The Shanghai Five group, which later became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), was created on April 26, 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions, in Shanghai by the heads of states of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
Full members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's de facto answer to NATO, in addition to the Shanghai Five group, are Uzbekistan, Iran, India and Pakistan, with Belarus going through the accession process. Afghanistan and Mongolia are observer states. Sri Lanka, Turkey, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Nepal, Armenia, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are dialogue partners.
What do members, future members, dialogue partners and future dialogue partners of this exotic blend of nations have in common?
With their growing democratic deficits and authoritarian-to-dictatorship regimes, they are at cold war with the world's democratic bloc of nations.
A brief chronology:
- "Let us [Turkey] in and we'll review our European Union (EU) membership bid" -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in July 2012 -- the same year Turkey became a dialogue partner of SCO.
- "I told Putin... Let us in so we'll break up with the EU. The Shanghai Five is better [than the EU]. It is much more powerful. [With membership] we'll have a chance to be together with the countries with which we share common values" -- Erdoğan, in January 2013.
- "Why should Turkey not be in the Five?" – Erdoğan, in March 2016.
- And finally, in September 2022, Erdoğan became the first head of a NATO state attending an SCO summit, in Uzbekistan. "Our relations with these countries will be moved to a much different position with this step," Erdoğan said there. When asked if he meant membership of the SCO, he said, "Of course, that's the target." But it is also Putin's target, like putting another slow-fuse time bomb at NATO headquarters. Erdoğan went to the summit upon Putin's personal invitation.
This is the natural outcome of West's deaf ears and blind eyes. When Erdoğan first spoke of SCO membership for Turkey a decade ago, Western capitals reacted with shy laughter and a misdiagnosis: that Erdoğan was just bluffing to win quicker membership accession to the European Union.
Western bigwigs did not even get the message when in 2013 Erdoğan spoke of Eurasian dictatorships as "countries with which we have common values." He was just speaking what, to him, was the truth.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last month that he was "very irritated" by Turkey's attempts to join this Central Asian security-and-everything-else bloc dominated by Russia and China. Sorry, too late.
Funny, Erdoğan became the first NATO head of state attending an SCO summit while pressuring Congress for the delivery of U.S.-made F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft for his air force. Behind closed doors in Washington, his envoys and back channels will be telling their U.S. audience that "Turkey's future is in the Western bloc, that the SCO talk is for Turkey's balancing act between its commitment to the West and its inevitable proximity with Russia."
Putin announced at the SCO summit on September 16:
"Our agreement on deliveries of Russian natural gas to Turkey should come into effect in the near future, with 25% of payment for these deliveries in Russian roubles."
After Western sanctions hit Russia, five Turkish banks joined the Russian Mir payment system (although two later withdrew), effectively crippling the sanctions imposed in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. Some Turkish banks suspended their corporate lending after the Turkish government's latest raft of regulations raised their costs and forced many to cut their balance sheet risks.
All the same, Erdoğan's Eurasianism, his revisionist neo-Ottoman policies, and aggression against Greece and Cyprus may not work like the miracle tools he might have been hoping for in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023. He has recently threatened to invade Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. He has threatened to launch a new military incursion into Syria, where Turkish soldiers are already fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish groups. In the past, such tools always worked to lift up Turks' nationalist spirit and earned Erdoğan votes. But Turks are living in a totally different economic realm than the recent past.
Turkey's official annual inflation climbed to a fresh 24-year high of 80% in August -- though ENAG, an independent research organization, estimated the true annual inflation rate at 181% for the same period. Worse may be yet to come.
EPDK, the Turkish electricity regulator, and its natural gas distribution counterpart Botas, have just decided to increase electricity and gas prices by 20% for private individuals, and 50% for companies. This measure should further accelerate inflation in the country.
Among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Turkey has seen the highest increase in energy prices in the last year. According to Euronews, Botas' natural gas wholesale price rose 1,330% for electricity generation, 997% for industrial use and 216% for residential use. Meanwhile, Turkey's currency, the lira, has lost more than half of its value against the US dollar since 2021.
According to the findings of the pollster Optimar, 76.6% of Turks say their top problem is inflation and unemployment. This is not a good omen for the leader of a country where the per capita income in the last decade fell from $13,000 to $8,000, and who is heading into a presidential election.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.