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World News /19 May 2019
05.19.19

Erdogan Finds Himself in a Geopolitical Cul-de-Sac

The concrete “cracks” reportedly found at the construction site of what will be Turkey’s first nuclear power plant may be nothing compared to the cracks starting to re-emerge in the country’s relationship with Russia.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Turkish media recently reported that cracks had been spotted in the concrete foundation of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant currently under construction.

The plant will cost an estimated $20 billion and generate 4,800 watts of electricity – about 10 percent of Turkey’s total energy needs.

There was just one big thing wrong with the story – it was a year old and the so-called “cracks” had already been fixed.

The alleged cracks were tested for concrete spots – which is perfectly normal for the initial stages of every concrete pouring of that scale. They occurred about a year ago and the concrete composition for the main pouring was adjusted to eliminate any further cracks risks.

But the leak appeared in a pro-Erdogan and pro-governmental newspaper. It appeared now, not a year-ago.

A clue as to one possible motive comes when you consider the latest reason why President Erdogan finds himself in the headlines -the canceled mayoral election in Istanbul. Erdoğan’s candidate and former prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, was defeated but the result was revoked by Turkey’s high electoral board.

New mayoral elections are now to be held on 23 June. The board’s decision was heavily criticised by Turkey’s opposition and the wider international community for being politically motivated and lacking legal justification.

It has been suggested that the apparent furor over the “cracks” in the nuclear plant, which construction is being overseen by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy giant, may well be just an attempt to shift attention from the Istanbul election result.

As one Brussels-based energy expert observed, “The issue to which the paper referred to in its article was resolved a year ago if there was a real issue at all.”

The EU energy expert added, “What do you expect if even Turkish courts cancel election results that are unfavourable for Erdogan?”

He adds, “Turkey is a nuclear newcomer country and its regulator obviously lacks experience. He can hardly be truly politically independent and appears more obsessed with proving publicly that he is doing his job well. When it comes to some political ‘request’ he would likely find something even if there is nothing.”

“The leaks story might also have something to do with domestic politics as it is important for Erdogan to feed the public with ‘red herring’ stories that would help shift attention from the Istanbul election scandal to other things. Nuclear safety sounds loud enough for this.”

But the “none story” about the Akkuyu nuclear power plant also sheds light on Turkey’s current, rather tense, relationship, notably with Russia and with others as well.

Examples of this abound.

Erdogan, for instance, had been invited to take part in a ceremony marking the opening of a newly built mosque in the annexed Crimea but declined to attend.

He has also hesitated to buy Russian S-400 missiles and defied his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the Syria civil war strategy.

He is regularly the target of EU angst over alleged human rights abuses in his own country.

Now, it is argued, Erdogan is trying to turn the Akkuy project into a pawn in geopolitics chess.

Ariel Cohen, Director of the Energy, Growth and Security Programme at the International Trade and Investment Center, Washington, D.C. told me in an interview, “After ordering new Istanbul city mayor election, Erdogan finds himself in a geopolitical cul-de-sac. He has now all but completely alienated the U.S. and key EU members. He’s tilting towards Moscow and may seek understandings with China, while Putin severely limits his options in Syria.”

“So, it’s quite natural that as Erdogan is courting Trump to visit Turkey later this year, he wants to signal to the West that he is playing his own game and has no intention of turning Turkey into a Russian satellite. Hence the on-again, off-again S-400 anti-air missile system purchase drama. Yes, he will buy it – no he won’t.”

He goes on, “The Akkuyu nuclear power plant and TurkStream are other examples: ‘regulatory delays’ in major infrastructure projects are well known to cause losses and cost overruns. Ankara signals that they can find a pretext to delay projects on, say, safety or environmental grounds if the Russians push too much on other fronts, like Syria.”

Cohen says, “It appears that the pro-government media is leaking information about cracks in the Akkuyu plant foundation, which were fixed in September last year. The media leaks came just before Erdogan-Putin phone call earlier this week on Syria and S-400. I’m not a nuclear power station construction engineer, but it appears that the leaks may have more to do with the tensions and cracks in the Russia-Turkey relationship rather than the real issue in the Akkuyu nuclear reactor construction.”

Erdogan has built a unique working relationship with Donald Trump but analysts say Turkey is running out of time to balance its relationship with Russia and the United States.

“Unfortunately, Ankara thinks they can play the Russians and Americans against each other. It won’t work,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University.

The problem is that this ‘signaling cold war’ could cause real delays in completing work on the Akkuyu plant, which is slated to operate 4 of the company’s VVER-1200-type reactors.

The project was reportedly put on hold in 2014 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

The nuclear plant project is based on an inter-governmental agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in May 2010.

To date, 70% of the site is ready for construction work to begin, with the remaining 30% prepared by the end of the year.

The four-unit plant is part of Erdogan’s ‘2023 Vision’ marking 100 years since the founding of modern Turkey and is intended to reduce the country’s dependence on energy imports. The first unit is scheduled to start operations that year, with the other three units following by 2025.

However, following recent events and with Turkey’s first atomic energy station again riding the ebb and flow of political tides, a fresh question mark now hangs over the likelihood of that deadline being met.

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