‘Shanghai Five’ did you say?

‘Shanghai Five’ did you say?

It is not clear if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is serious or just jesting when he intimates that Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). When he mentioned this last July, during a television interview, he suggested that he was merely jesting.

“Recently during my visit to Russia I joked with Putin. I said ‘you poke fun at us, occasionally asking what business we have in the EU.’ Then let me poke fun at you. Include us in the Shanghai Five and we will give up on the EU.”

This is what Erdoğan said. The “Shanghai Five” he mentioned is of course the SCO which was established in 1996 by five countries, namely Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan joining later in 2001. The principle aim of the SCO, in which Turkey has a “dialogue partnership,” is defined as “providing mutual security.”

When Erdoğan mentioned the possibility of Turkey’s joining the SCO again, during a recent television interview, however, he did not appear to be joking. At any rate his remarks were taken seriously this time. One school of thought says he is still not serious about this but mentions it anyway for the sake of populism.

Another says he is serious because he is fed up with the EU, having decided it will never admit Turkey. A third school of thought says his intention here is to apply pressure on the EU by showing that Turkey has other options.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s remarks also reanimated the argument about “Turkey drifting away from the West.” Especially after he suggested that if Turkey was a member of the SCO this would also provided Turkey with “the chance to be together with countries that we share values with.”

He was referring to the fact that most SCO members are not just predominantly Muslim but of Turkic origin. This, however, is the point at which we have to criticize Erdoğan, because he is once again mixing apples with oranges.

The values that make Turkey’s EU perspective important are not cultural and religious in essence, although many of Europe’s modern cultural values are not alien to contemporary Turks, whatever may be the case with traditional Turkish classes whose members have difficulty integrating into modern society in Turkey as well, let alone Europe.

The most important values that the EU represents are democracy, human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression and others of the like; in other words, universal values which the SCO members are desperately in short supply of. It is telling that Erdogan should not mention this in anyway. But the confusion he is creating is not restricted to this.

The SCO, while also looking to enhance economic and cultural cooperation among its members, essentially has mutual security as its prime concern. A point worth underlining here, too, even if Erdoğan conveniently overlooks it, is that an important concern for SCO members is the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, which is greatly feared by the governments of the Turkic republics, too.

Put another way, the SCO cannot be an alternative to the EU for Turkey but can be an alternative for Turkey’s NATO membership. The importance of Turkey’s membership in the NATO alliance, on the other hand, is growing with developments in the region. Today, as in the past, Turkey draws as much security from the alliance as it contributes.

The overwhelming majority of NATO members also share Turkey’s views on currently sensitive topic like Syria, which cannot be said of key SCO members Russia and China.

Giving up on the EU and NATO for SCO membership will not mean a simple change of organization. It will also necessitate a change in ideological orientation, too, which neither Erdoğan nor his party is ready for.

This is why if he is serious when he talks about SCO membership, we have to conclude that we are once again faced with an Erdoğan saying things that sound good to the ears of his grassroots supporters, but which have not been thought through in order to understand the absurdity of what is being said.