Natural gas deals inked this week in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will help make Turkey a regional energy hub but will not change its commitment to the Western-backed Nabucco pipeline project, planned to deliver gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe, according to Turkish officials and experts.
“Turkey's course and priorities have not changed,” said a senior Turkish official on Friday, responding to suspicions likely to arise in the wake of Thursday's deal, under which Turkey allows Russia to carry out feasibility studies in its exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea for construction of the South Stream pipeline.
Russia's South Stream pipeline rivals Nabucco, which has the backing of the European Union and the United States and would provide a supply of gas not subject to Russian control, thus helping Europe reduce its dependence on Russia.
Without Turkey's permission, Russia would have been forced to construct its pipeline through the Black Sea waters of Ukraine, with which it has had bitter rows over gas pricing.
As for Turkey, the deal came along with 19 other advantageous protocols, including one that promises Russian backing for a proposed oil pipeline that travels from the Black Sea city of Samsun to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Turkey hopes oil will then be shipped to Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel and even to India at later stages, making Ceyhan, already the terminus for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, a key energy hub. Turkish officials estimate that when the planned Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline becomes operational, 10 percent of the world's oil will transit Ceyhan. The proposed Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline will also provide an alternative route that bypasses the already congested Turkish straits.
The Italian government said Thursday's deal between Turkey and Russia was "a personal success" for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Official: Berlusconi's mediation claim ‘exaggerated'
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's claim of personal success in sealing Russian-Turkish energy deals was exaggerated and surprised the Turkish government, a senior government source told Reuters on Friday.
Under the agreements signed on Thursday in Ankara, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Turkey's approval for the Moscow-backed South Stream gas pipeline to cross Turkish waters to Europe, countering rival EU-sponsored plans, and signed deals to help make Turkey a key regional energy hub.
The deals had already been agreed when the Turkish government received an unexpected last-minute request from Berlusconi to attend the signing ceremony in Ankara with Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the source said. He said there was more surprise when it became clear that Berlusconi was claiming the accords as his personal success.
"This is the sort of thing that could be a problem diplomatically. But because it is Berlusconi, it just made the two leaders smile," the source said.
The Italian government Web site (www.governo.it) said Turkey's participation in the South Stream gas pipeline was "a personal success for the [Italian] prime minister." It said: "The agreement on building the Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline represents another successful mediation by the Chigi palace [the Italian prime minister's office]."
The Turkish government source said it was an exaggeration to say that he played such a role in the agreements.
Russia wants to build the South Stream pipeline before the European Union-supported Nabucco link from the Caspian -- a scheme meant to cut Europe's reliance on Russian gas. The project to build a pipeline from Turkey's Black Sea town of Samsun to the Mediterranean oil hub of Ceyhan, which Moscow is in turn supporting, is led by Italy's ENI. İstanbul Reuters
But the South Stream deal comes just weeks after Turkey and four European Union countries signed a high-profile intergovernmental agreement on July 13, allowing the planned Nabucco pipeline to transit their territory.
According to Sinan Oğan, head of International Relations and Strategic Analysis Center (TÜRKSAM), the South Stream deal with Russia is completely contrary to the energy policies of the EU and US in the region. Speaking to Today's Zaman, Oğan said Turkey's participation in the rival South Stream will make Nabucco a “stillborn project” and means the loss of a significant trump card for Turkey in its relations with the EU.
But Ankara insists the deal does not mean Nabucco is no longer the priority. Erdoğan said after the signing ceremony that South Stream and Nabucco were not alternatives to one another, but rather reflected diversification in energy supplies. His comments were echoed by Putin, who said at a joint news conference: "Construction of the South Stream does not block Nabucco. Depending on demand from consumers, both projects can be realized."
Officials in Ankara said Erdoğan's remarks summed up Ankara's stance. “We see the two projects as complementing, not rivaling, each other,” said an official. “They strengthen Turkey's position as an energy transit country and underscore its critical role.”
A country with almost no oil or gas resources of its own, Turkey finds itself in a very powerful strategic position, well placed to control the flow of gas from the energy-rich Caspian and Middle Eastern states to customers in the EU. The Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline will further highlight this role, making Turkey a key transit route for delivery of Russian crude oil to customers in the Mediterranean.
Sidelining Ukraine, not Nabucco
Officials also underlined that Thursday's deal is only for Russia to conduct feasibility studies for construction of the South Stream pipeline and does not mean that Turkey is a partner in the Russian project. Underlining the Turkish suspicions on whether South Stream could ever be built, officials said the project's estimated cost, 20 billion euros, is quite high, particularly when compared with Nabucco's projected cost of 8 billion euros. Whether Russia will find enough gas supplies to fill the 63-billion-cubic-meter-capacity pipeline is also a major question that has not yet been answered.
But Nabucco is at a much more elementary stage when it comes to securing gas supplies. None of the potential suppliers has so far made formal commitments to provide gas.
Although some experts say the realization of one project would push back the other, others say both Nabucco and South Stream can easily coexist. “There will be sufficient demand for gas in Europe even if both Nabucco and South Stream become operational. Turkey itself is a big market for gas,” said Sedat Laçiner, head of the Ankara-based International Strategic and Research Organization (USAK). “There is an ever-growing demand for gas.”
According to Laçiner, Russia's main motivation in signing a deal with Turkey is to bypass Ukraine, which is the transit country for 80 percent of Russia's gas exports to the EU, not to sideline Nabucco.
According to Mitat Çelikpala, the deputy head of the international relations department at TOBB-ETU Economy & Technology University, Turkey is likely to get strong criticism from Europe over the South Stream deal. But Laçiner says the EU does not have the right to criticize candidate Turkey because it is itself divided in common energy policy. "There are some principles, such as energy diversification; yet, the EU has failed to build a united foreign energy policy,” he said. “Germany and France are not among the countries that will directly benefit from Nabucco. They have separate energy arrangements with Russia. Italy also wants to get something out of [this chaos] in line with its national interests.”