NATO's second-largest military power is threatening a dramatic pivot to Russia and China
Turkey is looking into joining a Chinese- and Russian-led alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Sunday at the end of his official tour of Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Erdogan said he met with SCO leaders over the weekend and expressed his interest in joining the Eurasian political, economic, and military alliance as an alternative to joining the European Union, which has not been receptive to Turkey's repeated bids for membership that began in 1963.
France, Germany, and Belgium — home to Brussels, where the EU is headquartered — have long opposed Turkey's accession into the EU. Erdogan's reluctance to sign on to certain membership requirements and his increasingly authoritarian leadership over Turkey have also sparked concern among European leaders that he is not committed to a Western conception of human rights and civil liberties.
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Thousands of Turkish civil servants — as well as military personnel, police officers, academics, and teachers — have been purged or arrested on suspicion that they were associated with a failed coup in July of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Dozens of journalists, primarily those working for opposition newspapers, have also been arrested since the attempted coup, while several opposition outlets have been shut down altogether.
Erdogan insisted in a recent interview with "60 Minutes" that "these measures are being taken by prosecutors and judges in full accordance with the rule of law." But the crackdown has led the European Commission to warn Turkey that it is "backsliding" in human rights and democracy — an accusation Erdogan appeared to scoff at.
"From time to time, we see insults directed at myself, claims that there was no freedom of expression in Turkey," Erdogan said on Sunday. "Meanwhile, terrorists prance around in French, German, and Belgian streets. This is what they understand of freedom."
A rejection, or a bluff?
Increasing disenchantment with the EU and the perception that he is being lectured to by the US — which supports anti-ISIS Syrian Kurds viewed by Turkey as terrorists — has apparently spurred Erdogan to look east, where his domestic policies have not been heavily scrutinized or condemned.
"Erdogan feels much more comfortable and at home among the authoritarian regimes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization rather than facing the scrutiny and criticism of the European family of nations," Aykan Erdemir, an expert on Turkey and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider on Monday.
Joining or even threatening to join the Shanghai bloc — which is heavily influenced by Russia and China — would rattle the West and, as Erdogan said on Sunday, would "considerably broaden" Turkey's "room for maneuver."
"If Turkey were to actually join the SCO, it would, of course, drastically alter relations with the US and NATO," Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst and policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, told Business Insider on Monday.
"It would be viewed as a rejection of the Western alliance and make it incredibly difficult to include Turkey in any type of high-level strategic dialogue, given concerns about Russian expansionism," he said, adding that Turkey, unlike other NATO members, is already a partner country to SCO dialogue.
Still, many analysts are skeptical that Erdogan is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. He has been flirting heavily and publicly with Russia since the summer, but it is unclear whether a closer alliance with Russia and China would benefit Turkey politically or economically.
"Erdogan's weather vane foreign policy characterized by frequent U-turns is based neither on values nor principles," said Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament. He noted that Erdogan made the same announcement about possible SCO membership during a November 2013 meeting with Putin, yet never acted on it.
Michael Kofman, an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs and fellow at the Wilson Center, said the SCO is "not a cohesive economic or political bloc" and would offer little to Turkey in practice other than to "instill the perception that the West is somehow 'losing Turkey' and should chase Erdogan to get it back."
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'A rogue and dysfunctional' ally
Complicating the Western temptation to write off Erdogan's comments as empty threats, however, is Turkey's recent deal with the EU to help stem the flow of refugees trying to enter Europe from Syria.
"Erdogan knows that the EU views Turkey as critical to staunching the flow of refugees into Europe," Koplow said. "He has a long history of making these types of threats in order to pressure Europe into concessions of various sorts. It's a gambit that will probably be successful if recent history is any guide."
Over the summer, the EU agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion ($3.2 billion) — and German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to speed up Turkey's EU bid — if Turkey pledged to harbor the vast number of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
Turkey's entry into the SCO would also complicate its relationship with NATO.
"In theory, SCO membership would not require Turkey's exit from NATO," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Tuesday. "In practice, however, it would severely strain Ankara's ties with other NATO members."
Ultimately, however, Bremmer believes Erdogan is just looking for leverage.
"Erdogan wants the US to rely less on the Syrian Kurds and to extradite [Fethullah] Gulen rather than a signal of a historic and strategic shift away from the West," he said, noting that many existing SCO members don't necessarily want Turkey to join.
"Erdogan himself said yesterday relations with the US and NATO are on track, so I think there's lots of smoke, no fire here," he added.
Erdogan told CBS over the weekend that Turkey is "moving in the same direction with NATO that we have always done." But July's failed coup appears to have made him only more determined to stomp out dissent, whether from his own citizens or the international community.
Erdemir, meanwhile, predicted that Turkey's "gradual drift from NATO" would continue.
"Putin will make sure that this is a slow and painful process for Turkey and the transatlantic alliance," he said. "He knows that as a rogue and dysfunctional NATO ally, Turkey is of greater use to Moscow than as a defector to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization."