What is the pragmatic utility of the Canal Istanbul?

Roberta Vaduva

An interview with late Giuseppe Mancini made a few months ago.

Kanal İstanbul is an artificial canal that will be dug parallel to the natural Bosphorus Strait. Travelling by sea from European Istanbul to Asian Istanbul, or vice versa, it often happens that the boat makes sudden turns: the passengers look up and find themselves in front of an immense container ship or oil tanker (sometimes, it can even be a warship). Two or three years ago it happened that one of these large ships went adrift and ran aground against the villa where Ozpetek filmed Rosso Istanbul, destroying it at least in part. Luckily, it was not loaded with flammable material. And, therefore, the idea of building a canal parallel to the Bosphorus should be appreciated if only for ecological purposes. Because you have the two strips of the city – the Anatolian shore, the European shore – that are not only urbanized, but also historicized. On the Bosphorus you have the Ottoman imperial residencesPreserving the memory and culture of the Bosphorus is something revolutionary. The idea of building the canal parallel to the Bosphorus is not Erdoğan’s idea but has been circulating in the country for some time.”

A bit of history. What does the Bosphorus represent for the Turks?

“At the end of the 1990s, the then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, had launched this idea with a similar purpose: to prevent accidents in the Bosphorus of environmental, cultural-historical and even personal damage. A few days ago, a large ship collided with a small fishing boat. Result? Two deaths. The natural conformation of the Bosphorus is meandering and the currents are very strong. A Spanish colleague told me that he participated in the swimming crossing and, when he arrived 50 meters from the finish line, he was forced to stop there because the current was too strong. That’s why the boats drift, because the currents are too strong, and they lose control.

It is not by chance that I have spoken of the culture of the Bosphorus: in the 18th-19th centuries, the Bosphorus became the place of the summer residences of both the sultan – from the seraglio of Topkapı to the palace of Dolmabahçe – and of court dignitaries, but also of embassies. Not only that, but the architecture of the mosques also changed. Whereas previously the sultan and the imperial family were ritually seen in public on the street that leads from Topkapı Palace straight to the Walls (the Divanyolu), after the transfer of the residence to the new Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856, it runs along the maritime route of the Bosphorus. Therefore, the mosques that had a side entrance for the sultan, now have one right in front at the docking station. This architectural device would later be adopted for all the new mosques of the Baroque and then Neoclassical periods.

From the top of Çamlıca hill – on the Asian side of the megalopolis – one can admire the mass of ships waiting to cross the Bosphorus because the passage is difficult and therefore a real waiting list is formed. The ships, in order not to congest the passage, wait in the Sea of Marmara. Even for days the Bosporus is the only passage between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The Prepontide and the Pontus Eusinus for the Greeks, the Ak Deniz and the Kara Deniz for the Turks”.

What other beneficial aspects does the construction of the Canal conceal? What does it have to do with the Silk Road?

“In addition, therefore, to this cultural aspect, there is also a very important aspect of both geopolitical and geo-economic nature The most relevant impact is precisely the geo-economic oneTurkey is at the centre of the Eurasian transport corridors that are multimodal corridors: train, highways, fibre optics, the maritime passage of the Caspian Sea. They enlarged the port of Filos to connect all the Black Sea ports. Enlarging the Bosphorus to allow them to enlarge the volume of trade. Turkey is focusing on this to make the most of its geographical position. This is also the origin of the interest in the Silk Road, in China. Marmaray itself, the underground rail tunnel, was designed to transport people from Europe to Asia by day (in 4 minutes, with no delays) and transit goods by night. And it was designed as an uninterrupted link from Beijing to London. It is more about connecting across Turkey from East to West and vice versa. And it is the great geopolitical project of Erdoğan’s Turkey, which has invested heavily in infrastructure. The construction sector is not only the building of large mansions, but the bulk comes from infrastructure: bridges, tunnels, high-speed lines, highways, airports. The plan is to bring at least one airport to all 81 provinces in the country”.

Does the Turkish economic system need such a work?

“The country had a glaring infrastructural backlog: on my first trips to Turkey in 2009/10, I used to travel by bus to Edirne or Bursa. There were people traveling all the way to Ankara by bus. Now there are high-speed trains. The same goes for ports: they are yachting ports, but, as a priority, they are logistics ports. In the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and in the Black Sea. This great project, which is made up of many small pieces of a puzzle, has, first and foremost, an economic purpose. In the years of the first liberalizations, first of the Prime Minister, and then of the President, Turgut Özal, at the beginning of the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s, the latter began and completed a series of great economic reforms based on liberalization that profoundly transformed the Turkish economic system. His policy is based on export-led industrializationi.e., export-driven development and economic growth. Previously, Turkey implemented import substitution, that is, through a network of state monopolies, it produced what it needed with glaring inefficiencies. To engage in exports, one needs, first, to reach the markets. How can you reach markets without ports, highways, airports? With the mountain road?

This has allowed what is the agricultural and manufacturing heart of Anatolia – Konya, Kayseri, Malatya, Gaziantep – to present itself in international markets. From year to year there is always an improvement in the export share. This year it should break through the wall of 200 billion dollars, DOLLARS and not devalued lira! How is this possible? Thanks to the dense and well-functioning infrastructure network. All this translates into electoral success of Erdoğan. If you followed the page of the Ministry of Industry and Technology, you would find that there are openings of new industrial plants in all areas of the country every week. I, a few years ago, went to the inauguration of the Ferrero plant in Manisa: a large industrial park that began slowly to be connected via highway and airport, otherwise, how do you transport the Nutella that is produced there to all the countries of the eastern Mediterranean?”

Where will the money for the project come from?

“Kanal İstanbul’s controversial project fits into a logic of development not only of the megalopolis, but of the entire country, contributes to the improvement of its geopolitical and geo-economic position. We also consider the jobs that will be created. The authorities intend to inaugurate two new cities – smart cities – whose projects have already been presented. But it is not something definitive yet.

The Canal project is controversial because no one knows yet who will finance it. Turkey is mobilizing in search of donors abroad: Qatar could be one of these as well as China. But it is also obvious that this is the case: all the great infrastructures of Turkey were built with the “build operate transfer” system, a public-private partnership. The private company starts the project, makes it work, takes the proceeds and after a set period, the entire work will come under state control, becoming a public work. Such a partnership also involves technology transfer: private individuals are always consortia and in each of these we find a Turkish partner. So, what is going on? Those foreign partners transfer technologies to Turkish partners who learn new methods, the use of new materials and so on. That is what happened at high speed. Now Turkey alone produces the essential materials for high-speed and trams. The country also transported them to Poland through an Italian-Turkish joint venture. For the construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus – even on this occasion there was no lack of controversy- the procedure was the same: all the world leaders specialized in the field were involved. Everything is planned and thought to gain advantages not only and not so much today, but in perspective.

What I would like to pass on to the reader and that I have repeatedly emphasized in my publications, is that it is not pharaonic works. Turkish works have a functionality and respond to a logic of growth and economic development. There is nothing crazy. We must not think of these projects as speculation, it is absurd nonsense. Of course, there are those who profit. The Qataris will profit from it, but it is a side effect. Erdoğan does not do it to enrich the Qatari people. The primary objective is to create growth and development, which are not the same thing. It is not just a matter of percentage of GDP growth. It is not creation and accumulation of wealth. It is to get the most underdeveloped areas out of the depression because in Turkey there are pockets of resounding underdevelopment. Participating in the development of these areas means creating these entrepreneurial projects, there is no need for subsidies. Leading entrepreneurial projectsAlso, EU-funded as in the case of Syrian refugees”.

Who opposes the project and why?

“As a political analyst I can only say that in Turkey there is always a wall against wall. During the protests of Gezi, the most important thing was that from the original protest for the park – if we can call it that, considering the small size of the garden with trees in question – came the proclamation, by many architects and engineers, wealthy people still tied to the left, who demanded the end of the projects: third bridge over the Bosphorus, third airport and Kanal İstanbul. All this in 2013. Only because they are ideologically hostile to these projects.

If one, already at the beginning, analyses only the negative aspects of a work, necessarily something catastrophic will result. Instead, weighing the pros and cons, the usefulness or not that its realization brings to the community, you can sit around a table and talk about it. The job of the politician is precisely this: to mediate between pros and cons and decide what to do.

It will take six years for the construction of the majestic Canal, but I am not sure if the six years will mean the work of connecting the water lines and bridges or even the construction of these two smart cities. To build a bridge is much simpler: the third bridge over the Bosphorus was inaugurated without having completed all the approaches to the bridge itself.

The Channel goes to be inserted in what is a system of connections of the northern Marmara, a ring all around the Sea of Marmara, which starts from the bridge on the isthmus of Izmit, arrives in Istanbul with its three bridges, the two tunnels already built and the third being planned, then there is the northern part with the third bridge, the airport and the latter will be equipped with two high-speed connections, one with the city centre and the other with Halkalı, the arrival point of the MarmarayHigh-speed trains to Edirne, Greece and Bulgaria will depart from Hlkalı. Soon will also be inaugurated the bridge over the Dardanelles – if not this year, the next. It comes to create a communication ring all around the Sea of Marmara”.

Would the new channel be submitted to the Montreux Convention, or would it be withdrawn?

“That the Channel represents the will of Erdoğan to flirt with the USA, is not true, because the Convention does not protect the passage of the strait to the singular, but of the straits, to the plural. The straits are two: Bosphorus and Dardanelles. One could even build 50 channels on the Bosphorus, but their presence is irrelevant because after the Bosphorus there are the Dardanelles, always submitted to Montreux. Both straits are Turkish inland waters, not an international border.

An even crazier project is under way between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean, which involves the construction of an artificial channel to connect the two seas, in the isthmus of Saros, perpendicular to the Dardanelles. And that would be revolutionary because in that case Montreux would apply or not? In international law, what would the excavation of an artificial canal entail? The experts on the law of the sea would also be in great difficulty because this is not an option. Even by analogy, what should be applied?

I would not see it as something related to Russia or America because it is a project that comes from far away. It could, at most, overlap contingently”.

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