Between the EU and the Shanghai Group?

The global resettlements in the last few years, amidst the generalised crisis that began in 2007-2008, do not only entail changes of position among the ten top powers of the system in terms of GDP – China moving up into the third place, replacing Japan, Brazil becoming number 5 and unseating Great Britain – or the declinism (otherwise challenged in this very country by a certain school aware of the orientation) of the USA as global hegemony, as well as regional ones. In what has been called the Greater Black Sea Area in the last decade, including the riparian states of this aquatorium as well as the two former Soviet republics in the Caucasus (Armenia and Azerbaijan) which do not have direct access to the Black Sea, there have been geopolitical displacements and shifts in a process that is still not over yet.

There is no doubt about the fact that the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 played a not at all negligible part from the point of view of the geopolitical remoulding of the region, especially since it was followed by a ‘reset’ of US-Russian relations along a sinusoidal path of unquestionable rapprochement, an ‘enlargement fatigue’ programmatically equally manifested by both trans-Atlantic organisations – NATO and EU – as well as internal changes of strategic azimuth in some of the countries in the region (Ukraine, Moldova more recently, etc.).Turkish and international media was inflamed at the beginning of the month with a piece of news according to which Turkey – a candidate for EU membership currently having accession talks however frozen since a few years – is planning to apply for full membership of the Shanghai Group (also known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – SCO). One will first have to note that it is not the first time that Turkey – also a NATO member state – is coquetting with the group organised back in 1996 by Russia and China, assisted by three former USSR Central Asian republics, with a clearly declared anti-US hegemony agenda in the system. Turkish delegations have attended the meetings of the group in the last few years and have requested an observer’s status (India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have), but obtained an inferior one – ‘dialogue partners’ in 2012. Already last autumn, Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan informed the Russian president on his intention to apply for the full membership of the organisation, given the delayed EU decision on the continuation of accession talks with his country. However, after the ‘arming up‘ of that rapprochement process, Ankara applied for full membership of the organisation through its PM, on January 25, 2013. Hinting at EU’s reluctance to receiving Turkey, Erdogan said:  ‘as the prime minister of 75 million people….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. SCO – Erdogan said – is much better, it is much more powerful [than the EU], and we share values with its members.’ Six days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry was announcing the preparation of a plan for obtaining the pursued membership and the PM reiterated his previous statement, saying ‘we will search for alternatives’, and presenting SCO as a group dedicated to the democratic process by comparison with the EU that is characterised by ‘Islamophobia’. Only a day after this latest statement made by Erdogan, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gull deemed it necessary to take some distance, saying: ‘The SCO is not an alternative to the EU. … Turkey wants to adopt and implement EU criteria.’Turkish commentators were prompt to highlight the importance of the statements, despite all those diplomatic volutes designed to cushion the initial shock of the announcement suggesting an abandonment of the West. Quite a few Turkish analysts pointed out that SCO was not requiring a liberalisation policy, the principle of non-interference with the sates’ domestic affairs being sacrosanct, therefore concessive to authoritarian inclinations, corresponding to some of the Turkish PM’s tendencies. Other ones are mentioning a certain azimuth of latest statements by Erdogan, including the following: ‘The economic powers of the world are shifting from west to east, and Turkey is one of these growth economies.’The quoted statements made by the most important politician in Turkey could have not passed without drawing attention beyond the country borders, Turkey is an important NATO member states, is strategically situated in an extremely sensitive region and is a country without the contribution of which none of the very complex regional dossiers could be settled. Could this be a major reconsideration of the Turkish foreign policy? Is Turkey going to leave the Western alliance – as Daniel Pipes was wondering in an article published by ‘Washington Times’ three weeks ago? Or is this just Turkey’s way of pressurising Brussels and Europeans in general into speeding up its accession to the EU? Or Erdogan is trying to satisfy his domestic electorate by some high-profile foreign policy action? The request of Western assistance in the settlement of the Syrian dossier – Turkey even invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty – conjugated with another, much more dangerous one for Turkey – the Kurdish one – has only received the response of the deployment of Patriot systems (Dutch, German and American) along the Turkish-Syrian border.It is perhaps too soon to give a clear answer to this question, but it is obvious that., if Turkey implements such a dramatic change in its foreign policy, the status-quo in Eurasia and the Middle East will be questioned. Not only would Turkey’s accession to SCO would tip the scales of power within the organisation, as Russian commentator F. Lukianov believes, but Mideast developments could also take a different course, ranging from the Iranian dossier to the Palestinian-Israeli one. For now, analysts are reviewing Ankara’s chance of becoming a SCO member, noting that, for example, China is unhappy about Turkey’s support for the Uyghur separatism. Russia, on its part, is not particularly content with Ankara’s energetic action at the soft power level in the Central Asian states Vladimir Putin is trying to attract into the construction of the Eurasian Union, many analysts also note that Turkey is a NATO member state and SCO is genetically designed against military blocs. What one could note for the time being as an answer to this Turkish diplomatic offensive is the unexpected flexibility shown by the European Union, where, at first France, then Germany declared that the resumption of accession talks with Turkey was desirable. Visiting Ankara on Monday, February 25, Angela Merkel said, during a joint press conference with Turkish PM Erdogan, that she was in favour of resuming EU accession talks with the country, however noting that, at the moment, she could only envisage the prospects of a bilateral ‘privileged partnership’: ‘We want the process to advance, despite the fact that I have hesitations concerning Turkey’s European Union full membership.’If, with his recent statements, Erdogan meant to put some pressure on the EU regarding the resumption of negotiations, he was successful. What is still to be identified is whether Erdogan only sought that result or something more, meaning the promise of accession with a convenient time-frame. Angela Merkel’s answer does not indicate an important change in the position of the EU’s most powerful member, who would always prefer a privileged partnership with Turkey over full integration.Erdogan cannot be satisfied with Merkel’s answer to those recent statements. The problems Turkey has – from the Syrian to the Cypriot dossiers, from the new Sunnite axis in the Near East and the regional Kurdish issue to the Central Asian dimension in foreign policy call for a firm and predictable external point of support. The SCO alternative to the western azimuth could remain appealing to Turkey’s leadership.

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