Why will Turkey participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit?

August 15, 2022
by Enes Esen, published on 15 August 2022
Why will Turkey participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit?

On his way back from Russia to Turkey on August 5, Erdogan announced that Russian President Putin personally invited him to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, which will be held in Uzbekistan in September. He said he was planning to attend the summit to meet the leaders of the SCO members, observers, or dialogue partners such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Turkey is already a dialogue partner of the group. Although Erdoğan expressed on several occasions his intentions to use the SCO as an important counterbalance against the West in the past, Turkey never actually took part in any SCO meeting before. Considering the fact that one of the proclaimed main goals of the SCO is the establishment of a new international political and economic order, Erdoğan’s attendance at an SCO summit will constitute another milestone in Turkey’s shift of axis toward Russia and China in the last decade. 

On the other hand, Turkey, along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is also reportedly preparing to apply for membership in the BRICS group composed of Russia, China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, in 2023, according to the President of the BRICS International Forum, Purnima Anand. One of the common features of these three countries in the last years is that they are deepening their ties with China and Russia since they go through a difficult period with the West. Although Turkish officials did not make an official comment about Turkey’s application for membership in the BRICS next year, Erdoğan called on the leaders of the BRICS members to let Turkey join the group when he attended the 10th BRICS Summit held in South Africa in 2018. 

It is hard to argue that the SCO is a club with which any country would nowadays want to be associated, especially during the ongoing war in Ukraine. The SCO is a loose security and economic bloc led by non-democratic Russia and China. None of its members – namely Russia, China, Kazakhstan, India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan - are leading democracies. The upcoming new members of the organization are not democracies either. The SCO has approved Iran’s application for membership, and Iran is waiting for the completion of the formalities to become the group’s ninth member, while Belarus’s recent application to the organization is under consideration. Iran and Belarus are well-known dictatorships and chastised by democratic countries for their poor human rights records. Turkey’s interest in the SCO will definitely raise further questions about Turkey’s place in the democratic world. Nevertheless, it will not be a surprise if Erdoğan calls on the SCO leaders to let Turkey join the club in the upcoming meeting in Uzbekistan, given the experience. However, he will probably not push hard for the membership.

A reason for Erdoğan’s deepened relationship with Russia-led organizations is to extract more concessions from the Western countries. Due to Turkey’s perceived geo-strategic importance for the containment of Russia, the latest example is the war in Ukraine, Erdoğan deliberates that the Western countries would not afford to lose Turkey’s support and thus would offer him lucrative deals when threatened with Turkey’s shift of axis. Some western analysts are indeed advocating offering Turkey more chances to lure it into the Western camp, while many western leaders lost confidence in Ankara. This lack of trust negatively affects Turkey’s interactions with the Western countries and hampers its maneuverability between these two axes. 

Some claim that Turkey’s membership in these organizations does not mean that Turkey is turning its back to the West but should be considered as a way to expand its economic and security opportunities in order to further its national interests. In fact, this quest is not just for the sake of diversifying Turkey’s partners to reduce risks but also to establish viable options in case of Turkey’s further disintegration from the West. Accordingly, this quest gets momentum with Erdoğan’s increased dissatisfaction with the EU and the US. For instance, when Turkey faced insurmountable obstacles in EU accession talks, Erdoğan first uttered his interest in these organizations. In 2013, Erdoğan accused the EU of obstructing Turkey’s membership and said that Turkey would eventually seek an alternative to the EU. In this vein, he pointed out that the SCO would constitute a viable option and that if Turkey joined the SCO, he would readily end Turkey’s accession talks with the EU, adding that he had already discussed the idea with Putin. Similarly, he argued in 2016 that “Turkey should not be fixated on the idea of joining the European Union and should look at other opportunities such as the SCO.”

Not surprisingly, Russia welcomes Turkey’s breaking away from the West. While Putin has faced increasing isolation since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russia’s political, economic, and diplomatic relations with Turkey have been exponentially growing with the outbreak of the war. Further frictions in the NATO alliances and Turkey’s support will be necessary for undermining Western sanctions against Russia.

To conclude, Erdoğan’s attendance at the SCO summit the next month will be a symbolically important moment in demonstrating Turkey’s shift from the West to the SCO. The decline of democracy in Turkey, extracting more concessions from the West, Erdoğan’s dependence on foreign financial help to boost his re-election bid in 2023 and the argument that Putin might be willing to enable him to succeed are critical factors shaping Erdoğan’s mind. Turkey will be unlikely to join the SCO in the upcoming years. Still, it is a fact that one of the leading reasons for Turkey’s interest in the SCO is a search for an alternative to the West, as Erdoğan previously acknowledged himself.

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