral country bordering the Black Sea, he calls on Ankara to maintain its neutral position and avoid confrontation with Russia (Zaman, August 27). Sharing similar concerns, the opposition RPP invited the PM to report to Parliament as to who assumed the political responsibility for the risks involved in this decision (ANKA, August 23).
Although the United States did not express any intention of pressing for a revision to the terms of Montreux, Turkish analysts increasingly see such a forthcoming possibility. Veteran commentators maintain their commitment to preserving the Montreux in its current form, both as the best guarantee of Turkey’s sovereignty over the Straits and as a geopolitical asset (Hasan Celal Guzel, Radikal, August 26). Nonetheless, Turkish analysts sense a persistent U.S. determination to revise the Montreux regime (Oktay Eksi, Hurriyet, August 22). A senior expert from Ankara-based think-tank ASAM, Hasan Kanbolat sparked a discussion on the subject. He argues that given drastic changes in naval technology, U.S. strategy to establish a presence in the Black Sea, and Romania and Bulgaria’s decision to join NATO, Ankara should be prepared to receive such demands from the United States to amend the Montreux in the foreseeable future (www.avsam.org.tr, August 20). Mensur Akgun, however, believes that such a demand is more likely to come from Black Sea littoral states, other than Russia. As these countries increasingly have adopted pro-Western policies and drifted away from Russia, they tend to view the Montreux regime as the major barrier before their security (Referans, August 23). As signatories to the convention, they may initiate such a process. Overall, despite many of its shortcomings, especially regarding the rules concerning commercial vessels, Turkey so far has avoided opening an international debate on Montreux because it is viewed as the optimal arrangement to protect its interests. Turkey remains committed to resisting any changes being made to any of the loopholes, as it has demonstrated in this episode.
Given its flourishing economic relations with Russia and its dependence on Russian gas, Turkey so far has avoided taking any steps in this crisis that will sever its relations with Russia and provoke further Russian aggression in the region. Accordingly, it acted with caution and followed a restrained policy vis-à-vis American demands, acting in concert with European powers. To its credit, the United States also showed restraint in its demands on Turkey and respected Ankara’s sensibilities to the Montreux Convention. As veteran analyst Sami Kohen argues, however, “the new developments in the Georgia crisis will probably challenge Turkish diplomacy and make balancing increasingly difficult” (Milliyet, August 21).