While still a NATO ally and its second biggest military force, Turkey’s recent foreign policy trajectory, with a significant shift away from the policy of integration with Europe towards a potential integration with Eurasia, has considerably weaned it away from the cold-war alliance, one that was premised upon the notorious notion of ‘containment.’ While many in the West hoped that this shift could be halted if Erdogan was defeated in the recent elections, this hasn’t happened, leading them to expect—and speculate—an even more powerful Turkish bid for looking towards the East. This expectation has been compounded by the fact that Erdogan’s domestic allies, the Nationalist Movement Party, known as MHP, is a die-hard opponent of the policy of integration with Europe. Besides it, Europe’s own criticism of Erdogan as well as the fact that Turkey feels to have been ‘betrayed’ by the US in Syria have accelerated the process of rift. Therefore, besides many other things, Erdogan election victory has also opened up the possibility of a potential Turkish integration with Eurasia.
Challenges, of course, remain as does the still unresolved Syrian puzzle. What we should expect is hard-bargain on the Syrian question, but the good news is that despite the challenges, ground realities favour a Eurasian reconfiguration through a Turkish integration. Turkey’s NATO allies see Erdogan as nothing more and nothing less than a popular autocrat, one who has established a one-man rule and violated all democratic conventions, thus defeating the Western dream of ‘democratization.’
Things are, however, different in the East. Turkey’s relations with Iran are more than stable as are its energy and defence relations with Russia. Unlike other European leaders, Vladimir Putin didn’t spare a moment even to congratulate Erdogan on his election victory, stressing that “the outcome of the vote fully confirms Erdogan’s great political authority, broad support of the course pursued under his leadership towards solving vital social and economic tasks facing Turkey, and enhancing the country’s foreign policy positions.”
Putin’s reference to Turkey’s foreign policy position is highly meaningful not just because Russia and Turkey have been co-operating in Syria, but also because Russia understands that its relations with Turkey hold the key to stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism that has been allowed to sweep the whole region, and that continues to threaten to spread in Central Asia and beyond.
Therefore, the bottom line of Putin’s message was Eurasia, not Europe, underlining what Turkey itself is pursuing. For it is through this very integration that Turkey can position itself regionally as the essential territorial link in the New Silk Roads, connecting the East and the West. Already, Russia and China are luring it into joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which means that such an offer is certainly better than trying to join a club, the EU, that doesn’t want it as a member and considers it an “illiberal democracy.”
A Times report on Erdogan’s victory, reflecting how the West in general sees Erdogan, thus painted him as an autocrat:
“Erdogan is only the latest in a series of strongmen who have sought to confer the legitimacy brought by democracy whilst using authoritarian powers to stack the odds in their favour.” “Western leaders”, the report continues, therefore “need to keep Erdogan on side.”
But it isn’t just the Western leaders who might want to keep Erdogan on sides; opposition from within Turley has been mounting and is now a part of the ruling coalition itself. There are now people, particularly from the MHP, in the Erdogan presidency who themselves don’t want to be a part of the EU. Only a few weeks before elections, MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli , criticized Turkey’s long standing bid for EU membership and called for no longer acting as “a satellite state or a fake country that can stay within the EU’s orbit while handing over its sovereignty.”
“Either the path for honorable, equal and esteemed membership is opened, or everyone goes their own way. [Turkey’s EU membership process] could end, it would not be the end of world,” he added.
The trajectory thus building leaves a lot of room for Turkey’s turn towards Eurasia. And, for all practical purposes, it makes sense as well. Turkey has been cooperation with Russia and Iran for too long a period, and this cooperation has yielded favourbale results as well. Turkey has been able to launch two successful operations in Syria and has secured its interests. It has invested a lot in Astana and Sochi peace processes and is now holding key areas in Syria. Why would it want to undo its gains when its other interests, particularly economic (gas from Russia) and military (Russian S-400 missile system), are also being served?
In fact, it was Turkey’s interests in Syria and Iraq rather than the EU that also guided Erdogan’s election campaign. What else could he site as his victories other than Syria? Negotiations with the EU, on the other hand, are already at a dead-end as out of the 35 policy chapters that involve reforms and the adoption of European standards, only one, out of the 16 opened, has been provisionally concluded since 2007 when negotiations had opened, so far and no new chapters have opened ever since.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.