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[ANALYSIS] Can Turkey be a member of NATO and the SCO at the same time?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

After he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Aug. 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to reporters on his way home that Putin had invited him to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan on Sept. 16-18 2022 and that he intended to attend. Erdoğan had already twice raised the issue of Turkey’s membership in the SCO, in 2013 and 2016. As a NATO member country. can Turkey become a member of the SCO, whose members consist of authoritarian regimes? Why does Erdoğan keep raising the issue of SCO membership?

The historical background

The SCO was founded in 2001 as the successor to the Shanghai Five, which was established on April 26, 1996 with the signing in Shanghai of the Treaty on Deepening Military Confidence in the Border Regions by the heads of state of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. The organization aimed to build mutual trust between the member states, disarm the border regions and promote regional cooperation.

At a meeting of heads of state in Shanghai on June 14-15, 2001, it was decided to transform the Shanghai Five into a regional organization to achieve more effective cooperation in the fight against terrorism, separatism and radicalism. In this context, a joint declaration was adopted accepting Uzbekistan as a member of the Shanghai Five Mechanisms. Six member countries signed the declaration on the SCO.

At the first meeting of SCO prime ministers, held in Almaty on Sept.14, 2001, a memorandum of understanding was signed to create better conditions for regional economic cooperation, trade and investment. The SCO Charter, signed at the SCO Heads of State Summit in St. Petersburg on June 7, 2002, set out the SCO’s objectives, principles, structure, activities, cooperation and foreign relations.

The SCO currently comprises eight Member States (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), three Observer States interested in acceding to full membership (Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia) and six “Dialogue Partners” (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey). At the Dushanbe Summit of Sept. 17, 2021, Iran was announced as the ninth member state of the SCO, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar became Dialogue Partners. With the Dushanbe Summit of 2021, Uzbekistan became the SCO chair.

Turkey’s position

At the 2008 Dushanbe Summit, a new mechanism called SCO Dialogue Partner Status was adopted to institutionalize relations with third countries and international organizations that wish to engage with the SCO but do not have observer status. Dialogue partner status allows third countries to engage in limited cooperation with the SCO in specific areas. This status is below “observer status” regarding the degree of the institutional relationship with the SCO.

On March 23, 2011 Turkey applied for dialogue partnership status in the SCO, which was approved at the SCO Heads of State Summit held in Beijing on June 6-7, 2012. The ratification process for Turkey’s application to become a dialogue partner was completed on May 24, 2017. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the partnership envisages the enhancement of cooperation between Turkey and the SCO in various fields, primarily regional security and the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime as well as in the economic and cultural spheres.

What is Erdoğan’s real strategy?

Erdoğan has expanded his political power and control over state institutions (legislative, executive, and judicial) thanks to constitutional amendments adopted by a referendum in 2010, gradually changing Turkey’s course from democracy to autocracy. As Erdoğan became an autocratic leader, Turkey’s relations with the EU, the US and NATO changed. As public support for Erdoğan continues, the EU, the US, and NATO have somehow maintained relations with Erdoğan and kept Turkey in the Western bloc. Erdoğan threatens the West with cooperating more with authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China and Iran if the West raises its voice against Erdogan’s undemocratic activities and if there are discussions in the West about shifting Turkey’s axis. It is necessary to evaluate Erdoğan’s 2013 and 2016 statements about Turkey’s membership in the SCO from this perspective. Although Turkey was granted the status of dialogue partner in 2017, it has not participated in an SCO summit until today.

However, the process that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape. The world is evolving from a unipolar world order dominated by a single power to a multipolar political system in which more than one power fights for dominance. Erdoğan believes he can maintain his political control by allying with Russia, China and Iran.

For this reason, what Erdoğan said after the meeting with Putin — “I’ll attend the SCO meeting” — must be interpreted differently this time because Erdoğan knows that the EU and the US think he’ll lose the 2023 election. Erdoğan needs financial support to win the election. In statements made after the Putin-Erdoğan meeting, it looks like Putin and Erdoğan have agreed that Russia will provide financial support to Turkey in return for circumventing Western sanctions against Russia via Turkey. To pre-empt possible US and EU reactions to the agreement with Putin, Erdoğan openly sends the following message to the West: “This time I’m not bluffing; if you force me, I’ll make sure that this time Turkey switches axes from West to East.”

In the Strategic Concept Document adopted at the NATO Madrid Summit, June 28-30, 2022, NATO defines Russia as the most critical and direct threat to NATO allies. China is a challenge to NATO interests, security and values. Under these circumstances, Turkey’s participation in the SCO summit led by Russia and China and its application for full membership will cause a severe loss of credibility for NATO. Turkey cannot be a member of NATO and the SCO simultaneously.

Erdoğan is trying to secure his political future by using the space between the powers that the great power struggle has created. If the only way for Erdoğan to stay in power is to leave NATO and apply for full membership in the SCO, Erdoğan will undoubtedly do so, even if he knows he won’t succeed.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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