Discovery of its largest natural gas deposits will have ramifications on its foreign policy, experts say
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that the Fatih drilling vessel discovered the country’s largest energy source in its history 320 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the Black Sea.
The historic discovery did not just come out of blue. Fatih, named after the great Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II who conquered Istanbul, has been drilling in the Black Sea region since July 20. On its ninth deep drilling operation, the vessel hit jackpot.
Energy demand has been one of the main burdens on the Turkish economy, with Ankara paying tens of billions of dollars annually to meet the country’s energy need. The discovery is projected to ease the financial burden for a number of years as Erdogan said authorities were planning to have the natural gas reserve ready for Turkey in 2023.
The discovery is not likely to end Turkey’s dependence on foreign alternatives but Erdogan said the reserves found were “only part of much richer resources” given the fact that Turkey has one of world’s top drilling and seismic operation fleet and also holds operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, rich in terms of hydrocarbon reserves, along with the Black Sea region, Turkey’s energy dependence might decline significantly in the future. In fact, further discoveries might even turn the energy-hungry country into an exporter.
It goes without saying that politics and energy issues go hand-in-hand in the international arena and Turkey’s discovery is likely to have foreign policy repercussions.
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, head of the Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Research (ANKASAM), said the natural gas discovery paved the way for independent policies and might increase Turkey’s regional influence.
“Natural gas and oil were sometimes weaponized against Turkey, therefore, the discovery is likely to strengthen Turkish position in the sense of safety of energy supply,” Erol said, adding energy relations between Turkey and Russia might be effected by the discovery.
Arguing that Moscow would have a “weaker hand” against Ankara in terms of energy issues in light of the discovery, Erol said the two countries, who have recently developed close ties, would maintain a close relationship as result of their collaboration on energy-transfer routes.
“One thing that should not be overlooked in this regard is that a new geopolitical structure might appear in the Black Sea region, which is likely to be part of the international agenda more and become center of geopolitical competition as interest of third parties might increase in this region,” he said.
Given the fact that the US settled in Bulgaria and Greece, and pursue policies against Russia, and there is a dispute of Ukraine and the Bosporus is of great importance for Moscow; the Russian administration might rethink its position against Turkey with whom it is not on the same page in Libya and Syria, according to Erol, who said the two nations were getting closer on Libya where rival elements recently called for a cease-fire.
He went on to say that Turkey could emerge as a more powerful country and make use of “energy diplomacy” in a more effective manner if more discoveries were made, adding this was likely as the country pursued drilling goals through national means.
Matthew Byrza, senior fellow at Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank, told Anadolu Agency that the discovery was a “good news” for Turkey as Romania had been drilling in the region for years and had proven reserves amounting to 200 billion cubic meters.
“The discovery provides Turkey optionality, which means negotiating leverage with Russia and other gas suppliers,” he said. “Such leverage is a big deal when relations are so tense with Moscow and when one of Turkey’s natural gas supply contract with Russia, for 8 billion cubic meters, expires next year.”
The former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and White House official continued: “This discovery provides Turkey leverage over all of its gas suppliers, whether they be Russian, Iranian, Algerian, or even American. And as I describe above, this leverage over Russia, as well as Iran, could indeed be useful in Syria, as well as Libya and Azerbaijan/Armenia.”
When asked if the discovery would have any positive effect on relations with the EU, which Ankara has recently been at odds with especially due to the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, he said it was not likely as disputes were “fundamentally political rather than economic in nature” and the EU has a buyer’s market for natural gas.
“As Ankara reduces its dependence on Russian natural gas, it will help these people in NATO’s space better appreciate that Turkey’s foreign policy in recent months has been an assertion of the country’s interests and legal rights in a pragmatic way that is in the interests of NATO rather than Russia,” he said.
Ahmet Uysal, the head of the Middle East Strategic Studies Center (ORSAM), said becoming an energy hub had been on Turkey’s international agenda for some time and the discovery in the Black Sea would boost Ankara’s position in the international arena.
Uysal said the energy subject was one of the fundamental pillars behind foreign policies, international cooperation and polarization; therefore, self-sufficiency in the context of energy was a matter of great importance for any sovereign state.
“Turkey has been seeking to diversify its energy market for a while, and looked for alternatives, thus making this discovery vital. [The discovery] might reduce the pressure on its economy,” he said, adding Turkey was a productive country prior to finding natural gas, which would be an additional power drive behind its back.
According to the ORSAM head, EU-Turkey relations might be positively impacted after Turkey discovered new reserves in the region, and he underlined that the Turkish government announced the “minimum” discovery amount and this was likely to increase as Ankara was determined to drill more.
However, he said EU leadership did not want a powerful Turkey but was looking for a state to which it could dictate and impose, and its stance toward Turkey in the coming period would be a “good-will test” for Europe.
Stressing that the EU was heavily dependent on energy sources and was a customer of Russia, despite objection by the US, he said the European organization sought to diversify its energy supply, which is why it attached great importance to the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey and Greece have been at odds with the EU standing behind Athens.
He further stated that the discovery could increase the importance of Turkey in the eyes of the European leadership as it wants to have alternative energy suppliers. And he said that Turkey, if it discovered more reserves, would not encounter any difficulties in transferring gas to the European territory due to its existing energy routes.
“I believe the EU has been having difficulty in getting used a powerful Turkey,” he said, and the latest developments in the Black Sea had the potential to “normalize” Turkey’s relations with the EU. “It would be better if the EU acknowledged Turkey as a partner, not as a country begging for membership,” he said.