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Turkey´s Approach to the Black Sea Region and to the Organization of The Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)

 

H. E. Mr. Ertugrul APAKAN *

During the long years of the Cold War, the Black Sea remained a backwater where two hostile blocks maintained an uneasy balance. The collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a tectonic political event triggering global changes of historic magnitude. The most striking changes occurred in the region stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. At the very center of this region lies the Black Sea basin where the continents meet and the land routes and sea lanes connecting east and west and north and south intersect. This is the region that includes the Balkan Peninsula, the Caucasus and the northern and southern shores of the Black Sea linking the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas as well as the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. Located at this strategic spot, it was natural for Turkey to take the initiative in the early 1990s and propose a regional cooperative arrangement that would ensure that the Black Sea becomes a region of peace, stability and cooperation. This was the background against which the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) came into being 15 years ago with the participation of 11, and subsequently 12 states located in the region surrounding the Black Sea. The neglected region that was formerly at the periphery of Europe suddenly found itself transformed into a focal point as Europe's center of gravity shifted eastwards with the lifting of the iron curtain and the emergence of new opportunities in the adjacent Caspian Basin and Central Asia.

In 1992, most of the leaders of the BSEC countries were grappling with the difficult transition from centrally-planned to market economies. Some had to contend with unresolved disputes involving neighbors or separatist elements within their own countries. And yet, these leaders displayed great wisdom and foresight by agreeing to engage in regional economic cooperation that would facilitate the overcoming of pressing domestic problems and the resolution of international disputes that posed the danger of potential armed conflict.

At first, BSEC embodied a commitment to engage in economic cooperation and to be bound by the Helsinki Final Act and the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In 1998, BSEC moved from being a process of regional cooperation into a full-fledged international organization. This transformation paved the way for closer cooperation with other organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank and the OECD. Three BSEC members, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, are members of the European Union, with a fourth, Turkey, engaged in accession negotiations with Brussels. This is bound to lead to a more intensive interaction between BSEC and the EU in the future.

As a firm believer in the benefits of regional cooperation, Turkey has been fully committed to BSEC and the principles for which the organization stands. Turkey plays host to the Organization's permanent international secretariat as well as the secretariats of two of its related bodies, the BSEC Business Council, representing the private sectors of the member countries and the Parliamentary Assembly of BSEC, representing the parliamentary dimension of Black Sea Cooperation.

After 15 years of existence, BSEC and its related bodies can claim to have achieved maturity and scored some noteworthy successes. From being engaged in purely economic cooperation, BSEC has broadened its activities to encompass new fields including environmental protection, water management, science and technology, institutional renewal and good governance, seismic protection and soft security measures in the framework of multilateral cooperation. Soft security includes combating transnational organized crime, illegal trafficking of drugs, human beings and arms, terrorism, corruption and money laundering, all of them serious obstacles to investments and economic development as well as democratization and the establishment of the rule of law.

Gradually, aspirations have turned into concrete action in a broad range of fields. One such field is the creation of the Project Development Fund designed to provide financial backing to projects of regional interest. Another is the Agreement on Cooperation in Emergency Assistance in Natural and Manmade Disasters signed in 1998. An important accomplishment is the Research Potential of the Black Sea Countries Project undertaken under the aegis of the International Center for Black Sea Studies with the strong support of the EU. This project is designed to compile an inventory of the very considerable research potential of member countries and identify opportunities for cooperation in the field.

Many positive trends have emerged in the BSEC region in recent years. With the daunting transition to market economies over, real GDP has continued its strong grow the recent years, attaining 6.1 % in 2005, a rate substantially higher than the rate reached by rest of Europe. Sustained growth has resulted in rapidly rising income levels and macroeconomic stabilization has been achieved throughout the region. Intra-regional trade has continued to make significant progress, though much more remains to be done to remove obstacles in this area. Foreign direct investments into the region have grown from US$ 8 billion in 2000 to an estimated US$ 46.8 billion in 2005, representing a nearly six-fold increase. This reflects the growing confidence of international investors in the economic future of our members. This exponential growth is expected to be maintained in the coming years.

A brief reference should also be made to growing cooperation in the energy sector, and specifically, to the production and transport of oil and natural gas in the region. BSEC members possess the world's largest oil and gas reserves after the Middle East. Russia is the world's largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia. BSEC neighbors Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, large producers of oil and gas, depend to great extent on BSEC members to export their production to world markets. Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania and Ukraine are already serving as energy corridors and Greece will soon join their ranks as an energy corridor to Western Europe when the Turkish and Greek natural gas pipeline networks are linked up in the coming months. Further projects for alternative oil pipelines are in the advanced planning stage to relieve the Turkish straits from the heavy tanker traffic which poses a grave threat to the marine environment. BSEC can and should serve as a vehicle for increased cooperation so that our countries can all share in the oil and gas bonanza in our midst.

