On the one hand, there is the European Union, a band of democratic nations with standards on human rights practices, democracy and market economies. On the other, there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, a coterie of dictator states.
Turkey is courting both, according to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has been 54 years since Turkey filed an application for member status within the EU and Turkey is tired of waiting.
“The EU wants to forget about us, but hesitates, and cannot really forget,” Erdogan said on Jan. 25. “But if it said what it truly feels, we would only be relieved. Instead of wasting our time, it should be open and explain, so that we can go about our business. You can sit and talk with them, but they can’t really speak convincingly. When things go so poorly, you inevitably, as the prime minister of 75 million people, seek other paths. That’s why I recently said to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin: ‘Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say farewell to the EU, leave it altogether.’”
Erdogan continued by saying that the SCO “is better, stronger” than the EU. Perhaps by “better” and “stronger” he means it is a group that will foster his dictatorial proclivities.
Founded in 1996 by China and Russia and the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kazakistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001, and the “Shanghai Five” became the SCO. Ankara applied three times — and was thrice denied — to the SCO starting in 2007. Noteworthy considering that in 2006 the EU partially suspended accession negotiations with Turkey for refusing to open air and seaports to Greek Cyprus, recognized by the EU as the Republic of Cyprus, and recognized by Turkey as that difficult neighbor.
Proving that persistence is at least moderately rewarded, Turkey applied for the status of “dialogue partner” with the SCO and won approval in June 2012. Now Turkey plans to seek an upgrade to “observer state,” according to its foreign ministry.
Becoming an observer state with the SCO, ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said, is vital for Turkey’s “multilateral diplomacy.” This is interesting on two counts.
First, because an International Federation of Human Rights report last year used the appealing “vehicle for human rights violations” descriptor to sum up the SCO:
“Basic rights such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom from torture and the duty of non-refoulment are increasingly being violated. …
SCO member states are mostly characterized by authoritarian regimes. They tend to justify the repression of religious, political and human rights activists, as well as political opposition members and the representatives of some national minorities on grounds of national security and stability. SCO governments often accuse these individuals, or groups, of extremism, bringing politically motivated charges against them.”
Of other significance in Turkey’s suspect SCO bid is the country’s NATO membership. The reason for this is obvious: NATO and the SCO are diametrically opposed in world and ideological views. One is pro-democratic and pro-Western. The other is the converse. Two of the SCO members — namely China and Russia — are not part of NATO.
Turkey can’t belong to both, despite Erdogan saying the country’s “global vision” entails “looking at the world 360 degrees.” It just won’t work to “connect [Turkey’s] cities with the world” when those other cities fundamentally contradict the values purported by the Turkish government.
Whether Erdogan is actually serious about the SCO bid, or merely bluffing in order to pressure the EU, is debate fodder among Turkish columnists.
Ihsan Dagi for Today’s Zaman argued that Erdogan’s comments were not an exhibit in dishonesty.
“He considers the Shanghai organization as an alternative, in fact a powerful and better alternative to the EU. Besides this, I think it is also seen as a matter of ‘civilizational belonging.’ The Turkish prime minister increasingly emphasizes ‘our own civilization,’ referring to the Islamic one,” Dagi wrote. “Detachment from the West/EU is expected to ‘revive’ the civilization Turkey represents and leads. There is certainly a growing self confidence that Turkey can and should remain independent to lead instead of tied up with the EU.”
But Kadri Gursel for the Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse perhaps summed it up the best. “It is neither stronger nor better than the EU to provide the aspirations of the Turkish people for democracy and welfare,” Gursel argued. “As an SCO member, Turkey cannot claim to be a model for the Middle East.”
Either way one chooses to look at Turkey’s attempt at foreign policy, one thing is certain: Erdogan will never get his way with the EU and the West by threatening to join a band of authoritarian states, which, it turns out, would completely negate his alleged goal of a Turkish diplomacy acting as a bridge between the East and the West.
Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Image of Erdogan courtesy of Big Stock Photo.