Recent steps taken by the government of Turkey suggest it may be ready to ditch the NATO club of democracies for a Russian and Chinese gang of authoritarian states. Here is the evidence:
Starting in 2007, Ankara applied unsuccessfully three times to join as a guest member the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (or SCO, informally known as the Shanghai Five). Founded in 1996 by the Russian and Chinese governments, along with three former-Soviet Central Asian states (and in 2001 a fourth), the SCO has received minimal attention in the West, although it has grand security and other aspirations, including the possible creation of a gas cartel. It offers an alternative to the Western model, from forsaking NATO and democracy to displacing the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency.
After those three rejections, Ankara applied for “dialogue partner” status in 2011. In June 2012, it won approval. One month later, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reported his saying to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, “Come, accept us into the Shanghai Five [as a full member] and we will reconsider the European Union.” Erdoğan reiterated this idea on January 25, noting stalled Turkish efforts to join the EU: “As the prime minister of 75 million people,” he explained, “you start looking around for alternatives. That is why I told Mr. Putin the other day, ‘Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say goodbye to the EU.’ What’s the point of stalling?” He added that the SCO “is much better, it is much more powerful [than the EU], and we share values with its members.”
On January 31, the foreign ministry announced plans for an upgrade to “observer state” at the SCO. On February 3 Erdoğan reiterated his earlier point, saying, “We will search for alternatives,” and praised the Shanghai group’s “democratization process” while disparaging European “Islamophobia.” But on February 4, President Abdullah Gül pushed back, declaring that “the SCO is not an alternative to the EU. . . . Turkey wants to adopt and implement EU criteria.”
What does this all amount to?
The SCO bid faces significant obstacles. If Ankara leads the effort to overthrow Bashar Assad, it will cause problems, because the SCO firmly supports the beleaguered Syrian leader. NATO troops have just arrived in Turkey to man Patriot batteries protecting that country from Syria’s Russian-made missiles. More profoundly, all six SCO members strongly oppose the Islamism that Erdoğan espouses. Perhaps, therefore, Erdoğan mentioned SCO membership only to pressure the EU, or to offer symbolic rhetoric for his supporters.
Both are possible. But I take the half-year-long flirtation seriously for three reasons. First, Erdoğan has established a record of straight talk, leading one key columnist, Sedat Ergin, to call the January 25 statement perhaps his “most important” foreign-policy proclamation ever.
Second, as Turkish columnist Kadri Gürsel points out, “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 but will encourage the dictatorial tendencies in him that so many Turks already fear.
Third, the SCO fits his Islamist impulse to defy the West and to dream of an alternative to it. The SCO, with Russian and Chinese as official languages, has deeply anti-Western DNA, and its meetings bristle with anti-Western sentiments. For example, when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the group in 2011, no one refused 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.” Many backers echo Egyptian analyst Galal Nassar in his hope that ultimately the SCO “will have a chance of settling the international contest in its favor.” Conversely, as a Japanese official has noted, “The SCO is becoming a rival block to the U.S. alliance. It does not share our values.”
Turkish steps toward joining the Shanghai group highlight Ankara’s now-ambivalent membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, starkly symbolized by the unprecedented joint Turkish-Chinese air exercise of 2010. Given this reality, Erdoğan’s Turkey is no longer a trustworthy partner for the West but more like a mole in its inner sanctum. If not expelled, it should at least be suspended from NATO.