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Mystery Over Turkish Bid for Shanghai Five Membership

Turkey’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would not only fail to make any contribution to Turkish democracy, but might be a setback to recent progress, writes Kadri Gursel.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan talks during the opening ceremony of government communication forum in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Tags: POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTR3E7DY

The debate in Turkey over the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was triggered by the answer Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave when he was asked whether “Turkey has forgotten the EU process” during a TV interview Jan. 25. The premier first said: “It is out of the question for us to forget or waste the EU process. It is the EU who wants to forget us, but they are hesitating and not forgetting us. We would be relieved if they openly say it at long last.”

He then brought up the SCO: “When things [the EU process] are going that bad, one inevitably starts looking for other alternatives, being the prime minister of 75 million. That’s why I recently told Mr. Putin: ‘Take us into the Shanghai Five and we will forget about the EU, say good-bye to the EU and part ways with them.’ What sense does it make to be kept waiting for that long?”
Upon those comments, the prime minister was asked whether the two organizations are alternatives to each other. He replied that, “The Shanghai Five is better and much stronger.”
His remarks left no room but to conclude that he sees the security and cooperation organization of authoritarian and totalitarian Asian states as an alternative to Turkey’s EU perspective. Naturally, his point of view appalled Turkey’s liberal democrats, who know that the country’s deficient democracy will improve and consolidate as much as its EU process advances.
Turkey’s shortcomings in terms of democracy, pluralism, individual rights and freedoms, press freedom and freedom of thought are obvious. But compared to SCO members, Turkey’s flawed and inadequate democracy still appears to be a way ahead even of the least troubled among them. SCO membership would not only fail to make any contribution to Turkish democracy but would make it easier to lose the acquired gains.
The “SCO perspective” led to an interesting debate in Turkey.
Some, for instance, argued that Erdogan was not really serious about the SCO alternative but brought it up as a tactical maneuver to put the EU under pressure. To assume that Erdogan’s interest in the SCO is a tactical attitude would require one to also acknowledge that this tactic is not justifiable and politically correct in terms of political ethics. Such methods evoke the image of unstable and unpredictable types who threaten to “go astray from the right way” and harm both themselves and those around unless their wishes are met. That the SCO is not “the right way” for Turkey’s democracy and regional stability is crystal clear.
The most intriguing development during the two-week debate over the premier’s remarks were the strange redactions the Turkish foreign ministry made in the content of the SCO section on its official web site. Even though no change occurred in the institutional ties between Turkey and the SCO during the course of this debate, the information about the state of relations on the foreign ministry’s site was edited no less than three times.
For those who visited the site and clicked the SCO topic on Jan. 29, four days after Erdogan brought up the SCO alternative, the foreign ministry offered the following information: “On March 23, 2011, Turkey applied formally to the SCO to acquire the status of a Dialogue Partner.”
This, however, was an outdated information that required updating because Turkey’s application had been approved months earlier, during the SCO summit in Beijing on June 6-7, 2012. Such indifference to the SCO on the part of the Turkish foreign ministry was indeed justifying those who argued that “the SCO perspective is a tactic.”
The foreign ministry updated its website at midnight on Jan. 29 and posted the following information: “Following the approval of our Dialogue Partner status at the Summit, the internal ratification process within the SCO has been completed. Our country will start taking part in the organization’s activities within the framework of its Dialogue Partner status after a memorandum of understanding, to be drawn up by the SCO Secretariat, is signed by our country and the SCO.” On the basis of this information, it was natural and consistent for the foreign ministry to list only Belarus and Sri Lanka as Dialogue Partners since Turkey’s status had not yet taken effect.
But then, probably on Feb. 4, the SCO topic on the foreign ministry site was edited once again to remove the lines saying that the mutual signing of a memorandum of understanding was being awaited for Turkey’s Dialogue Partner status to take effect. What was left behind was only a paragraph indicating that Turkey’s application had been approved. But in a very controversial addition, Turkey’s name was included on the list of Dialogue Partners along with Belarus and Sri Lanka.
It was controversial because the SCO’s official website did not mention Turkey among the Dialogue Partner countries neither at that time nor on Feb. 23 when this article was written. According to the SCO’s official web site Turkey did not yet have the status of a Dialogue Partner, but according to the Turkish foreign ministry, it did.
This series of contradictory redactions within several days were questionable with respect to the foreign ministry, regarded as one of Turkey’s best institutionalized establishments.
There were other interesting developments on Feb.4-5 that are worth taking note of. Turkey’s top institutions and officials on both state and government level followed each other in making similar statements on the issue.
First, President Abdullah Gul said: “The EU and the Shanghai Five are not alternatives to each other.”
Then, Erdogan said: “Is the Shanghai Cooperation [Organization] an alternative to the EU? They are two separate, unrelated structures.”
The press office of the foreign ministry made a statement which included a line saying that “our country’s relationship with the SCO is not an alternative to our ties with the EU and NATO.”
Finally, a statement issued on behalf of EU Minister and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis by his press adviser emphasized that “the SCO and the EU are not alternatives to each other.”
Those statements provided only a short-lived relief for Turkey’s liberal democrats.
Just as the discussion appeared to have been closed, Bagis made the following remarks to journalists accompanying him on a trip to Paris last Wednesday: “The prime minister’s statement that we could join the Shanghai Five has strengthened our hand in Europe. Underlining that Turkey is not without options was the product of a smart strategy on his part.”
It seems that Turkey’s EU minister remains confused on the SCO issue.
It is the same man who emphasized in his Feb.5 statement that the EU and the SCO are not alternatives to each other, and 15 days later described the SCO as an “option” for Turkey.
It is needless to discuss whether the words “alternative” and “option” have different meanings.
It seems Turkey’s “mysterious SCO perspective” will continue to occupy the global and regional agenda.
Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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