THE Bosporus, lined with old wooden houses and styled villas, bustles with ferries carrying commuters to downtown Istanbul and foreigners visiting the ancient city. Tour boats zigzag between its two coasts - one in Europe and one in Asia.
But the channel moves with another kind of traffic that Turkey now hopes to restrict: international vessels, as many as 60 per day, carrying hazardous material. Safety and environmental concerns caused by accidents and the increasing freight of gas, chemicals, and nuclear waste, have led the Turkish government to announce new regulations for passage on all ships, to go into effect July 1.
The new restrictions, however, have brought cries of protest from such countries as Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Cyprus. The most vocal critic is Russia, which requires use of the channel to transport oil through the Black Sea.
The Bosporus links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean Sea through a second strait, the Dardanelles. Last March an oil tanker and a cargo ship collided at the entrance of the Bosporus, killing 30 people and sending the blazing tanker drifting across the channel, threatening houses on the shoreline.
The new regulations stipulate that vessels longer than 150 meters (164 yards) ``will be advised'' to take pilot captains and guiding tugs. The use of automatic pilots for navigation will be prohibited. Ships powered by nuclear energy or carrying nuclear or other dangerous cargo will be required to report to the Turkish Environment Ministry for permission to cross the Straits. The height of the ships will be limited (to 190 feet). New traffic lanes will be set, and two large vessels carrying dangerous cargo will not be allowed to go through at the same time.
Shortly after announcing these regulations last March, Turkey took them to the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations shipping watchdog, and last month succeeded to get support on several of the measures.
But as the date for the enforcement of the new regulations gets closer, Moscow seems to be intensifying its pressure on Ankara and other signatories of the Montreaux treaty in order to prevent any change in the status of free passage of ships through the Straits.
The Russians sent Turkey a diplomatic note charging the Turkish government with acting unilaterally and violating the Montreaux agreement.
The status of the Straits is based on the Montreaux treaty of 1936, of which the ex-Soviet Union is a signatory. This agreement says that vessels under any flag and with any kind of cargo shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation when crossing the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. The treaty recognizes Turkey's sovereignty, but guarantees free passage at peace time. It gives the Turkish government rights to bar warships of hostile nations at time of war.
Last week Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Grigory Karasyin said Turkey had no right to resolve the ``problem of the straits'' unilaterally and called on Turkey to take into account the interests of the Black Sea powers and cooperate with them. ``We have drawn the attention of the international public opinion on time,'' he said. ``Now we must reach a result satisfactory to all sides.''
The Turks reject Russia's accusations and maintain the new rules do not conflict with the Montreaux convention or any other international agreement. ``The new regulations are part of our internal jurisdiction,'' says Ferrhat Ataman, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman. ``We strongly object to any attempt to push a technical issue into a political debate.'' Turkish officials say they view the new regulations as adjustments to meet present-day conditions and say the rules are not politically motivated.
``It is our most natural right to take measures to ensure safety for millions of people living in Istanbul and to protect the environment of this old city,'' a senior official says. ``We have meticulously implemented the Montreaux agreement for 58 years, and that is enough proof that we do not intend to change that convention.''
[Turkey is hosting NATO foreign ministers this week, and diplomats in Brussels said they hope to determine how best to forge a relationship with Russia following Moscow's demands for special ties that reflected its status as a major power.]
The Turkish government does not want to start an international controversy by opening what a Turkish diplomat says is the ``Montreaux Pandora's Box.''
Although no one wishes to raise the ``problem of the Turkish straits'' and renegotiating the Montreaux convention, political considerations obviously play a part in the differences between Ankara and those opposing the new status, particularly Russia.
Regulating passage in accordance with the present conditions (there were no supertankers, nor many ships in transit, nor vessels carrying dangerous material in the years when the convention was signed) for the security and environmental protection of the Bosporus is Turkey's main concern.
But this clashes with Russia's desire to use the Straits as the main outlet for its oil exports, using the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk as the terminal of present and future oil flow from Azerbaijan and Central Asia.
Turkey also has an interest in oil from the central Asian republics, however, and seeks to transport to its Mediterranean coast via pipeline.