Turkey’s Erdogan oscillates between East and West
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been away from Turkey for two successive occasions in recent days. One was his participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The other was his participation in the UN General Assembly in New York.
Turkey’s interest in the activities of the SCO was spelled out for the first time as a joke in 2012. Erdogan, for the sake of teasing Russian President Vladimir Putin, told him: “Admit Turkey as a member to the SCO and we will revise our relations with the EU.” Erdogan’s words were actually reflecting Turkey’s weariness with the slow progress regarding its EU accession process. Then the joke evolved to become a serious proposal.
Turkey officially applied to get involved in the SCO’s activities and was invited to join the organization as a dialogue partner. Following this move, there was a shower of criticisms and comments on whether Turkey should have any sort of relations with such an organization. Erdogan has said: “Inevitably, we may be looking for other ways, as the EU has not let us in for 52 years. The EU may ask why Erdogan is going to Shanghai, why he met the SCO leaders. Of course, I will meet. I don’t think that I owe any explanation to the EU.”
There will likely be proponents and opponents of Turkey becoming a full member of the SCO, but it is only natural for Ankara to cooperate with the world’s most populous countries, such as China and India. Furthermore, Turkey has ethnic and cultural ties with the Turkic countries in Central Asia, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There is also a strong Turkic community in the Xinjiang province of China.
The geostrategic location of Turkey allows it to control Russia’s access to the “warm seas.” Erdogan and Putin are the two leaders who meet most frequently. Despite this, Turkey does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and considers its invasion of Ukraine to be illegal. Furthermore, it has played a crucial role in unblocking the supply of Ukrainian grain to the world’s markets.
Turkey is a country that has vested interests in both the transatlantic community and in Asian countries. It neighbors two Middle Eastern countries in deep crisis, Syria and Iraq. If such a country were to shift sides, it would have a heavy impact on the power balance between West and East.
The second visit that Erdogan made was to New York for his participation in the UNGA. While almost all world leaders were in London for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral at the beginning of last week, Erdogan was one of the notable absentees. He probably declined the invitation because he did not want to follow the advice of the UK authorities to avoid private planes.
Turkey is a country that has vested interests in both the transatlantic community and in Asian countries.
His main reason for traveling to New York was actually to try and hold a private meeting as a showcase with US President Joe Biden. There were no scheduled meetings in either Biden’s program or that of Erdogan, but the latter maintained his hope of holding even a short private meeting with the president for the sake of boosting his image before next year’s elections in Turkey. Such a meeting did not materialize.
Erdogan’s disillusionment became even greater when the Greek authorities proudly announced that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had held a cordial meeting with President Biden. Turkey must have understood the message as being that, if the US has to choose between Turkey and Greece, it will choose Greece.
Erdogan did meet Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons in an effort to persuade them to sell Turkey 40 F-16 fighter aircraft and 80 modernization kits. After his meeting with the senators, Erdogan said that his interlocutors used positive language on the question of the F-16s. This is despite Graham tweeting in 2019: “Good decision by President (Trump) to work with Congress to impose crippling sanctions against Turkey.” The profitable defense industry may have persuaded Graham to change his mind.
There are other congressmen who are opposed to such a sale and are eagerly working to attach conditions to the use of these aircraft, preventing them from being used in circumstances that would not be endorsed by the US, such as against Kurdish terrorists in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In response, Turkey questions why it should buy defense equipment that it will not be able to make full use of. In a sense, the US would be limiting the defense capabilities of a NATO ally.
Erdogan’s visit was overly publicized in the pro-government media, but dissimulating the disillusionment does not change the reality.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.