Getting closer to Putin or mediators of the West – where does Erdoğan actually stand?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is always trying to walk the political tightrope.Image: www.imago-images.de / imago images

analysis

The NATO member country Turkey would like to join an alliance that wants to be the antithesis to NATO. How can this be agreed?

09/21/2022, 07:3909/21/2022, 09:09

Joana Rettig

He grins. Very reserved, but he grins when he’s gone fans received in New York. He shakes hands and celebrates. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in the US city on Friday. The reason: the three-day conference of the United Nations. The 77th UN General Debate.

And Erdoğan is right in the middle.

“Right in the middle” – this word probably best describes the role of the Turkish president in world politics. Observers keep asking themselves the question: Where does Erdoğan stand, where does Turkey actually stand?

Letting himself be celebrated by his fans in New York: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Letting himself be celebrated by his fans in New York: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.Image: www.imago-images.de / imago images

Deliveries of arms from MoscowDeliveries of arms to Kyiv. mediator in the Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine – own armed conflicts in Syria and in northern Iraq. Provocations against NATO – desire for accession to the European Union.

And now: Erdoğan wants to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). An organization whose members are largely autocratic states. An organization that wants to position itself as the antithesis to NATO. Important members: China and Russia.

A Turkish balancing act, which for many is only one thing: confusing.

quarrel with the EU

Turkey’s turn to Eurasia cannot be dismissed as idle talk, says Turkey expert Tuba Eldem when watson asked. Eldem is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fenerbahçe University in Istanbul and a Fellow of the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at the Science and Politics Foundation in Istanbul Berlin. But she also says that this rapprochement is not a harbinger of a major turnaround.

Turkey has long been interested in the SCO. As early as 2011, Europe and the Erdoğan government began to alienate each other. “The Europeanization vision has failed,” says Eldem. And she sees the EU as partly to blame.

“The EU’s policy towards Turkish membership has been consistently ambivalent since Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership was recognized.” The EU had not succeeded in creating an incentive for a strong reform policy – and that, even though Erdoğan flirted with Western Europe for a few years.

Autocrats among themselves: At the Shanhai Conference, Erdoğan, Putin and the Belarusian ruler Lukashenko, among others, met.

Autocrats among themselves: At the Shanhai Conference, Erdoğan, Putin and the Belarusian ruler Lukashenko, among others, met.Image: Turkish Presidency/AP / Uncredited

That scratched the credibility of the EU. And: “This loss of credibility has not only meant that the Erdoğan government has lost its enthusiasm for Europeanization and democratization reforms. He also paved the way for the search for new options.

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the EU Parliament, David McAllister (CDU), also told Watson: “Erdoğan’s foreign policy strategy is to keep all options open.” In 2011, Turkey applied for the status of a dialogue partnership with the Shanghai organization – in 2012 their request was granted.

But now she wants more: she wants to be a member.

Search for an alternative

But even if the SCO wants to be the antithesis to the western defense alliance NATO: According to expert Eldem, Erdoğan sees things differently. She says:

“Erdoğan sees the SCO as an alternative to the EU and not to NATO. When he criticized the EU’s resistance to Turkey, Erdoğan told Vladimir Putin in July 2012 that Turkey would give up the EU if it became a full member of the SCO would be included.”

In 2013, then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “If our path towards the EU is clear, we will continue to pursue our strategic goals; if not, they will go their way and we will go ours. We’ll see where everyone went.”

January 2016: The then Chancellor Angela Merkel with Ahmet Davutoğlu.  He was the Prime Minister of Turkey at the time.

January 2016: The then Chancellor Angela Merkel with Ahmet Davutoğlu. He was the Prime Minister of Turkey at the time.Image: imago stock&people / imago images

The SPD foreign politician Michael Roth sees it differently. The SCO is “diametrically opposed to NATO in terms of its values ​​and goals,” Roth told the editorial network Germany. “Turkish membership would therefore be a clear departure from the NATO security alliance.”

When asked by Watson, McAllister said: “Turkey claims to be a regional power at the interface between Europe and Asia to be. A further rapprochement with the SCO would turn the NATO ally further away from the political West.”

Nevertheless, the EU and NATO are interested in a solution.

But he says:

“Many obstacles would have to be overcome for this. One of them is that Ankara supports the sanctions against the Russian Federation and does not thwart them. The territorial sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus must also be respected.”

Turkey today cannot be compared to the time when the country became an EU candidate in 1999. “She has moved further and further away from our European values.”

The accession negotiations are on hold.

Security here, economy there

But it’s not just trouble with Europe that’s driving Turkey into the arms of the SCO. Erdoğan also has economic interests. Eldem says: “Turkey has growing transport, trade and energy links to the Turkish-dominated former Soviet republics in Central Asia.” At the same time, cooperation with China is increasing. “Ankara wants to diversify geoeconomic ties with Asia without jeopardizing the geopolitical partnership with NATO.”

There it is again: the balancing act.

Heads of state at the NATO summit in June 2022. Among them were US President Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Heads of state at the NATO summit in June 2022. Among them were US President Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.Image: www.imago-images.de / imago images

But according to Eldem, Erdoğan sees no contradiction here. “One offers economic prosperity and the other guarantees security.” The “march towards SCO”, as Eldem calls it, has an economic background.

Also, says Eldem, there is still a long way to go before Turkey becomes a full member. “Apparently she hasn’t even made a formal request for observer status.” This shows that Ankara is not fully convinced that it is in its national interest to move further away from the West.

Eldem says:

“Ankara is likely to continue pursuing a ‘multi-alliance’ policy, seeking alternative financial and political support that could also allow Erdoğan to remain in power.”

Unclear Ukraine course

Then there is the war in Ukraine. Here, too, it is still not clear to many where Erdoğan stands. in one Interview with the US broadcaster PBS On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, he says that all of the territories occupied by Russia must be returned to Ukraine – including Crimea. At the same time, he calls the Russian president his “dear friend Putin”.

He also wants to join the SCO – an alliance with a leading Russian role. Erdoğan and Putin have known each other for many years. They appreciate each other, respect each other. Both reject the West – one more, the other less.

But the Turkey expert Eldem mainly emphasizes the conflicting interests.

Over the weekend, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met at the Shanghai conference.

Over the weekend, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met at the Shanghai conference.Image: www.imago-images.de / imago images

Turkey has positioned itself as a strategic counterweight to Russia in the Black Sea, South Caucasus, Middle East, Africa and proven in Central Asia. She has entered into strategic partnerships with Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. “This puts Ankara in a position to create an effective counterweight to Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.”says Eldem.

And not only there: Russia and Turkey are also on opposing sides in the Middle East, for example in Syria and Libya. So when asked whether Erdoğan is more attracted to Russia, Eldem answers:

“Erdoğan’s role as a mediator helps him to improve relations with the West and that’s why he will not give up this role.”

(With material from the dpa)

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