After this brief stocktaking, we can make a sounder prediction about the future course of BSEC. Although Turkey is highly satisfied with BSEC's progress in a period marked by difficulties and uncertainties, it feels that BSEC should aim for even more ambitious goals in the future.

Turkey has undertaken the Chairmanship-in-Office of BSEC as of 1st of May. During her Chairmanship-in-Office, Turkey is prepared to make every effort to achieve a considerable degree of progress in all the areas of cooperation.

For this reason, during our Presidency, we will base our vision on the following key points:

- completing the reform,
- increasing efficiency and practicality,
- forming a project oriented approach,
- reaching out to other partners,
- increasing public awareness and common identity,
- facilitating trade and investments, and
- focusing on a sectoral approach.

Furthermore, we look forward to a new period of enhanced cultural, social, educational and sports contacts so as to foster greater friendship and respect among neighbors engaged in the joint cooperative venture that BSEC represents. In this regard, I would like to emphasize the importance of the awareness of a common identity among the peoples of the region which, in fact, has not been given due regard until recently. BSEC is a unique platform of cooperation for countries with common historical, cultural and social values. In a region where the quest for stability is the priority, the importance of building bridges between the peoples of the region by underlining these common values should not be underestimated. Scientific and technical cooperation among universities could be an excellent tool to this end. We should assume the ownership of our region and BSEC more. We should leave the status quo behind and bring new thinking and dynamism to the Organisation. After all, our common goal is the same: stability, economic prosperity and a secure environment for all.

We will encourage sectoral approach and try to make further progress in the fields of transport, energy, environment and combating organized crime. In addition, we are going to focus on strengthening the financial structure of BSEC in order to enable the Organization to undertake major regional projects.

Another important element is giving a project-oriented vision to BSEC by strengthening the Project Development Fund (PDF). We consider this Fund to be a useful tool for undertaking new projects, which will help to strengthen the image of our Organization. However, at the moment the PDF does not have sufficient resources to provide a meaningful amount of finance for major projects.

We are determined to make every effort to finalize the ongoing projects as soon as possible. One major priority of our strategy will be the facilitation of trade and investment among the BSEC countries by working on issues such as visa facilitation, elimination of non-tariff barriers and more interaction between the business communities. We believe that there is a huge potential for trade between the Black Sea countries which have complementary economic structures. Through BSEC we should be able to seize the opportunity for cooperation in the area of trade. This can be in the form of trade facilitation or more ambitious schemes with potential partners such as the EU, subject to a consensus between the two sides.

Above all, Turkey hopes to see more tangible progress in the peaceful settlement of all international disputes among BSEC members. Every effort should be made to eliminate frozen conflicts through creative solutions that will result in gains to all of the involved parties. After 15 years of getting into the habit of working together with Black Sea neighbors for the common good, we can expect progress also in these areas which do not, strictly speaking, come within BSEC's direct areas of responsibility. However, we can use the potential offered by Ministerial Meetings, especially the BSEC Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs for informal exchanges of views on political issues as well, in order to facilitate solutions.

Formerly, the Black Sea was nothing but a buffer or a barrier to east-west contacts. Now, it has the potential to become the gateway to the enlarged Middle East, to Central Asia and beyond. That is why Turkey wants to see the restoration and revival, in a modern guise, of the ancient Silk Road that brought so much prosperity to our region in the past. To this end, we shall make every effort to help build up the physical and institutional infrastructure of our road and rail transport systems as well as our oil and gas networks, so as to better serve the needs of our nations and the international trading community. The recent inauguration of the US$ 4.5 billion motorway that runs parallel to Turkey's Black Sea coast to link up with the Georgian road network and the construction of the rail tunnel under the Strait of Istanbul to connect the European rail system with that of Asia are but two examples of Turkey's determination to contribute actively to this goal. Such efforts will not only bring our nations closer together, but will also contribute to the development of our trade relations, promote cross-border investments and help the growth of our tourism industries.

Looking back at our performance over the last 15 years, I think we have a right to express satisfaction, although we must make sure we do not fall into complacency. We have registered a number of solid achievements upon which we can build so that we shall be up to meeting the challenges of the next 15 years. I am certain that BSEC is entering an exciting period when our region will come closer to becoming a club of democratic, prosperous nations, when it can become a magnet for investments, a preferred destination for tourists and an element of stability in what is no doubt one of the most turbulent and critical region of the globe. We shall be interacting more intensively with our sister organizations and overlapping to a greater extent with the EU. Turkey shall remain fully committed to these common goals and shall spare no effort to ensure that they are attained.

* Ambassador, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey