Turkey may look East as EU stalemate continues

Prime minister Recep Erdogan approaches Vladimir Putin for his help in joining the Shanghai Five, an organisation of Asian powers. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // Frustrated with resistance within the European Union to Turkey's accession, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has asked the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for help in getting the country admitted to the Shanghai Five, an organisation of Asian powers that includes China and Russia.

Mr Erdogan's statements, made in a television interview last Friday, appeared to signal a strategic shift for a country that is a long-standing member of Nato, and that has been seeking to join the EU and its predecessors for half a century.

Several western diplomats and analysts said the prime minister's remarks should be seen as a sign of the depth of Turkey's frustration with the EU, rather than an imminent fundamental policy shift. They said Mr Erdogan may have been trying to scare the EU into a more welcoming attitude towards his country.

"He was sending a message to the EU that said: 'We don't need you'," said Beril Dedeoglu, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Galatasaray University and one of the group of journalists and intellectuals who interviewed the prime minister.

In recent years, especially after Ankara voted against Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council in 2010, western governments expressed concern that Turkey, led by Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party with roots in political Islam, may end its traditional western outlook and turn east. In that context, Mr Erdogan's statement "exploded like a bombshell", Prof Dedeoglu said yesterday.

During the interview on Kanal 24, a Turkish news channel, Mr Erdogan said Turkey was not about to "forget about the EU accession process" by itself, but that the EU was trying to discourage Turkey from pursuing its membership attempt.

"I told Mr Putin the other day: take us into the Shanghai Five," Mr Erdogan said. "Take us into the Shanghai Five, and we will say goodbye to the EU, we will leave them."

He was referring to a regional organisation originally grouping China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The organisation was renamed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation after Uzbekistan joined in 2001. Turkey became a dialogue partner of the organisation last year.

Joining the Shanghai Five would bring Turkey into close military and economic cooperation with China and Russia. Abandoning the EU process would mean giving up a long-held principle of Turkish foreign policy that has the aim of making the country a full member of the club of European democracies.

Turkey's EU accession talks started in 2005 but have made little progress, partly due to the unresolved Cyprus conflict, but also because of the reluctance of several key members to embrace the Muslim Turks as new members.

"As the prime minister of a nation of 75 million, you start looking elsewhere if that goes on like that in a negative fashion, if you want it or not," Mr Erdogan said.

He also said the reason for the EU's reluctance was because Turkey was a Muslim country, adding that some EU ministers had said so openly. "What's the use of being fobbed off like this?" he asked.

"The Shanghai Five are better, they are much stronger," he said.

A Turkish diplomat underlined that the prime minister had said Turkey was not giving up on the EU. But there is no doubt about Turkey's frustration with the lack of progress in Brussels, he added.

In Washington, the US state department reacted cautiously to Mr Erdogan's statements.

Asked about the possibility of Turkey joining the Shanghai Five, Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman, said such a development "would be interesting, given the fact that Turkey's also a Nato member. We'll have to see how that goes".

A European diplomat in Ankara played down the prime minister's interview. "The Shanghai Five is not an organisation that would be remotely as important to Turkey as the EU is," he said. "If the Turks think they can scare people in the EU with this, they are mistaken."

But Prof Dedeoglu said the remarks should be taken seriously. Even if the government did not have any immediate plans to turn away from the EU, it was significant that the prime minister was talking about it openly, because this showed the level of dissatisfaction with the EU in Turkey, she said.

According to a poll conducted last month for the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul, two Tiurkish voters out of three feel the country should abandon its goal of EU membership.

Support for EU membership in Turkey, which stood at more than 70 per cent in 2004, has decreased significantly over recent years, as voters and politicians expressed disappointment with the EU's reluctance to take their country in.

At the same time, Turkey's growing economic power has nurtured a feeling of strength and independence that has pushed the EU issue, the most important political subject in Ankara in the first years of the AKP era from 2002 onwards, into the background.

Prof Dedeoglu said those factors had given Mr Erdogan the feeling that he could talk about joining the Shanghai Five without angering important sections of the electorate before local, parliamentary and presidential elections next year and in 2015.

"He was relaxed when he talked about it, because there is a mood in the public at large that says we don't need the EU," she said.

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