Turkey sees promise in pivoting north
With its attempts to join the EU stalled and its leadership role in the Middle East marred by Syria's conflict, Turkey is turning its attention to a less tumultuous border – the Black Sea.
Its protracted bid to join the European Union remains stalled and its "zero problems" policy in the Middle East is cracking over support for Syria's opposition. But one foreign policy front retains promise for Turkey: the Black Sea.Skip to next paragraph
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Nowhere is it more evident than the busy industrial city of Trabzon in northeastern Turkey, a regional trade hub because of its location on roads that connect it to both Istanbul and other cities to the east. The cobblestone streets of the city center are bustling with buses and private cars carrying passengers to Georgia, only 125 miles to the northeast, as well as trucks shipping goods across the region via the highway that cuts through the city.
If plans for a highway connecting the 12 countries bordering the Black Sea go forward, Trabzon's growth – and Turkey's growing stance as a regional leader – is poised to surge.
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Turkey’s Black Sea coast, far from its tumultuous southern border, offers a promising contrast its more troubled efforts to join the EU and to expand networks in the Middle East. Ankara has emerged as the dominant initiator of regional cooperation, institutionalized by the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), which was founded on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Filling the Soviet vacuum
Although Turkey was one of 10 founding members, it played a leading role in BSEC's establishment, and the organization's permanent headquarters is still located in Istanbul.
BSEC's early years were dominated by “Turkey’s initiative to offer these countries an alternative” to their socialist economic systems, says Traian Chebeleu, a former Romanian ambassador and current deputy secretary of BSEC’s transportation activities. In 1992, the same year BSEC was founded, Turkey launched its foreign aid program for developing countries, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), which, in its early phases, focused on assisting the newly independent Central Asian and Caucasus states.
Today, the Black Sea states are hoping that projects like the Black Sea Ring Highway will further stimulate trade and economic cooperation. Trade within the region rebounded rapidly from a decline in 2009, while trade with the EU recovered at a slower rate. Countries here may be beginning to see interregional outreach as more beneficial than looking outward to their less stable neighbors. While road travel between BSEC states grew at a rate of 40.8 percent between 2007 and 2011, travel between BSEC states and the EU lagged behind somewhat, growing 36.3 percent.
The highway project is still in development stages, but four lanes of traffic wrapping through 12 countries would be a boon for trade and tourism — or at least that’s what BSEC, the initiator of the project, hopes. The partnership holds both the promise of bolstering existing alliances and testing lingering tensions.
Trade already booming
Although BSEC attempts to harmonize trade regulations of its different member states, it's difficult to measure what direct effects the organization has had on trade within the region.
For Turkey, the construction project could be the first step in a realignment of its foreign policy. Its northern border along the Black Sea coast is vast, and recent efforts to repair strains between Turkey and Russia suggest that this region is becoming increasingly important for Turkey.