SCO not an option for Turkey, experts say

Cumali Onal

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), mentioned frequently by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an alternative to the European Union, is not a rational alternative for Turkey economically, militarily or on human rights issues; even Russia, which began as one of the main pillars of this group -- along with China -- is beginning to distance itself from the SCO, experts say.

Erdoğan made his latest remark on the SCO at a press conference with EU leaders in Brussels last week. Responding to a reporter's question, Erdoğan once again called the SCO a potential alternative to the EU, saying: “With us, everything is on the table. The EU has kept us waiting at the door for 51 years now. If we get some results, we will keep heading down this path. But if we don't get results, this could push us into searching out other options.”

Erdoğan also broached the subject on an official visit to Moscow last November. Speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference, Erdoğan said, “Include us in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and relieve us of this pain.”

However, Erdoğan picked the wrong place to raise the SCO issue, according to Selçuk Çobanoğlu, an Asia-Pacific expert at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). Russia, Çobanoğlu says, is getting anxious about China's increasing power, and as a result Moscow has begun backing away from the SCO.

Erdoğan is not the only Turkish official to raise the issue of SCO membership. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Deputy Chairman Salih Kapusuz has seconded the prime minister's statements. “Turkey will not wait forever at the gates of the EU. If reciprocal steps are not taken, Turkey will of course, as an independent country, start looking for alternatives,” Kapusuz said.

According to Çağdaş Üngör, a Marmara University professor known for her research on the SCO, the organization can't be viewed as an alternative because it doesn't offer the promise of economic integration. She believes that the prime minister might be emphasizing the SCO in public to highlight Turkey's independence in such matters.

In a move to strengthen its borders, suppress separatist groups in East Turkestan and bolster influence in neighboring countries, China laid the foundations for the SCO in 1996, working with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Shanghai. When Uzbekistan's membership swelled the SCO to six countries in 2001, the body's name was changed from the Shanghai Five to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

However, the organization was never able to build solid consensus on economic, military, strategic or political issues.

EU doesn't take Erdoğan's SCO remarks very seriously

Though Erdoğan has talked about SCO membership again and again -- something Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other high-level diplomats almost never do -- EU member countries don't seem to be taking the issue very seriously. Çobanoğlu says that despite everything, Europeans don't wish to see Turkey switch sides.

“The SCO will never be a strong organization that stands as an alternative to either the EU or NATO,” Üngör told Today's Zaman. She noted that though the SCO strongly opposed and criticized the US invasion of Afghanistan, it now seems confused as to what stance to take as the Americans pull out of the country.

Çobanoğlu says that the European Union is one of the oldest organizations of its kind and can thus be called a “supranational” organization. “The EU is a vital source of culture on such important fronts as the economy, human rights and political systems,” he said. “In contrast, the SCO possesses none of these characteristics; moreover, there is absolutely no economic attraction inherent in the SCO.”

Obstacles to Turkey's SCO membership

Üngör, for her part, argues that whether the SCO would even accept Turkey as a member is up for debate, pointing out that China isn't very warm to the idea of granting Turkey dialogue partner status in the organization. She underlined that the nature of the SCO contrasts sharply with the principles of both the Islamic and liberal segments of Turkish society.

Due to the historical, cultural and social ties Turkey enjoys with SCO members like Uzbekistan, China and Russia, political dissidents from these countries often seek shelter in Turkey.

Üngör adds that the SCO demands that its member countries adopt harsh deportation practices, and says that if Turkey were to become a member, it would be forced to deport many political exiles residing in Turkey.

The gap between Turkey's expectations and those of SCO countries became more evident in April at the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan. On the sidelines of the meeting, Davutoğlu and SCO Secretary-General Dmitry Mezentsev signed a memorandum of understanding granting Turkey dialogue partner status in the organization -- a rank far lower than Turkey would want in the organization.