Turkey and Neighbourhood

Turkey’s Illusions of Neo-Eurasianism and Interest in Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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The expression goes “history repeats itself,” but does it really? On Dec. 31, 1991, the USSR President and Soviet Communist Party Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev presented his resignation to the Soviet authorities. This historic act was also the declaration of the end of the Cold War era and the international bipolar system.

BY ERMAN AKILLI | February 27th, 2013

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world’s geopolitical map started to change in accordance with the power vacuum in the former Soviet zone. There emerged 27 new republics, some of which fell into sudden, bewildering conflicts with each other. While these events were taking place in the ex-Soviet territory, Turkey’s delicate position in the Western/European world started to fall apart.

Throughout the fearful years of the Cold War, while the Soviet shadow lingered, Turkey was the far eastern flank of the Western/European Bloc against communism; however, with the collapse of the USSR, Turkey’s Western/European allies started to question its Western identity. Turkey saw the result of that critical examination in the rejection of its membership application to the European Community. Despite its close partnership and support in securing the Western Bloc and its immense patience and long efforts to become a member of the European Community, Turkey was declined entry. Meanwhile, the European Community opened its arms to the ex-Iron Curtain states of Eastern Europe. Inevitably this led to disappointment in Turkey, the successor of a great empire.

Turkey found itself at a juncture where it experienced an identity crisis, one that had never before been this profound with regard to its international relations. As a result and to take advantage of the dawn of a “new world order,” Turkey tried to develop alternative state identities or, in other words, foreign policy paths for the future. Of the 27 states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, five were the Turkic states of Central Asia — namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Those states were not only unique for their Turkic features but they also eased Turkey’s feeling of isolation, after having been cast aside by its Western allies.

Turkey’s response to the West came in the form of an alternative foreign policy route that did not need Europe. A provocative new motto was embraced by President Turgut Özal: “The next century, the 21st century, will be the century of Turks.” This general indication of a change in priorities in international relations became even more grounded with the articulation of a complementary motto taken up by Özal’s successor, President Süleyman Demirel: “The Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.”

As a result of circumstances in the international system and these ideas being put into motion, a new Eurasian identity for the Turkish Republic was formed. That dream, built on the big disappointment of being left outside the European Community in 1993 and the recognition of Turkey’s decreasing influence in world politics, generated a great amount of enthusiasm and excitement in Turkey for these Turkic states, known as its Central Asian cousins.

Unfortunately, although the Turkic world dream generated considerable interest in the Turkish public, it could not be realized. Two major facts obstructed that dream: First of all, the Russian Federation’s influence was still alive in the region; and second, those states had already tried the big brother model, thanks to the Soviet Union. As newly formed independent states, in de jure terms, they were enjoying their sovereignty at long last. Therefore, the newly formed Eurasian identity, the follow-up foreign policy strategy and the pressure of losing importance in world politics resulted in nothing but depression for Turkey.

In a recent interview with Kanal 24, Turkey’s prime minister and the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, mentioned a conversation with Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, during his last visit to Russia on July 18, 2012. Erdoğan said he put forward the idea that if Turkey’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), also known as the Shanghai Five, were to be approved, Turkey is ready to re-evaluate its commitment to the European Union negotiation and membership process.

This statement by the prime minister sparked a new round of criticism. Yet, as I interpret the current move, Erdoğan’s statement holds more meaning than a simple argument over a shift in axis. His words represent a new state of mind, a new state character, a new self-understanding and a new outlook three decades in the making. It is true that things have turned upside down in Turkey’s understanding and conduct of foreign policy during the AK Party era, yet they are the fruits of a finally grounded approach rather than situational and conjectural moves.

Thanks to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey found the theoretical ground for its current foreign policy steps and a wider strategic framework for future world policy actions. According to Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth doctrine, first of all, Turkey needs to embrace its geo-economic, geo-political and geo-cultural features to stand firm as a central state in the international system.

Furthermore, according to the principles of rhythmic diplomacy, another key concept of Turkey’s new foreign policy understanding, Turkey has to be more active in international relations. In other words, as a central player in the international system, Turkey will take initiative in international organizations and global issues as much as possible. Concepts of “active involvement on a global level” and being an “order-building actor” are also facilitating this goal. Turkey has to play a dynamic role in international organizations and in global foreign policy issues.

As a powerful actor on the world stage, Turkey will play a leading role in ensuring stability both in regional conflicts and international organizations. Contrary to the Cold War era’s peripheral state position, Turkey is now acting as a central state with a global perspective in the international system.

Thus, Turkey’s interest in the Shanghai Five is the result of this new foreign policy understanding that was built on the intellectual foundations laid by Davutoğlu. Instead of the rejection of Europe of the post-Cold War era, Turkey’s new approach to the region and to the Shanghai Five organization is now quite different. First of all, Turkey does not seek a protector or big brother role in the region. Second, this approach did not originate in a situational move. On the contrary, it is an act to form a multi-axis foreign policy route for Turkey. As can be seen in many examples in the history of the Turkish Republic (like the Jupiter missile deployments that preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cyprus Peace Operation, etc.), Turkey still cannot afford a single axis foreign policy path. In other words, Turkey does not have the luxury of turning its back on either the West or the East. Even if Turkey becomes part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, this does not mean that Turkey will neglect relations with the European Union.

This perspective is not only dependent on whether or not the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a desirable alternative integration structure to the European Union. Rather, this perspective should be seen as a multi-axis foreign policy approach. Therefore, to grasp a better understanding of Turkey’s current foreign policy objectives, axis shift is the wrong argument to dwell on.

*Erman Akıllı is a Research Fellow at Turkey Focus, CESRAN International and a Research Assistant in the Department of International Relations at Ahi Evran University.

** The article first appeared at Today’s Zaman.

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