Up until only the last two years, the question of whether Turkey was "drifting east" seemed to dominate any discussion regarding the country and its future trajectory. But an improved Turkish relationship with the United States, a deteriorating one with Iran and a deepening involvement with NATO have all contributed towards pushing that question into the background.
Now, though, it's none other than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has helped revived the "drifting east" debate. Speaking on Turkish television the other night, the PM was asked about his country's stalled and troubled European Union membership drive. Erdogan's blunt bombshell of an answer suggested Turkey is considering dropping its EU bid in favor of joining the China- and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). “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. Why all this stalling?'” Asked to elaborate, Erdogan said, “The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful and we have common values with them.” (The SCO last year upgraded its relations with Turkey, naming the country a "dialogue partner.")
Were Erdogan's words merely a bluff designed to get the bureaucrats in Brussels worried about once again "losing" Turkey and force them to put some grease on the squeaky wheels of Turkey's membership process? Perhaps partially. But several Turkish analysts saw Erdogan's words as truthful. Writes political scientist and Today's Zaman columnist Ihsan Dagi:
These are very sincere words. 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. 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. The SCO is such a network that will give Turkey a civilizational distinction, economic capacity and a free hand to conduct its foreign affairs to fulfill leadership aspirations.
The PM is likely also trying to tap into public sentiment. Erdogan's words come at a time when public support for continuing the EU process is at a historic low. A recent survey by the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, for example, found that only 33 percent of those surveyed believed Turkey should continue working towards joining the bloc over the next five years.
But Erdogan's suggestion that his country join the SCO also comes at a time when Turkey is becoming more deeply engaged with the west through its long-standing alliance with NATO. While Erdogan was telling his interviewer that Turkey might join the SCO, American, German and Dutch troops were busy setting up Patriot batteries along Turkey southern border to protect the country from Syrian missiles.
Erdogan may sincerely want Turkey to join the SCO, but doing so is not as simple as giving up on the EU and turning east. To join the SCO, Ankara would likely also have to seriously curtail -- if not completely give up -- its valuable relationship with NATO, something that few Turkish policymakers, Erdogan included, want to do. For now, then, it would seem that Erdogan's SCO talk is nothing more than wishful thinking.