Who Wins and Loses as Turkey’s Pendulum Swings East?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) meets Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Islamabad, Pakistan, November 17, 2016 (Associated Press)

During a visit to Pakistan by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week, the editor of a pro-government newspaper in Turkey said the country needed to develop its own nuclear deterrent. It was symbolic of Turkey’s accelerating reorientation away from the West and its ideas about cooperative security in particular. This presents new challenges for many of the country’s longstanding relationships.

Perhaps the only element of Turkey’s identity which remains constant is its vacillation between these two poles. Under visionary founder Atatürk, the government allowed women to vote before Greece and much of Europe, banned headscarves in newly secularized public institutions, and converted time from an Islamic to Gregorian calendar. Turkey continued its swing west during the Cold War, when it entered into significant economic and security initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, NATO, and integration with the European Union.

Now under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the pendulum is swinging east once more. The move will significantly reorient Turkey’s military and economic investments, while also presenting new challenges for its longstanding relationship with the United States and Europe.

Since being democratically elected into power in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has reintroduced the headscarf in public institutions, literally turned back the clock to Islamic Mean Time, and moved away from the goal of EU membership.

The pace of change has picked up since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which provided continued rationale for AKP to jail opposition leaders, academics, and journalists in order to maintain a majority in government. A coup attempt earlier this year also spurned Turkey’s reorientation, as the US continues to provide clemency to the man accused of orchestrating the failed plot, Fetullah Gülen, while supporting regional Kurdish partners that Turkey classifies as a threat to national security. Erdoğan has also shifted away from NATO, and is instead focusing efforts on increased military cooperation with Russia.

In place of the EU, meanwhile, Turkey is pursuing its goals through membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It has expressed an interest in joining the group as far back as 2013, when Erdoğan stated, “If we get into the SCO, we will say goodbye to the European Union,” and praised the “common values” of SCO members. Formed in 1996 as “The Shanghai Five” of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan, the organization renamed itself after the admission of Uzbekistan in 2001 and approved membership of Pakistan and India in July 2015. Turkey began the formal application process in July this year.

As well as pursuing SCO membership, Turkey has deepened its relations with a number of states in recent years. Erdoğan almost immediately renewed ties with ties with Russia and Israel after this year’s coup attempt. It moved on from its previously frosty relations over the  downing of a Russian jet and a 2010 altercation with Israel over the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid convoy attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza. Turkey and Russia’s top political and military leaders have made frequent trips to each other’s respective capitals since July, with a joint defense plan recently signaled, and a new Israeli ambassador installed in Ankara.

Erdoğan used a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in August this year to float the idea of a tripartite relationship including Azerbaijan. Turkey’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Erkan Özoral, said this would bring political and economic ties between the three countries to a new level.

Despite regional Sunni-Shiite tensions, Iran and Turkey have long maintained a close trade relationship, but this too has seen improvement this year. Turkish Customs Minister Bulent Tüfenkci announced in January that the country now aims to triple trade with Iran to $30 billion “as soon as possible.” An expert on the bilateral relationship, Karabekir Akkoyunlu, traces the new economic ties to “shifting perceptions of geopolitical interests,” which “pushed Turkey’s decision-makers to improve relations with Iran and Syria prior to the Arab uprisings.”

Turkey and China also held a trade symposium during the last week of October in Istanbul, signing a total of 36 new deals amounting to $300 million in value. This will also strengthen an already burgeoning commercial diplomacy between the two nations. Turkey was poised to purchase a missile defense system from China in 2013, but this was cancelled due to protests from Western and NATO allies. With potential increased cooperation between the two countries, including through the SCO, renewed military cooperation will likely be on the table at to some point.

Most recently, Turkey expressed solidarity with Pakistan over Kashmir, calling for renewed talks with India on the longstanding issue, and pushing for greater regional cooperation.

The move east has led some Western financial institutions to view Turkey with a wary eye. Erdoğan remained defiant after US-based Moody’s downgraded Turkey from a Baa3 to Ba1 rating in September this year and denied that SCO membership would stifle the national economy. At present, Turkey’s gross domestic product, economic growth rate, total investment-to-GDP ratio, and debt-to-GDP ratio compare favorably to other countries carrying the same Moody’s note. And, indeed, a little over a month after the Moody’s downgrade, another US-based credit rating agency, S&P, upgraded the country from “negative” to “stable.”

While the reorientation to Russia and the East has vexed the Washington and Brussels, the election of US president Donald Trump this month may provide an unexpected catalyst for thawing relations between the US and Turkey. Both Ankara and Moscow were cool on the idea of Hillary Clinton, who was perceived as being aggressive on Russia and Iran, friendly with Kurdish groups, and harboring an alleged relationship with Gülen. Meanwhile, Trump’s reported recent announcement as national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has indicated the administration would be amenable to the extradition of Gülen, as well as closer cooperation with Turkey on regional matters.

One issue that may be able to thaw Turkey’s relationship with the EU, meanwhile, is a turn in the ongoing refugee crisis. The surprise vote on Brexit earlier this summer indicated a more conservative Europe taking root, hesitant to resettle more refugees and migrants. UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and more conservative EU member states such as Poland have expressed their wish for Turkey to remain in discussions to join the EU, while acting as a “gatekeeper” to refugees fleeing several Middle Eastern conflicts.

So, while the pendulum may have swung east for a time, it may very well swing back west within the next four years, or, mirroring Turkey’s geographic position, settle somewhere in between.

Evin Ashley Erdoğdu is a researcher, writer, and international development consultant based in Turkey. Recently she has contributed to The Christian Science Monitor and the Harvard Journal for Middle Eastern Politics and Policy.