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Geopolitical competition heats up in Black Sea 5 avril 2006

Posted by Acturca in Russia / Russie, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Eurasianet – March 10, 2006

Mevlut Katik

Turkish officials are disputing recent media reports that Ankara rejected a US request to expand NATO naval operations into the Black Sea.

The controversy developed in mid-February, when US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Volker voiced a desire for NATO's Operation Active Endeavor, which is currently responsible for combating terrorism and smuggling in the
Mediterranean Sea, to expand its activities to encompass the Black Sea. The trial balloon received an enthusiastic response from most Black Sea littoral states, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania and Ukraine. Turkey and Russia, however, steadfastly opposed the idea.

Media outlets seized on Turkish opposition to the plan as a sign of a deepening rift separating Ankara and Washington. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The United States and Turkey have had a roller-coaster relationship
since 2003, when the Turkish parliament refused to grant permission for a temporary US military base on Turkish territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Yet, even though ties have clearly frayed, Turkey remains reluctant to publicly clash with the United States.

Accordingly, Turkish diplomats are playing down the significance of the Operation Active Endeavor controversy. According to a senior Turkish diplomat, the United States never made a formal request to expand the mission. The official also emphatically denied that Washington had, as some local media outlets have reported, sought basing rights for US forces along the Black Sea
coast. "Similar media reports now suggest that the USA has also asked for bases on Turkish territory against Iran," the diplomat said. "Such claims always circulate in the media, and have nothing to do with reality."

The diplomat said two existing naval organizations – BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony – offer NATO avenues for operating in the region. BlackSeaFor comprises all the littoral states, including Russia, along with NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Black Sea Harmony, meanwhile, is a Turkish initiative that
strives to maintain security in coastal waters and major sea lanes. Ankara recently extended an invitation to other littoral states to join Black Sea
Harmony. The Turkish diplomat characterized the functions of both organizations as "de facto implementation" of Operation Active Endeavor in the Black Sea.

"The objective is to share the experience gained through such operations [BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony] with the USA and other NATO members, and this is already being done," the Turkish diplomat said. "Therefore, there is no
situation at this stage that would necessitate such a [US] request" for the operational expansion of Active Endeavor.

Operation Active Endeavor has functioned since 2001 in the Mediterranean Sea, drawing on ships and sailors from a wide variety of NATO members, including the United States, Britain, Turkey, Greece and the Netherlands. Political analysts have noted that Turkish and Russian geopolitical priorities in several areas have been converging over the past few years. Helping to reinforce this view were joint naval exercises conducted by the two states in late February.
However, some Turkish experts emphasize that, when it comes to the Active Endeavor controversy, Turkey and Russia have differing motives for opposing the plan.

Russia's opposition to Active Endeavor's entry into the Black Sea is relatively clear-cut: Moscow is loathe to see any expansion of the United States' strategic reach in what has traditionally been a Russian sphere of influence. Turkey's opposition, on the other hand, is driven by a variety of technical and strategic factors.

Among the top Turkish concerns is a desire to preserve the status quo established under the Montreux Convention of 1936 – a pact that regulates traffic in the Dardanelles and the Bosporus straits. The pact placed limits on the movement of warships in the straits, while restoring full Turkish sovereignty of the waterways. During the Cold War, the convention was used to hamper the movement of Russian warships into the Mediterranean. Turkish officials now worry about setting any precedent that could create headaches for them down the road.

Another factor concerns Turkey's own regional strategic ambitions. In recent years, the Black Sea's geopolitical importance has risen, as nations have come to increasingly value its potential as a conduit for energy exports from the Caspian Basin to Europe. Ankara is interested in raising its regional strategic profile in the hopes that doing so could secure a larger share of the potential
economic spoils for Turkey. The establishment of a substantial US military presence in the Black Sea would complicate Turkish efforts to play a leading role in regional security initiatives, some Turkish analysts say.

NOTES: Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.

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