What would the Turkish premier say if someone was to ask him this question: “Part of your ancestors came here 1,000 years ago from the environs of Shanghai, and then hit the road to Europe. We have been moving forward ever since. So, what are you suggesting now? That we turn our back on Europe, take the road to Shanghai and return to where we came from?”
Shall we take as an answer the following remarks he made in Prague on February 4: “Any deviation from the goal of EU membership is absolutely out of the question for our government. We are not looking for alternatives on this issue. But we are unhappy. I am bringing up the issue of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Some become annoyed. And why are you annoyed? Is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization an alternative to the EU? Those are two separate, unrelated structures.”
What was Turkey’s EU objective? Full membership. And this means integration. This is the reason why Turkey has given the cold shoulder to a status like a “privileged partnership.” In this case, we have to note as a good sign the prime minister’s remarks on Feb. 3 that, “Any deviation from the goal of EU membership is absolutely out of the question for our government. We are not looking for alternatives on this issue.”
Other remarks he made in Prague are also noteworthy: “To keep Turkey waiting for that long is something unforgivable and intolerable. Aren’t we supposed to ask them how can they keep a country like Turkey at the door for 54 years? What is it that Turkey has failed to fulfil or deliver? They keep repeating one thing — the Ankara agreement. But why don’t you go a bit farther back? What is it there?”
He is telling the truth but is not totally right.
The EU certainly is not lily-white, and even though it does not openly say it, it does discriminate against Turkey because of the country’s Muslim identity. But is it possible to say that Turkey is ready for full membership?
In many fields deemed to be indispensable for democracy, like basic rights and freedoms, minority rights, human rights culture, decentralization and the state of the judiciary, Turkey remains below the EU standards. It is not yet ready for full EU membership.
In this context, Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s call on the EU to “stop putting us off and finish the job” should be understood as an attempt to apply pressure on Brussels.
But nevertheless, the comments he made in two EU countries in Central Europe fall short of obscuring his real sentiment and perspective, reflected in the statement he made about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) before his departure from Turkey.
What did he say then? “The Shanghai Five is not an alternative to the EU. You don’t have to quit one to enter the other. You may well just quit. …”
Quit what? The EU, of course. And having mentioned this “probability” he instantly added: “Is a country not supposed to ultimately make a decision if it has been kept waiting for 50 years at the EU’s door?”
Then the most striking part followed, in the form of a tribute he paid to the SCO, and what is more — in the context of democracy:
“They say there is no democracy in the countries of the Shanghai Five. Today’s democracy in EU countries was not achieved overnight. Don’t forget about Rwanda and Algeria. And why did they forcefully deport the Roma from EU member countries? They have treated blacks and Muslims in the same way. What human rights Islamophobia fits into? I believe the Shanghai Five will further improve their own democratization process.”
We’ve said it before: Such rhetoric reflects the propensity in Tayyip Erdogan’s mindset to see the West and Europe outside the “Us” in the context of “Us” and “The Others.” He has no desire to share a common value system with the West either.
In contrast, he has a benevolent view of the Shanghai Five countries. Moreover, he is quite hopeful that they will “democratize” in time.
But Erdogan has one fundamental mistake here. When it comes to Islamophobia, the heavyweights of the Shanghai group, Russia and China (and even potential member India), could make him long for Europe and the West.
A possible shift towards the SCO in the future would raise a philosophical question of an extraordinary importance for Turkey: Who are we?
Turks have been West- and Europe-oriented ever since 1071, the year that marks symbolically their arrival to Anatolia. They have drifted away and even broken away from their Central Asian roots, forging a new identity. The Ottoman state was a European state that took over the lands of the East Roman Empire and made the Roman capital its own capital, Istanbul. It was a Rome under the rule of a Muslim dynasty.
When Mehmed the Conqueror set foot in Istanbul, the European lands of the Ottomans were larger than their Asian territory. Both Trabzon and Diyarbakir became Ottoman territory much later than many Balkan cities, in some cases almost a century later.
The geopolitical heartland of the Ottoman state was in the Balkans and the Marmara region. The Ottomans were essentially a Southeast European state. They met their end when they lost their heartland, their European territory, in the 1912 Balkan War.
The Balkan War effectively unmade the Ottoman state. The ensuing World War I, for its part, resulted in the loss of the Ottoman hinterland, the Arab lands, and the ultimate destruction of the Empire.
The Turkish Republic, founded as the principal inheritor of the Ottomans, produced a “new Turkish identity” by bringing together Balkan and Caucasian Muslims forced to immigrate to Anatolia and the existing Muslim people of Anatolia minus the Kurds who did not enter this melting pot. The main orientation of both the new state and the new Turkish identity was again the West and Europe.
In terms of its social and psychological relation to Central Asia, the Republic was no different from the Ottoman state. Despite the loss of European territory, the principal direction remained unchanged. The European Union candidacy, which followed Turkey’s founding membership in the Council of Europe and its NATO membership, represents only the most recent 50-year part of this historical adventure.
Therefore, abandoning the EU direction and hitting the road to Shanghai would mean a return not to pre-Ottoman but even pre-Seljuk times, which is simply impossible.
It is impossible both in historic and practical terms. It is impossible because Seljuk or Oghuz Turks no longer exist, and because the modern-day Turk is a different amalgam.
As Turkey’s “single and ultimate decision-maker” Erdogan may want to become closer with the Shanghai group. Actually, he does want it. And he could do it. But this cannot happen by forfeiting Europe.
And he did say that “any deviation from the goal of EU membership is out of the question,” didn’t he?
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He contributed to two Century Foundation publications: Turkey's Transformation and American Policy and Allies in Need: Turkey and the U.S. He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul. Çandar was a special foreign policy advisor to Turkish President Turgut Özal from 1991 to 1993.