Is Turkey really looking for alternatives to the West?

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times on August 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s partnership with the United States is in jeopardy, and warned that Ankara could start looking for new allies.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have sunk to their lowest point in decades earlier this year over a number of issues, including the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism-related charges.

“Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives,” Erdogan wrote in the comment piece.

Since the start of the crisis with the US, the Turkish president had already been saying that Turkey could seek new partnerships with a wide range of countries, “from Iran, to Russia, to China and some European countries”. He also expressed interest in entering Turkey into the BRICS block.

Only a couple of days after Erdogan’s latest threat of “start looking for new allies”, on August 13, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled for an official visit to Ankara, where he addressed a meeting of Turkish ambassadors and discussed an upcoming Syria summit with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. The four-way summit, which will be attended by the leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany, is expected take place in Istanbul on September 7. 

Lavrov’s visit to Turkey gave the appearance of a Russian-Turkish rapprochement, with both foreign ministers expressing their desire to strengthen bilateral relations between the two nations. This was not surprising to many, as Erdogan had already expressed such an intention and as both countries are now in a similar foreign policy situation. 

Russia, after the events in Ukraine, damaged its relations with its main political and economic partner, European Union. Moreover, the sanctions that have been in effect since 2014 not only halved the exchange rate of the rouble, but also led to a permanent deficit of the Russian budget.

Turkey is moving – albeit at a slower pace – in a similar direction. Ankara’s relations with Western countries are becoming increasingly tense. As result of endless disputes between Turkey and the West, the Turkish economy is stagnant, and the lira has collapsed.

Nevertheless, despite their growing problems with the West, the perceived rapprochement between the two countries does not seem to go beyond words. Neither country appears eager to find an alternative to the Western world. On the contrary, the ultimate goal for both the Turkish and the Russian leaderships is to restore relations with their usual partners -the US for the former and the EU for the latter.

Russia and Turkey: Still not allies?

The statements made by both Lavrov and Cavusoglu after their meeting in Ankara regarding “positive trends in trade and economic relations” and “trade turnover growth of 40 percent” should not fool anyone. The trade turnover between Russia and Turkey, although it reached $ 21.6 bn in 2017, is still far from where it was before Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, causing a major strain in relations between the countries (In 2014, the trade turnover between Russia and Turkey stood at $ 30 billion).

Moreover, despite promising statements from both sides, neither country appears to be in a hurry to abolish the trade restrictions they introduced against each other after the incident. For example, in May last year, after talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the parties agreed on lifting restrictions on the economic relations between the two countries. However, following that agreement, Ankara imposed two further restrictions on Russian wheat imports, and Moscow failed to allow Turkey to export tomatoes to Russia.

No less superficial is their cooperation in the field of energy, which, according to Sergey Lavrov, playes “a key role in bilateral relations“. The TurkStream gas pipeline, actively lobbied by Moscow, is constantly being used for blackmail by Ankara. For example, in January 2018, in return for allowing the construction of the next branch of the pipeline, Ankara demanded access to Russian controlled air corridors in Syria that it needed for the Operation Olive Branch.

And on June 12, Erdogan and Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev inaugurated the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP). This pipeline will begin to supply gas to Europe in the middle of next year, with a throughput capacity of 16 billion cubic meters per year, and will become a direct competitor to the Russian-backed TurkStream.

Is there another alternative to the West for Turkey?

Turkey’s other attempts to form new partnerships to replace the one it has with the West, appears to be equally artificial.

For example, during the last BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Erdogan floated the idea of Turkey joining the bloc. But neither Turkey, nor the bloc’s current members – including Russia – seem to be that interested in such an expansion.

Current members are not interested in expanding the bloc until a suitable mechanism of interaction within the association is created. “[Member countries] are willing to cooperate with other countries and do not rule out BRICS expansion in the future, but they believe that it requires additional analysis,” Russian President Putin said at a press conference during the summit.

Moreover, Turkey does not have an ally in the bloc lobbying for its entry. For example, South Africa’s entry into the bloc was largely due to the aggressive lobbying efforts by Brazil and India – The three countries had been part of the IBSA Dialogue forum since 2003. Obviously, Turkey does not currently have allies within the bloc that are equally enthusiastic about its entry. This is largely a consequence of the Western-orientation of the Turkish economy. Almost half of all Turkish imports come from the EU and the US and among the exporters of Turkish products, the share of all BRICS countries is only at 4.2 percent.

Ankara is undoubtedly aware of these roadblocks, but appears not too concerned about its offers falling on deaf ears.

The same is true for Turkey’s expressed desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Erdogan first floated the idea of Turkey joining the SCO two years ago. And he did it in the same evasive manner as in the case of the BRICS: “Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai Five?” the Turkish president casually asked.

Turkey’s offer to join the SCO raised concerns both in Moscow and in Beijing.

For the Russian leadership, the Turkish membership in the SCO would signal the emergence of another competitor in the post-Soviet Central Asia, mostly populated by Turkic peoples.

For China, Turkey’s entry in to the organisation would also mean increased competition in Central Asia. Moreover, Beijing is seriously concerned about Ankara’s position on the Uighurs living in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Having proclaimed Xinjiang the “front of world terrorism”, China wants to present the armed struggle of the Uighurs’ as terrorism on the international arena. However, the Turks, who have religious, ethnic and linguistic links to the group, views the situation in Xinjian as an human rights crisis. In 2009 Erdogan even accused Chinese authorites of committing “genocide” against the Uighurs.

Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Turkey’s accession to the SCO is not being perceived as a serious possibility – just like its initiative to join the BRICS.

However, it is unlikely that anyone will be upset, because these stillborn initiatives of the Turkish leadership are primarily aiming to upset the West.

Turkey has no serious desire to replace its traditional partnerships with new ones. It is extending these offers to Russia and its partners in an attempt to convince Washington that it can lose an important ally and economic partner if it does not clean up its act. Only time will tell whether Ankara’s plans will succeed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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