How much the polar regions have gained in interest globally in recent years is shown by the fact that more and more countries are joining polar institutions on the one hand and launching polar programs relatively quickly on the other. One example was Taiwan and its research station in Longyearbyen a few days ago. Next it is now Turkiye, which, after announcing its own Antarctic station in 2021, is now also taking on the Arctic.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal calls for parliament to immediately ratify the 1920 Svalbard Treaty (also known as the Spitsbergen Treaty), lifting Turkiye into the ranks of the other 45 treaty members. In addition to the Turkish president, the speaker of parliament, Mustafa Şentop, also supports the proposal, which is currently being considered by the Foreign Affairs Committee before being submitted to parliament for a vote. However, it is widely expected to be approved.
By joining the Svalbard Treaty, Turkiye hopes to gain access to the Norwegian-administered archipelago and thus expand its ambitious Polar program. “Turkish citizens will thus gain the right to own and live on land, fish and hunt under Norwegian administration in the Spitsbergen archipelago and in territorial waters only about 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole,” according to a government press release. The announcement does not come as a complete surprise. After all, the state has been running its own polar research program since 2017 and had made headlines with polar affairs several times in recent years. In May 2021, Turkiye had applied for a place as an observer on the Arctic Council, without success. In February of the same year, it became known that the state on the Bosporus wants to establish its own Antarctic station.
Economically and politically, Ankara also hopes to play a more important role in the Polar regions with its accession. Like many other countries, it sees the Arctic as a hotspot. The country’s proximity to Russia could play a not insignificant role in this. The two nations are very close, both politically and economically, despite the Ukraine war and the sanctions, which Turkiye has not yet implemented. Experts believe that Ankara’s announcement may also have to do with the recently concluded negotiations for Sweden and Finland to join NATO, according to the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet. There Turkiye had opposed an admission of the two Scandinavian states for a long time. Only at a meeting in Madrid on June 28, the breakthrough could be achieved. It is not unlikely that the Turkish president had also played this Svalbard card at the time.
How far Turkiye will lean towards Russia, which has its own municipality on Svalbard, after ratification or will recognize the sovereignty of Norway without further ado, remains to be seen. Currently, a dispute is raging between Russia and Norway regarding the supply of the Russian municipality of Barentsburg, causing ill-feeling on both sides. It remains to be seen whether Ankara, as a new member, will intervene in this dispute and, eventually even mediate.
Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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