The Turkish Connection: Bridge or Barrier?

by Daniel Koehler on 7/13/2007 · 2 comments

What with all the effort being expended by the EU’s leaders to woo Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan for their energy reserves, one could be forgiven for thinking that the construction of the proposed Trans-Caspian and Nabucco pipelines is all that is needed for the regional organization to have guaranteed access to as much natural gas as is necessary for decades to come. The truth, however, seems to be quite different.

The EU’s endeavours to promote this project are generally understood as being founded on a desire to reduce Central and Western Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Around 40 percent of the EU’s gas imports come from Russia, and in some of the eastern member states this figure reaches 100 percent. The perils of this dependency were amply demonstrated by Moscow’s willingness to shut off gas supplies to Germany, the Czech Republic and other member states over the course of its dispute with Belarus last January.

The focus on the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline, rather than a land route, is based on the same logic as that which led to the desire to bypass Russia in the first place. Any route from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to Western Europe, if it were to bypass Russia, would necessarily have to go either across the Caspian or through Iran. The latter is unlikely to hold Western European consumers in any higher regard than Russia did in January, and rumours that a gas cartel including Iran and Russia may be in the offing will do little to allay Brussels’ scepticism regarding the suitability of Iran as a transit country for European gas.

The EU’s preferred route, then, would take Turkmen (and possibly Kazakh) oil and/or gas through a Trans-Caspian Pipeline to Azerbaijan, where it could join the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline. At Erzerum, a connection would be made with the Nabucco pipeline, which will be finished by 2011 if all goes according to plan. So, the route passes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before entering EU territory at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Georgia and Azerbaijan both seem to be relatively reliable from the European perspective – Tbilisi has shown quite an obvious pro-Western alignment ever since the Rose revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvilli to power, while Azerbaijan’s economic dependence on the energy industry means that politicized interference from Baku in the market for hydrocarbons is unlikely.

In Turkey, however, the EU faces an entirely different partner. Although negotiations regarding the country’s potential accession to the EU began last October, they have been erratic at best and popular disillusionment with the Union has been spreading in Turkish society. The country’s military establishment, whose role in politics will need to be reduced if the accession process is to advance further, has recently given signs that it still considers itself a key player in Turkish political life. Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly-elected French President, has expressed and continually reiterated his firm opposition to Turkish membership, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Turkey’s stake in maintaining friendly relations with the EU is based largely on the possibility of eventual accession to the Union, and so a deterioration in the chances of accession are likely to lead to a concomitant deterioration in these relations.

Now, a worsening of EU-Turkish relations does not necessarily mean that Ankara will resort to Russian-style energy diplomacy. Even without EU membership, Turkey will certainly maintain relatively close ties to the European Union – the two entities are already bound by a Customs Union, and even Sarkozy and Merkel favour a “privileged partnership” for Turkey rather than outright rejection. Moreover, the Turkish government does not enjoy the same monopoly over the country’s energy pipeline network as the Russian, since any pipeline running across Turkish territory would be owned by foreign investors rather than the state. The point remains, however, that the Turkish state retains sovereignty over its territory and is therefore in a strong position to interfere with gas supplies should it choose to do so. For example, transit fees could easily be raised, thereby rendering the import of hydrocarbons from Turkey a problematic affair.

The Justice and Development Party, which won Turkey’s 2002 elections and is up for re-election on July 22, still appears to be committed to European integration. The same goes for their primary opposition, the secularist Republican People’s Party. But if the EU’s complacency regarding the accession process continues, the organization may well find that Turkish disillusionment has ramifications extending far beyond the edges of Anatolia.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Daniel graduated from Oberlin College in 2007 with a B.A. in economics and politics. He is hoping to spend the next academic year teaching English in Turkey before applying to graduate school.

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Brian July 13, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Daniel: I enjoyed reading your piece. I agree that Turkey is unlikely to pursue Russian-style politics. Nor is Ankara likely to partner up with Russia the way Iran or China could. After all, Turkey and its northern neighbor have historically viewed each other with suspicion, to say the least.

However, as Steve Levine points out, one of the main problems is “Europe’s propensity for going multiple ways at once.” Sadly, ExxonMobile and Chevron seem the only ones willing and able to push back:

A quick question: do you think Ankara can see the risks of becoming too dependent on Russia for its energy supplies and thus can see how Turkey, too, would benefit from pipeline diversification? Could this consideration outweigh the temptation of using its control over energy transit as a leverage in EU membership talks?

Daniel July 13, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Brian, thanks for the comment. You’re certainly right about the possible risks for Ankara of dependency on Russia – if I’m not mistaken, more than half of their imported gas comes through Blue Stream. But if worst comes to worst, I see no reason why Turkey couldn’t take advantage of its proximity to Iran and forge some kind of arrangement with them that doesn’t involve sending Iranian gas on to Europe. Although Turkey does still maintain relatively close ties to the West, it certainly hasn’t shut out Tehran. Its volume of trade with Iran is high and rising.

Alternatively, Turkey could take advantage of its ports on the Mediterranean and import LNG from Algeria or Egypt. Obviously, this option isn’t open to landlocked countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic – even Bulgaria and Romania would have difficulty accessing LNG this way given the extraordinarily high volume of traffic already passing through the Bosphorus, which Ankara is trying to reduce.

Essentially, all this means that Turkey would have a back-up option should the TCP fall through (which is looking increasingly likely). Europe, on the other hand, does not.

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