At midnight on April 3, an open letter criticizing the government’s mega project of the Istanbul Canal was made public. On Monday, in a lightning-speed investigation, 10 former Turkish admirals were arrested for signing it.
Let’s look at the big picture: President Erdogan has a fixed goal, to open a canal to the left of the Bosphorus to increase the flow of trade between the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul and the Black Sea to its north. He’s been thinking about it since 2011. It is no longer just a thought, it is already partly a reality: at the end of March, the government approved the plan.
The “crazy project,” as Erdogan himself called it, who considers it one of the most strategic of his mega-infrastructure plans, is about to start, at least according to Transport Minister Karaismailoglu: “Just a little time and construction will begin.”
The Kanal Istanbul, inspired by the Suez and Panama ones, would have a length of 45 km and an estimated cost of $9.2 billion. It would allow the transit of 160 ships a day, lightening the traffic through the Bosphorus, one of the most crowded straits in the world (53,000 ships a year, against 19,000 for the Suez).
The list of skeptics is long, almost as long as the list of critical problems. Engineers, environmentalists, activists, retired military officers and Istanbul mayor Imamoglu do not want it and have been protesting for quite a while. For a number of different reasons.
The construction of the canal and the urbanization plan—decided in violation of the rules, without consulting NGOs, associations and neighborhood committees, which are already fearing a boom in bribes—would have major effects on a city of 15 million inhabitants.
It would cause a significant decrease in the supply of drinking water, and would diminish the last green area of Istanbul, the 350 hectares of forest about which Sultan Mehmet II made a pledge once he took Constantinople: “Whoever cuts a branch of my forest, I will cut off his head.”
Cihan Basyal, an academic and member of the Northern Forests Defense, called this “an ecocide” in an interview on National Geographic three years ago. To this would be added the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Istanbul residents and the loss of livelihoods for farmers and fishermen.
In their place, there will be skyscrapers and luxury residences, which have already sent housing prices soaring (from $25 per square meter to $800). Back in 2013, residents denounced the government for the expropriations they suffered and the too-low compensation, to no avail.
Finally—and this is where the concern of the 104 former Navy brass lies—it would violate the Montreux Convention. Or, rather, it would bypass it, because that treaty only covers the Dardanelles Strait and the Bosphorus. Erdogan said so in January: “Don’t worry, (the Istanbul Canal) is completely outside of Montreux.”
Signed in 1936, the convention guarantees the transit of civilian vessels through the two sea passages in both times of peace and war and restricts the access of military vessels from third countries. According to the signatories of the open letter, Montreux allowed Turkey to remain neutral during World War II, avoiding a devastating conflict for a fledgling nation.
But Kanal Istanbul opens up new scenarios. What worries the former admirals is the reduction in Turkish sovereignty and the possible militarization of the Black Sea, with all that follows in terms of international tensions, especially with Russia, which overlooks that sea, and with which Ankara maintains a relationship of alliance-rivalry, always on the verge of collapse.
This stance (which followed a similar letter signed on April 2 by 126 former Turkish ambassadors) did not please the government, or an increasingly Erdoganized judiciary: the chief prosecutor of Ankara immediately opened a case, and a day later, 10 retired admirals ended up in handcuffs and four others were summoned for questioning. They are accused of undermining state security and the constitutional order. They immediately lost their pensions, which were cancelled on Monday.
Government officials and the president himself have condemned the initiative in harsh words: “It is a political coup,” said Erdogan. Yet, among those arrested there are fervent nationalists, such as Cem Gurdeniz, the theorist of the “Blue Homeland,” the doctrine of expansion of Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea at the expense of Cyprus and Greece, one being pursued by Erdogan.
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