On last November, Erdoğan speculated with the possibility of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as an alternative to the European Union. The relationship between Europe and Ankara is not at its best moment, and some analysts see Erdoğan’s proposal as a logical step in its turn to the East, a process that could result in Turkey leaving NATO and joining the Moscow-Beijing axis. Some others, on the contrary, see Erdoğan’s statement as a bluff whose objective is to gain leverage in his negotiations with the European Union. In this brief analysis, we will assess if it is a real threat, a mere bluff, or something else.
Neither the Government nor the Turkish press seem happy with the European Union. After the European Parliament accorded to halt the negotiations with Ankara, Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım threatened with opening the borders and allowing a “flood” of refugees pass to Europe. Turkish journalists seem to have abandoned the idea of joining the EU, and start to depict the Union as a failed and irrelevant project for international politics. However, Turkey has much at stake in Europe, especially the possibility of attaining Schengen visas for its citizens. Ankara may try to redefine its relation with the EU, but cutting all ties is an unlikely option, especially since Turkey is Europe’s fifth-largest trade partner.
The SCO comprises Russia, China, and four central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It is expanding, and soon India and Pakistan will become full members. Turkey is a “dialogue partner” of the Council, which means it shares the goals of the organization and wishes to cooperate with its members. In the previous years, China and Russia had competing economic projects for Central Asia. Russia tried to develop the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), whereas China pushed the New Silk Road Economic Belt. Recently, some form of understanding seems to be emerging and both powers are seeking to harmonize their economic strategies, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the moment, Afghanistan is the main concern of the current SCO members, since it has border with most of them, and some joint counterterrorist and anti-drug-trafficking operations have been carried out to prevent a further destabilization of Central Asia. Still, the SCO does not have a common army or military operations center, and NATO remains to be the main safeguard of the Afghan government. Compared with the EU, the SCO, is an inoperative organization where each member state pursues its own micro-agenda, and several analysts doubt whether it should be called an international organization at all.
The SCO seems more welcoming towards Ankara than the European Union. Nevertheless, Turkey is still a member of the NATO, and relies on its funding and military expertise to secure its border. Even though Turkey and Russia have improved their relationship since last summer, when a Russian fighter was taken down near the border with Syria, they still distrust each other. Their objectives in Syria are not compatible, so military cooperation between both countries seems unlikely in the short term. However, Erdoğan may want to explore different options now that Europe is closing its gates, especially after the mild reaction of the Union towards the failed coup.
There is an additional possibility that has not been mentioned in most analysis. What if, by joining the SCO, Turkey is trying to make an almost-Turkic organization? Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are Turkic republics. China and Russia have important Turkic minorities in East Turkestan, Altai or Yakutia. It is true that there are already some specifically Turkic international organizations, such as the modest TÜRKSOY and the Turkic Council, but these are strictly cultural. The SCO has an economic and military dimension, and it also has the support of two continental powers. In a long-term strategy, Erdoğan could use Turkic nationalism to gain influence within the organization, and therefore access all the Central Asian markets. There are not many evidences of a “pan-turanic” turn in Turkey’s diplomacy, although in the last weeks its relations with Uzbekistan have warmed.
All in all, Ankara seems to have lost all hopes of joining the European Union, and is trying to pursue alternative strategies. While cutting off all ties would not be desirable for Turkey, the EU or the millions of Turks who live in Europe, Erdoğan would like to be seen as a stronger player in the geopolitical game. The SCO is a good card. Another good one would be improving his relations with the USA now that Trump has been elected. Erdoğan has recently defended Trump from his critics in Europe. The EU, on the other hand, faces crucial elections in the coming year that could destabilize and seriously damage the communitarian project.