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Turkey as an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe

The 2010 Alworth Institute International Visiting Fellow, Dr. Oktay Tanrisever (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey) writes - Energy security has been one of the top priorities of Turkey's foreign policy since the oil crisis in 1973 affected Turkey's foreign economic relations very negatively. Turkey is highly dependent on external energy supplies to meet its domestic demand. Moreover, its energy imports constitute the main reason for its chronic balance of payments deficit. Energy security has also become a strategic issue for both the European Union and NATO with the development of common EU and NATO positions on energy security among member states since the mid-2000's. Both EU and NATO positions on energy security necessitate less dependence on the Middle Eastern and the Russian-controlled sources, as political instability in these regions have threatened European and Transatlantic energy security. This has also increased the importance of the energy reserves in the Caspian Sea for both Turkey and its NATO and European allies. What is Turkey's energy policy, and how does it affect Turkey's strategy and relationships with Europe?

Turkey's energy strategy has been based on a number of principles: Firstly, Turkey has been formulating its energy strategy in a way that could cement its Transatlantic relations with NATO allies and enhance its chances for joining the European Union as a full member. This strategy is based on the premise that Turkey and the EU's principles of energy security are almost identical as both Turkey and the members of the EU-especially the East European countries- depend heavily on natural gas supplies from Russia, which has been seeking to use energy as a weapon in its foreign policy since Vladimir Putin's rise to presidency at the very end of 1999. Therefore, the EU seeks to have access to more reliable energy sources or to diversify its energy supplies.

Secondly, Turkey's energy relations with Caspian Sea countries have been determined by its overall objective of an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe that could serve as an alternative to the existing Russia-dominated energy corridor between the two. At present, the European Union countries receive energy from the Caspian Sea region through Russia as Russia imports energy from other post-Soviet states in the Caspian Sea region; namely, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan at very low price levels, and re-exports these energy supplies to the EU member countries at very high price levels. The creation of an alternative energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe could decrease the price for natural gas for European energy consumers by increasing the competition in the market.

Thirdly, the legal dispute concerning the status of the Caspian Sea as a Sea or a Lake has increased Russia's leverage in the energy politics of the Caspian Sea region. Nevertheless, Russia's pragmatic decision to side with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which claimed that the Caspian Sea was a Sea concerning the exploitation of the energy reserves in the Caspian Sea, and to side with Turkmenistan and Iran, which claimed that the Caspian Sea was a lake concerning the sovereign rights of the littoral states, suited the interest of Turkey and other members of the international community. In fact, Russia's cooperation with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in return for considerable shares in their oil and natural gas sectors cleared the way for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline and South Caucasus (Baku-Erzurum-Ceyhan) Natural Gas Pipeline. In return, Russia increased its share in Turkey's natural gas imports by constructing the Blue Stream Natural Gas Pipeline by 2002 in addition to the existing Western Russia-Turkey Natural Gas Pipeline which was constructed in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Turkey also sought to construct a Turkey-Greece-Italy Natural Gas Pipeline (The pipeline between Turkey and Greece has been already completed) in order to establish an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe.

Fourthly, the success of Turkey's energy strategy has been heavily dependent on the success of the Nabucco natural gas pipeline project between the Caspian Sea and Europe. Turkey seeks to pump the natural gas from the Caspian Sea region via the Nabucco pipeline project to the following European countries: Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. Turkey has already signed the intergovernmental agreement with these countries for the construction of the Nabucco pipeline. It is expected that the Nabucco natural gas pipeline project could realize Turkey's objective of creating an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe that is an alternative to the existing Russian-dominated energy corridor.

Lastly, for the success of its energy strategy, Turkey also needs to be very creative in developing new energy projects and in transforming itself into an energy hub. This is partly because Russia has recently intensified its efforts at constructing its South Stream natural gas pipeline that will provide natural gas to all of the Nabucco partners in Europe, with the exception of Serbia, replacing Romania. Besides, Moscow seeks to increase Turkey's dependence on Russia by expanding the capacity of the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline as well as constructing the Samsun-Ceyhan Turkish Straits "by-pass" oil pipeline. If Turkey comes up with creative projects, it could transform its dependence on Russian energy sources into an opportunity by constructing oil and natural gas pipelines between Ceyhan and Israel. This could not only create a solid basis for already strong relations between Turkey and Israel, but also transform Turkey into a real energy hub for the Eastern Mediterranean and the South Eastern Europe.

To conclude, although Turkey faces difficult challenges ahead to its energy strategy, Turkey's success in creating an alternative energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe could have a very positive impact not only on its relations with the EU but also on Euro-Atlantic energy security as a whole.