Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants Turkey to join the European Union. But recently he announced he wants to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Three things he should know about SCO: It’s not based in Shanghai (the HQ is in Beijing); it provides little real cooperation (it barely manages to soothe differences between Moscow, Beijing and other members); and it offers no real organization (the staff is tiny).
Turkey will not find a welcoming home in SCO. Today it harbors Russia, China and the five Central Asian countries as full members, with Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia holding “observer” status. Today Turkey—along with Belarus and Sri Lanka—rates as a “dialogue partner.”
Certainly Russia and Central Asia are important markets for Turkish construction, food and tourism industries. Its trade in the region grew to $62 billion in 2012. But the marketplace can’t compare with that offered by EU and NATO nations. Europe and the United States boast a combined GDP of $32 trillion, versus the SCO nations’ combined $10 trillion. So why did Erdoğan announce that he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that if Turkey were allowed to join SCO “we will forget about the EU”?
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped that bomb on Jan. 25. With Turkish hopes for the EU membership diminishing, he declared the SCO to be a viable alternative to the European Union. “I said to Russian President Vladimir Putin,‘You tease us, saying, ‘what [is Turkey] doing in the EU?’ Now I tease you: Include us in the Shanghai Five and we will forget about the EU.’”
The Turkish foreign ministry quickly seconded the prime minister’s announcement. “With regard to our work with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of course we want to be an observer state—that is a secondary category [for cooperation within the organization]. We want to enhance our cooperation with this organization within possible bounds,” Selçuk Ünal, Ministry spokesperson, said at a press conference.
The announcement was panned by the main opposition party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who presented it as a sign that Turkey is being dragged into a monolithic political regime similar to the regimes of some SCO members. “The prime minister’s proposal, saying ‘let’s become a member of the Shanghai Five and leave the EU,’ is evidence showing what kind of a model, standard and future is being designed for Turkey,” he said. However, during an earlier visit to Beijing, Kılıçdaroğlu expressed support for the government’s bid to join the Shanghai Club.
How serious is Erdoğan about jumping to SCO? As Daniel Pipes notes, the prime minister has established a record of straight talk. Pipes also cites a Turkish analyst’s observation that “The EU criteria demand democracy, human rights, union rights, minority rights, gender equality, equitable distribution of income, participation and pluralism for Turkey. SCO as a union of countries ruled by dictators and autocrats will not demand any of those criteria for joining.” Unlike the European Union, Shanghai members will not press Erdoğan to liberalize. Indeed, they may encourage his dictatorial tendencies that so many Turks already fear.
Additionally, SCO fits Erdoğan’s Islamist impulse to defy the West and to dream of an alternative to it. SCO meetings bristle with anti-Western sentiments. For example, when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the group in 2011 in Shanghai, no one rebuffed his conspiracy theory about 9/11 being a U.S. government inside job used “as an excuse for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and for killing and wounding over a million people.”
Conversations with senior Turkish political operatives familiar with Ankara’s political culture and negotiating style suggest a three-part explanation: frustration with the long EU accession process, bluffing, and the need to draw attention. Turkey has been knocking on the EU’s door since the 1960s. Its continuing accession has been dubbed “the longest courtship on Earth.” Now, Erdoğan is threatening to walk away from a snobbish store, which refuses to sell him the goods—and go to a store next door, which sells shoddier and cheaper merchandise.
Additionally, the prime minister and the majority of Turks do not believe that EU membership is to their benefit, especially as it is ailing politically and financially. Nevertheless, being in the same club with its rival Iran and its historic adversary Russia is hardly a welcome choice. Thus, Erdoğan is making a threatening noise, hoping to cut a better deal with Europe.
The situation with the United States is more complicated. Ankara understands potential geopolitical tensions between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, and nevertheless threatens to join the SCO. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reacted on January 28 that Turkey’s possible membership in the Shanghai Cooperation would be “interesting,” and added the telling reminder that Turkey is also a NATO member.
Another recent spat involved Prime Minister Erdoğan and his deputy party chief criticizing U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone's remarks on long judiciary detention periods in Turkey. On February 5, Ricciardone decried incarceration of military leaders in Turkey who were behind bars “as if they were terrorists” at a press conference with Ankara media bureau chiefs. “When a legal system produces such results and confuses people like that for terrorists, it makes it hard for American and European courts to match up.” he said.
Erdoğan, however, called Ricciardone's criticisms of the Turkish judiciary “unacceptable.” “No one should be mistaken about our patience, tolerance and friendliness. Turkey is not anybody's scapegoat. Turkey is not a country with which to meddle in its internal issues or its executive, legislative and judiciary systems. And certainly not a country whose foreign policy guidelines can be dictated [by others],” Erdoğan said. The deputy chairman and spokesperson for the ruling Justice and Development AKP, Huseyin Celik, also attacked the U.S. ambassador’s remarks, and got a letter from Ricciardone expressing regret in return—but no apology.
The United States and Turkey are also at odds over the short detention of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a former Al Qaeda spokesman who was later released to a hotel in Ankara. All these disagreements add up: the much anticipated visits of secretary of state John Kerry to Ankara and of Erdoğan to Washington got postponed. Even without Erdoğan’s Shanghai gambit, the relations between Turkey, the United States and the EU are at a very sensitive stage. But the threats to quit the West and join the SCO are unhelpful, unrealistic and unseemly.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.