Updated: August 23, 2021 11:07:35 am
The Kanal Istanbul, an under-construction shipping route running parallel to the strategically critical Bosphorus Strait, is fast gaining prominence as a major divisive issue in Turkey, where an election in 2023 decides the fate of right-wing President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a strongman who has long sought to portray his country as a global heavyweight, but who is blamed for eroding its secular traditions.
The canal, once described by Erdogan himself as a “crazy project”, is being seen as a lifeline for the leader, who has been at Turkey’s helm since 2003 (first as Prime Minister and then as President), but has seen his popularity decline amid a sharp rise in pandemic deaths coupled with economic decline.
Although Erdogan insists that the multi-billion dollar project would bring Turkey economic benefits, opposition politicians and environmentalists have fiercely criticised it, as have others who believe that the canal could threaten a key multilateral treaty that has been the bedrock of peace in the region for nearly a century.
What is Erdogan’s Kanal Istanbul?
Erdogan, whose nearly two-decade-long rule has been marked by major improvements in Turkey’s infrastructure, now wants to dig up a new route through Istanbul connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is touting as a major new source of income for the country.
In June, at a ceremony to begin the canal’s first phase, Erdogan told reporters that the project would cost $15 billion, will be 45km long and 21m deep, and would be constructed in six years.
The planned canal will run parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, a natural waterway that separates Europe and Asia, which for centuries has served as a key outlet for Russian ships entering the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1936, passage through the Strait has been governed by the Montreux Convention, a multilateral treaty that allows ships to go across almost free of cost during peacetime, and which tightly restricts the movement of naval vessels.
Turkish leaders say that the new canal, which will run on the European side of Bosphorus, will be safer and faster to navigate compared to the Bosphorus, making it a more attractive option for commercial ships, who will pay to pass through.
Analysts also believe that Erdogan would use the canal to circumvent Montreux Convention, by marketing the mega project to NATO allies as a legally kosher way of sending their warships into the Black Sea to counter Russia, their major geopolitical rival, all while attracting Chinese investment.
What do the canal’s opponents say?
Some of the project’s most fierce opponents are within Turkey’s military establishment. In April, 104 retired admirals signed an open letter insisting that the Montreux Convention is sacrosanct and should be left untouched, thus publicly challenging Erdogan. Following this, the president confirmed Turkey’s commitment to the treaty, but proceeded to blame the signatories for instigating a coup like the one in 2016, and jailed 10 of the admirals. They were later released.
Erdogan’s political opponents blame him for using the project as a ruse for diverting public attention away from Turkey’s pandemic numbers, soaring inflation and unemployment, and overall economic underperformance. Sure enough, Erdogan’s AKP fared poorly in a recent opinion poll, its popularity slipping below 30%, as per a New York Times report.
The ranks of those opposing also include Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul who pulled off a landslide victory against Erdogan’s AKP in 2019, and who could be a formidable challenger in the 2023 race.
Critics have also pointed to investigative reports exposing real estate deals in which buyers from the Middle East have picked up prime plots of land through which the canal will pass through.
Environmental experts, too, have expressed serious concerns. Among their fears is the threat that the canal would pose to Istanbul’s water supply system of over four centuries, as a wooded area that houses this system would have to be dug up. Another worry is that the new artificial canal would bring polluted waters of the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately in the Mediterranean.
Erdogan, however, has rubbished these concerns, calling the canal “the most eco-friendly project in the world”, as per an AFP report. He has also insisted, against expert opinion, that the canal would solve the Sea of Marmara’s “sea snot” problem.
Industry experts have also expressed doubts about the project’s viability, given the recent fall in the number of ships wanting to cross the Bosphorus. As per the AFP report, over the past decade, the number of vessels going through decreased from 53,000 to 38,000 a year, thanks to reduced dependence on fossil fuels in some countries as well as a rise in the use of oil pipelines.
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