Erdogan’s $ 20 billion canal to nowhere

In April 2011, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined his vision for a nearly 50-kilometer canal connecting the Sea of ​​Marmara and the Black Sea parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, about 20 km to the east. A decade later, after countless shutdowns and starts, Turkish officials plan to inaugurate the $ 20 billion project next month, which Erdogan himself calls “crazy.”

A growing chorus of critics might agree. Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, widely seen as Mr Erdogan’s main challenger in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2023, is the mayor of Istanbul. new expensive waterway. Nearly three in four Istanbul residents agree, according to a 2019 survey.

Istanbul accounts for a fifth of Turkey’s population and more than a third of its gross domestic product. But the Turkish economy has stagnated since a currency crisis in mid-2018, with a steadily declining lira, massive external debt, and consistently high inflation and unemployment. The pandemic has made matters worse, pushing more than 1.5 million Turks into poverty. And a few days ago, Turkey entered its toughest lockdown yet amid a record number of Covid-19 deaths.

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Erdogan pledged to move forward with the canal, arguing that it will attract much-needed foreign investment and boost economic activity. Senior Turkish officials and wealthy foreigners are said to have acquired land along the planned route, causing property prices to rise sharply.

The government estimates that the canal will generate $ 5 billion in annual transit fees and reduce traffic on the Bosporus, which handles about three times as many ships as the Suez or Panama Canal. Many critics denounce the proposal on environmental grounds, citing predictions that the canal will destroy large tracts of agricultural land and coastal habitats of many species and endanger marine ecosystems from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Yet due to congestion, sharp turns, narrow stretches and undercurrents, accidents across the Istanbul Strait are not uncommon. In 1999, a Russian tanker split in two near the mouth of the Bosporus, spilling 1,500 tons of oil that contaminated nearby beaches for two years. The container ship housed last month in the Suez Canal, which put on traffic for almost a week and cost Egypt millions of dollars, looks like a decent advertisement for the Istanbul canal.

The Montreux Convention of 1936 guarantees the free passage of civilian ships through the Strait of Turkey (the Bosporus and the Dardanelles), while giving Turkey considerable control over the passage of warships from non-member states of the sea. Black. Senior officials of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed the new channel would allow Turkey to quash the convention and establish new regulations. But that is highly unlikely, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear to Erdogan that Montreux is a red line.

Assuming Montreux remains in effect, leading Bosphorus analyst Yoruk Isik estimates that during normal economic times, transport ships wait an average of 20 hours to cross the strait. If this is true, transport companies would have an incentive to pay for faster and safer no-wait transit through the new canal, which will be straight and much wider than the Bosporus.

Mr. Erdogan could also be ego driven. Boasting rolling hills and sparkling waterways, Istanbul has for nearly three millennia provided rulers looking to cement their heritage with an ideal natural backdrop. Byzas and Constantine lent their names to the city. Justinian gave the world Hagia Sophia. Theodosius left his walls still standing.

Then came the tall Ottoman mosques and pencil-thin minarets, mostly designed by Mimar Sinan, the favorite architect of Suleiman the Magnificent, the 16th-century sultan. Mr Erdogan has already copied this style by building Turkey’s largest mosque overlooking the Bosporus on the Asian side of Istanbul. But these are just ornaments pinned to an old beauty.

A second Bosphorus that turns the city center into an island would be an unprecedented makeover – one that proved too much even for Mr. Erdogan’s greatest predecessors. Sultan Suleyman, who ruled the empire in its heyday and brought it to the gates of Vienna, first pioneered the concept of an artificial Black Sea waterway at Marmara five centuries ago. It has even been said that Mimar Sinan began to develop a road map before the effort was abandoned.

Successful sultans also thought about the idea before finding other plans to occupy them. The concept has also been resurrected a few times during the Republican era, including as recently as 1991, when the head of an Istanbul commission argued that it would reduce shipping traffic, pollution and risk. environmental.

Completing this project after the failure of so many would be the cornerstone of the Turkish President’s rise from the difficult streets of Kasimpasa to unparalleled greatness. “Istanbul will become a city crossed by two seas,” Erdogan proclaimed in 2011.

Turkey’s economy warps further under a new lockdown. AP

Nearly three in four Istanbul residents are against the project

It is normal that this is his decisive project. After taking power in 2003, Mr. Erdogan took control of the public housing agency TOKI. Over the next decade, construction in Turkey jumped five times as construction became an economic engine and an electoral tool. “TOKI builds many kinds of projects to win voters,” economist Mustafa Sonmez told me in 2013. “Sometimes a mosque, a stadium, sometimes military complexes and shopping malls – whatever you need.

Mr Erdogan launched one megaproject after another: a third bridge over the Bosphorus, the largest airport in the world, a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus, a billion-dollar port complex, a mosque overlooking Taksim Square. His construction-focused agenda is one of his most successful political projects and one of his most despised.

The construction boom has been supported by its grassroots and the AKP’s inner circle, many of which are said to have benefited from non-tender contracts worth billions of dollars. It also inspired the biggest wave of opposition to Mr Erdogan. In mid-2013, millions of Turks joined weeks of nationwide protests that initially started protesting the shaving of Gezi Park in central Istanbul.

A decade later, one wonders if the leader of Turkey should have been more careful. He has always maintained that the new airport, bridge and canal were the key to his vision of boosting Turkey’s prestige and raising GDP to $ 2 trillion by 2023. The republic’s centenary does is more than two years from now, but the Turkish economy is more than 60 percent below that target.

Meanwhile, the projects that have been completed look like a mess. Istanbul Airport opened in April 2019. Less than a year later, and weeks before the pandemic hit the travel industry, Chinese bank ICBC was in talks to refinance 6.2 billion dollars of its loans.

The Third Bosphorus Bridge and the adjacent Marmara Highway opened in 2016 and quickly underperformed to the point that the Italian-Turkish consortium overseeing them moved away. Now Turkey is preparing to make a Chinese consortium the majority owner of the bridge and the highway, according to ANKA Review columnist Aygen Aytac.

Ships anchored waiting in the Sea of ​​Marmara before sailing through the Bosphorus Strait.  AFP

Ships anchored waiting in the Sea of ​​Marmara before sailing through the Bosphorus Strait. AFP

Beijing is suddenly all over Mr. Erdogan’s prestige projects. The two largest Chinese port operators are majority owners of Istanbul’s Kumport, which is conveniently located on the northwestern edge of the Sea of ​​Marmara, near the southern end of the planned canal. China’s largest tech company ZTE owns 48% of Turkey’s largest telecommunications company, which oversees communications at Istanbul Airport, near the northern end of the planned channel.

Last week, six Turkish banks, including the country’s three largest private banks, said they were unlikely to invest in the canal due to environmental concerns. This followed news that Chinese banks were considering a multibillion-dollar investment in the planned channel, which would be part of Beijing’s broad Belt and Road initiative.

Due to economic issues and declining AKP support, the most likely outcome for Canal Istanbul could be the Bridge to Nowhere scenario, in which construction would start and then stop indefinitely if Mr. Erdogan was rejected. But even if the canal does come to fruition, it may not be seen as Mr Erdogan’s crowning achievement, but as an early sign of China’s conquest of the great Ottoman capital.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs columnist for The National

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