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The Tricky Turks

turkey081009.jpgWhy would Turkey sign on to a massively expensive and redundant underwater pipeline that would eliminate the transit business at the lucrative but over-trafficked Bosporus Straits?  Because when it comes to Gazprom and Eni’s South Stream, it is very different to say you support it than it is to actually build it.  Nabucco is likely to work, and looks like it will find the gas to fill capacity – but not before Ankara does everything possible to milk both sides for the maximum concessions.

These editors at Zaman don’t quite get the issue right, but there is enough perspective here to get an idea of the Turkish mentality on Russian energy politics (resentful of the perceived mistreatment at the hands of Europe, Washington, and yes, Russia).  On the other hand, this remarkable independence makes Turkey one of the most interesting stages of the new great game.

Another dimension of this need to once again “contain” Russia is of course about energy and pipelines and this is where Turkey enters the picture. Washington has long been a strong supporter of alternative pipelines bringing Caspian and Central Asian energy resources to Western markets without going through Russian territory. The classic example is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (TBC) pipeline linking Azerbaijani oil with Europe through Georgia and Turkey. Last month, another major project to sideline Russia gained the green light for construction when the EU and Turkey signed the Nabucco project, the 3,300-kilometer-long gas pipeline from Central Asia to Europe.

But Putin’s visit toTurkey made a mockery of Nabucco’s very own raison d’être. Under thedeal signed on Thursday, Turkey granted the Russian natural gas giantGazprom the right to use its territorial waters in the Black Sea, underwhich the company wants to route a second South Stream pipeline to gasmarkets in Eastern and Southern Europe. Needless to say, this Russianpipeline, called the South Stream, will directly compete with Nabucco.The project needs Ankara’s consent because the planned route passesthrough Turkish territorial waters.

Itwas not clear that Turkey would agree to the project since South Streambypassed Turkish territories. Turkey has been a regular customer ofRussian gas through the Blue Stream pipeline and was believed to fearthat some of that gas would instead be diverted to the EU with theSouth Stream. This is why Ankara needed to be convinced by Putin.

Tobuy Ankara’s support, Russia agreed to pay a high price. Russia willnow help finance important projects for Turkey, including an oilpipeline from Samsun to Ceyhan and one or more nuclear power stations.Steps toward relying less on natural gas and oil by launching its ownnuclear stations has been a Turkish strategic objective since 2003. Inthat sense, the deal with Russia is a long-cherished dream for Turkishpoliticians.