After more than one hundred former high-ranking personnel in the Turkish navy signed a statement in defense of the Montreux Convention, ten retired admirals were detained by Turkish leadership on April 5. The Montreux Convention is a 1936 agreement implemented by Turkey about security, stability, and conditional freedom of passage through the Turkish straits, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The agreement regulates warship access and guarantees peacetime civilian vessel access through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, which connect Istanbul, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea. According to Reuters, the statement signed by the former navy officials voices concern over abandoning the Convention, given President Tayyip Erdogan’s authority to do so. The Convention was lauded by the former navy personnel as an agreement of historical importance to Turkey’s neutrality and security interests. Prosecutors have, without explicit evidence, launched a probe into whether the admirals are conspiring to undermine the country, according to France 24.
The support of the Montreux Convention coincides with the admirals’ criticism of a proposed massive canal project through Istanbul as a potential alternative to the pathways secured by the Convention. President Tayyip Erdogan justified the detention of the retired admirals by claiming that their act of signing support for the maritime accord “went beyond the expression of freedom and implied a coup,” (Reuters). He also cited Turkey’s history of coups and political statements to imply that it is reprehensible for a large group of people formerly associated with the military to join together on this political statement given those historical circumstances. Officials in the Turkish government responded similarly, asserting that the admirals conducted an act of hostility against the constitutional order. Turkey’s main opposition party said the government detained the former admirals to distract from more pressing issues, Reuters reports.
The guise under which Turkish leadership has justified the detention of the former admirals to protect the constitutional order heavily misconstrues the ongoing political dynamic in Turkey. This is a case of how the existence of agreements facilitating international cooperation are under threat in a country whose nationalism is growing stronger and executive power is accumulating more power. The actions of President Erdogan in authorizing the detention of the admirals, as well as the justifications offered by government officials to defend detaining them, are worthy of condemnation since they are clamping down on a peaceful act of freedom of expression.
The Turkish leadership has committed an anti-democratic violation, and its NATO partners need to reassess and recalibrate how they approach foreign policy with Turkey. Countries in the military alliance like the United States need to have peaceful, substantive discussions with the Turkish leadership to stem authoritarianism. Other countries must emphasize that freedom of movement through the Turkish straits is a vital part of a more peaceful, productive, and interconnected world, and unity among other NATO members and the European Union are required for a solution that benefits all parties involved.
The Montreux Convention came into effect in Turkey amid security concerns by nearby countries in 1936, including the remilitarization of Bulgaria and the rise of fascism in Italy, which held the Dodecanese islands off of Turkey’s west coast. As a result of this agreement, Turkey retained control of the straits and had the authority to block military vessels from other countries throughout a tumultuous 20th century from Europe and even up until today. Threats against the Convention today are greater than they have been in years, and the fate of the agreement has implications when it comes to Russia’s influence in the region since Russian territory is included in much of the Black Sea coast.
The context of the crackdown on admirals is influenced by growing nationalism in Turkey and contempt for international agreements. Unsurprisingly, the detention of the admirals came only two weeks after President Erdogan removed Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty meant to address violence against women and domestic violence. The position of power the secularist armed forces once had, Al Jazeera claims, is being trumped by Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted political alliance.
Turkey has been treading down a dangerous path wired with political division and chauvinistic leadership that raised alarm from other countries. The latest move by Turkish leadership in detaining the former admirals is an indication of President Erdogan’s insistence on continuing his accumulation of power in a country undergoing a fateful political struggle between secularism and Erdogan’s Islamist party influence. Further action against the Montreux Convention will be counterproductive to Turkey’s defense, as justified by the former navy personnel, and only strengthen Russia’s regional prospects in the process. It will add to the heap of challenges that NATO faces in its association with Turkey.