Last week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his displeasure with leading members of the European Union for stalling Turkey’s fast track accession to the union.
In a statement to the press, he relayed a conversation with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in which he asked Mr. Putin to grant Turkey membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)* disregarding his country’s NATO membership.
This statement reverberated in Turkey and elsewhere. It was met with skepticism because a decade ago the same words were uttered by soldiers and Jacobin bureaucrats who had come to believe that the US and the EU were out to dismantle Turkey’s military-led political system and partition the country by promoting human and minority rights.
The top brass was divided into pro-NATO officers and those who favored an undefined Eurasian alliance with countries such as Russia, China and Iran. This was surprising because Iran was the nemesis of these protégés of Eurasian alliance. They were staunchly secular and Western in their lifestyles. What they were against was not European culture, but its influence on Turkish politics and society by way of promoting democratic ideals, humanitarian law and the empowerment of civil society. They also abhorred communism.
The pro-Eurasia officers and intelligentsia believed in the elite (at the core of which rested the military) control of politics, state dominance of society and direct intervention of the army in the legislature and the judiciary. If they could not get what they wanted, they could overthrow the elected government and hide behind their legal and de facto accountability the army has so far enjoyed.
Now this cabal is basically in prison on charges of staging or attempting coups and the atrocities committed in the process. Given this backdrop, Mr. Erdoğan’s remarks to pull Turkey out of its Western alliance system and join the Eurasian block came as a surprise and a contradiction of what he has advocated so far. For, it is well-known fact that the SCO is a collection of countries known for their illiberal political systems. They have all been accused of gross human rights violations and state domination of society.
So what is the reason Mr. Erdoğan expressed his desire to shift allegiances from a democratic bloc to the opposite? There are two plausible answers, both of which do not seem very rational: 1) He wants to prod the cold-blooded members of the EU to hasten Turkey’s accession to the union. That is why he is playing the devil’s advocate. 2) Given his upbringing, which harbors little sympathy for the West and its Islamic cultural reference -- which is scantly intermingled with the West -- except for the Crusades and colonialism, he may see a better future for his country in Asia.
If so, his recent announcement that Turkish soil is NATO territory and that the deployment of Patriot batteries bear evidence to Turkey’s allegiance to the West is null and void. Given these enigmatic developments, one can conclude that the ease of what the prime minister says indicates two things. The first is that his growing power and personal popularity have given him such insurmountable confidence that he does not confer with his advisers, or his advisers and foreign policy experts have lost direct touch with him. Second, the lack of a serious political opposition, given the dismal condition of rival parties, has set him free from critical evaluation of things. Either case is worrisome.
*The Shanghai Five grouping was created in 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions in Shanghai by the heads of state of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. In 1997 the same countries signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions at a meeting in Moscow. Uzbekistan joined the SCO in 2001.
The SCO is primarily centered on its member nations’ Central Asian security-related concerns, often describing the main threats it confronts as terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Western observers believe that one of the original purposes of the SCO was to serve as a counterbalance to NATO and the US, particularly to avoid conflicts involving the US if they intervene in areas bordering both Russia and China.