EU’s criticism of the Turkish government’s crackdown on civil society and free press in the wake of the July-coup has led Erdogan to deploy a more euro-skeptic line and directly challenging the principles on which EU rests. This has been illustrated by president Erdogan’s talks of reintroduction of capital punishment and his suggestion of a popular vote of whether to quit the Turkish EU accession bid. All of them are bold statements, and a clear sign of the deteriorating relationship between the EU and Turkey, where tides are running high. However, the boldest of them all may very well be Erdogan’s remark of turning towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, SCO, at the expense of slowing down Turkey’s EU-process, the 20th November.
This is not the first-time Erdogan makes a remark on assigning more significance to the SCO. Turkey achieved the status of dialogue partner in 2012, and Ankara has since 2013 from time to time aired comments of attaining full membership in the context of partially or fully sacrificing their EU-bid.
Of course, Erdogan is playing into EU and NATO fears of a Turkish strategic shift to Eurasia. This would not suit either of them as EU is currently at odds with Russia over Ukraine and the US is attempting to curb Chinese influence in the Pacific. Nonetheless, attempts of expansion of the SCO both in depth and breadth as well as Turkey’s gravitational pull towards autocracy are all good reasons to why Turkey may perceive SCO as more than simply a pressure point to ease bargaining with EU.
A series of high-level meetings between senior Turkish officials and members and prospective members of the SCO have been held in the past two weeks. The first was a meeting between Turkey’s and China’s foreign minister in Ankara the 13th-14th of November. After that, President Erdogan visited prospective member Pakistan as well as current member of the SCO, Uzbekistan. And on the 1th of December the Russian foreign minister paid a visit to Turkey, effectively meaning that Turkey had held high-level meetings with 50% of current as well as prospective members of the SCO.
Of course, all these meetings were of a bilateral character, but the correlation cannot be denied. And the fact that China’s foreign ministry spokesperson a day after Erdogan’s remarks said that Beijing would “seriously study it (ed. Turkish prospective membership) on the basis of consensus consultation”, does imply a coordinated consultation between the two parties.
The SCO is an intergovernmental organization currently consisting of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan and India, who are expected to join by 2017. It was founded as a mainly security-based organization, which still remains the case today. However, talks of an internal market, deepening energy cooperation as well an organizational development bank have especially been pushed forward by China.
Russian fear of Chinese encroachment of its Central Asian backyard, has for a long time impaired many of the initiatives aimed at deepening economic integration and social development amongst member states. However, in the light of strained economic relations with the West and acknowledgement of Chinese economic superiority, and Russian dependence on this, Kremlin has shown itself willing to give way to China’s economic agenda in the SCO in recent time, according to Sara Lain.
The accession of Pakistan and India, as well as talk of Iranian membership, is furthermore a testament to the organization’s ambitions of not only expanding in depth but also breadth.
What the SCO can offer Turkey, apart from closer cooperation with two of Turkey’s top five import-partners, is a less normative approach to Turkey’s internal affairs. And with Erdogan’s growing autocratic tendencies, SCO’s premises for accession seem more likely to succeed than EU’s.
What is more, SCO also provides a relatively small forum where many of the world’s natural gas and oil heavyweights are present. A fact that plays well into Turkey’s ambitions of becoming a global energy hub.
However, Turkey’s road to full membership is not without friction.
First and foremost, Turkey is a member of NATO. And despite the trust building measures that have been taken between Russia and NATO following the end of the Cold War, NATOs enlargement that included many former Soviet satellite states, has once again constructed a picture of Russia as an antagonist within NATO. Turkey’s bid to become part of a mainly security based organization, where Russia is one of the lead actors, will by no means be applauded by NATO.
Furthermore, Turkey has assumed the responsibility of forming a spearhead unit, that is partially aimed at deterring possible Russian expansion into Eastern Europe, the so called Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. NATO currently has an anti-missile radar systems in Malatya facing Russia. And Turkey and Russia both support two warring sides in the Syrian Civil War. All factors that add to Russian suspicion of Turkey and thereby the country’s chances of being accepted within the SCO, lest Ankara’s ability to maneuver within the organization.
Although Turkey has broken out of its regional isolation, it still faces violence within and on its borders, a huge influx of refugees as well as two neighboring countries in civil war. Further provoking and tainting its Western allies, by joining a competing security organization, can prove costly for Turkey. Especially because the SCO has not yet demonstrated the ability to substitute either the EU or NATO.
SCO lacks the institutional capacity, budget and internal coherence from member states to actually make out a serious competitor to the EU at the moment. The policies that Turkey may wish to pursue within the SCO, Turkey might as well pursue bilaterally. Nonetheless, a change of dynamics in the organization’s leadership and a seemingly higher level of commitment to the organization’s economic mandate, definitely makes SCO a more attractive and realistic alternative to the EU, than it was when Turkey first became a dialogue partner in 2012, and aired the idea of becoming a full member. And because the prospects for the organizations capacity and potential still remain unclear, Turkey currently has more to gain from the SCO as a means of leverage in dealing with and confronting the EU, rather than viewing the organization as an end to itself – at least for now.
Ferhat Gurini is studying International Relations at the London School of Economics. He has contributed to a range of Danish papers on Middle Eastern affairs, and is currently the Middle East editor of the Danish quarterly on international politics, RÆSON. He tweets @FerhatGurini.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al-Masdar News.