Turkey’s Leader Eases Talk of Joining Asian Bloc as an Alternative to the EU

February 5, 2013 - 4:33 AM

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 18, 2012. (Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)

(CNSNews.com) – Ten days after causing a stir by suggesting that Turkey may give up its aspirations to join the European Union and look instead towards an Asian-focused bloc of autocracies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday pulled back on the statement.

Speaking during a visit to the Czech Republic – an E.U. member-state – Erdogan said the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was not an alternative to the E.U., and people were wrong to be “disturbed” by his earlier remarks.

At the same time, he added that it was “unforgivable” that the process of joining the E.U. had been dragging along for so long. If the E.U. wants to be an economic and political global power, he said, “today the E.U. needs Turkey, not the other way round.”

Last month on January 25, Erdogan was quite clear in his comments about the SCO, a six-member security bloc dominated by Russia and China, and sometimes described as a Eurasian counterweight to the U.S. and NATO.

“Of course, when this affair [acceding to the E.U.] is not proceeding well, as the prime minister of a country of 75 million you start looking for alternatives,” he told a television station with close ties to the ruling Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“That’s what I told Mr. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin the other day: Take us into the Shanghai Five and we will say goodbye to the E.U. and leave. What is the point of stalling?”

(The “Shanghai Five” is the original name for the SCO, which was established in current form in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined existing members Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.)

“The SCO is better, much more powerful,” he continued. “Pakistan wants in, India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, all of us will become members of this organization.”

In Prague on Monday, Erdogan said Turkey remains focused on joining the E.U. but has been “saddened” by the 27-member union’s position.

Turkey has been seeking membership for decades, was officially declared a candidate in 1999, and formal negotiations have been underway since 2005.

Some E.U. states, including heavyweights France and Germany, are leery of embracing what would be the union’s only Muslim-majority member, and when President Obama in April 2009 urged E.U. leaders in Prague to move ahead on the issue, he upset both the French and German leaders.

Obama has an especially close relationship with Erdogan, but successive U.S. administrations have supported Turkey’s E.U. bid.

Detractors point to Turkey’s human rights record, press freedom restrictions, migration concerns, the dispute over Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus, and concerns that the country, under the AKP since 2002, is drifting “eastward.”

(Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in London in 2010 that if Turkey were indeed “moving eastward,” then European resistance to its E.U. accession was partly responsible.)

Erdogan’s comments in Prague were echoed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who said the SCO and E.U. were not alternatives to each other. Erdogan’s earlier remarks, Gul said during a joint appearance with his Serbian counterpart in Ankara, had sought to highlight the “prejudiced manner” in which some E.U. members were approaching Turkey’s accession.

E.U. enlargement spokesman Peter Stano declined to respond to Erdogan’s SCO remarks, but reiterated that accession talks were underway.

‘Dialogue partner’

Turkey is already an SCO “dialogue partner,” having had its request for that status approved at the SCO’s annual summit in Beijing last June. Ankara first applied to join as an SCO partner in 2007, at a time when its E.U. accession talks had hit a roadblock over the Cyprus dispute.

Other dialogue partners are Belarus and Sri Lanka, while Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia are officially SCO “observers,” and Afghanistan – prodded by Pakistan, with an eye to the departure of NATO forces in 2014 – has applied to become one too.

The SCO maintains a secretariat in Beijing and a regional counter-terrorism center in Uzbekistan.

Secretariat officials and member governments regularly state that the bloc is not aimed at any outside power, although it has taken positions critical of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan and its missile defense plans in Europe – an issue particularly vexing to Russia.

“[A]ll clear-headed politicians and experts in economics and international relations realize that it is not possible to set the global agenda today behind Russia’s and China’s backs and without taking their interests into account,” Putin wrote in a commentary published in China’s People’s Daily on the eve of the 2012 SCO summit. “Such is the geopolitical reality of the twenty-first century.”

He called the SCO a “rapidly-developing” organization that but “has already earned itself an influential place and speaks with a confident voice on the international stage.”