Montreux Convention and Aegean Islands

MDN İstanbul

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ergün Demirel from Pîrî Reis University examines the way to a solution regarding the Aegean Islands on the basis of the Montreux Convention, focusing on the legal, econo-mic and marine trade aspects of the issue

Strategists traditionally define the elements of National Power as Military-Foreign Policy-Economic-Social and Cultural powers. Discussions about policies to be implemented by a country mostly revolve around Military and Foreign Policy issues, while the more complex Economy and Social and Cultural power issues don’t receive much emphasis.

Due to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Greece’s continued arming of the Aegean Islands, the most debated topics on our agenda are still related to the Montreux Convention and the Aegean Islands. Almost every day, we follow discussions on this issue in print publications and on broadcast media.  Participants in these conversations are either military or diplomats, and they discuss the military and diplomatic aspects of the problem.

Issues related to both Montreux and the Aegean Islands are mainly related to the economy and of course, maritime, which is one of the basic elements of the economy. Discussions that don’t refer to  these two basic elements, naturally, prevent a complete evaluation and even lead to erroneous evaluations.

In an article published in Pravda, the official gazette of the Soviet Union, right after the Montreux Agreement was signed, it was written that this was a great success and that foreign naval forces would no longer enter the Black Sea, and that the soft belly of the country was secured. On the same date, in the Duma of the Soviet Assembly, the spokesperson of the government stated that even though a limitation was placed on the entrance and exit of naval forces into and out the Black Sea, marine transportation, which was of vital economic importance, was now secured and the merchant ships of the Soviets and the coastal countries of the Black Sea were freed from the Turkish side without any restrictions. He stated that the merchant ships could pass freely through the Turkish Straits. Türkiye, on the other hand, was explaining that the Turkish Straits were now under its control and that security of this vitally important region was ensured with restrictions placed on military ships. In the statements made in the Western press around the same time, it was emphasized that merchant ships could now pass freely in these critical passages following the principle of “freedom of the seas”. If attention is paid, the most important aspect of the acceptance of the Montreux Convention by the parties is that the “freedom of the seas” is guaranteed and security of Türkiye and the countries bordering the Black Sea is ensured.

The root of the Aegean Islands problem is enshrined in the continued attempts to turn  this sea into a Greek lake through the extension of the territorial waters of Greece to 12 miles. Of course, the step that follows after this, would be to seize all natural resources in the Aegean Sea by declaring an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Although this situation is seen as a Turkish-Greek problem at first glance, it is a problem that concerns all countries related to maritime trade. In particular, it is not possible for the great powers that take the “freedom of the sea lines of communication” as a vital principle to accept this. If Greece extends its territorial waters to 12 miles, international waters will almost disappear in the Aegean and maritime traffic will have to pass through one country’s territorial waters (Figure 1).

Figure-1: Greek Territorial Waters; LEFT (Current state), 6 Miles RIGHT 12 miles

Although this obstacle can be overcome on the basis of the”innocent passage” principle, countries will be subject to various restrictions while passing through the territorial waters of another country, and this may lead to various conflicts, especially in times of crisis. The emergence of several new restrictions in addition to those already in place that are  imposed by the Montreux Convention will not be a situation that maritime countries can accept.

From a legal point of view, according to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), no country has the right to expand its territorial waters unless it is accepted by all of the coastal states. Here, littoral states include all Mediterranean countries (including the Black Sea), and it does not seem possible to achieve such an agreement. In summary, the resolution of the problem does not only depend on Türkiye’s acceptance of the situation. In our opinion, this is the main reason why Greece has not been able to progress on this issue so far.

As a person with navy background, who has also held political posts, my evaluations on Turkish-Greek problems have usually been based on a military and foreign policy point of view. Later, when I received training in maritime management, I began to understand that the problem was also important from an economic point of view. The world has a certain econo-political structure and military and foreign policy oriented evaluations that ignore economic realities cannot possibly be correct. Maritime trade is one of the most vital elements of the world’s economic system. One of the most important tasks of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is to “facilitate maritime trade”. It should not be expected that maritime countries leading the IMO will adopt practices that will impose new restrictions on maritime trade, and especially that will harm the principle of “freedom of the seas”.

In the light of the issues explained above, the economic and maritime trade dimension of the problem must be taken into account in studies on the Montreux Convention and the Aegean Islands. For this purpose, I believe that all official and non-governmental Turkish maritime organizations, especially scientific organizations related to this subject, should definitely take part in such activities.

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