04 February 2013

Is Turkey Drifting Towards Asia?

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan appeared on a local TV program. One of the journalists asked him about the stalled Turkey-European Union (EU) relations.
Erdoğan joked that Russian President Vladimir Putin once poked fun of him by asking, “What business does Turkey have in the EU?”
“I responded to him, saying, ‘Accept us into the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU,’” said Erdoğan.
Shanghai Five is Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Its members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (which are the original five) and Uzbekistan. Turkey is a "dialogue partner" in the SCO. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all expressed interest in joining SCO.

By the way, this is the second time Erdogan is using the same joke even though he made it sound he was referring to his most recent December meeting with Putin. He used it first six months ago.
Erdoğan, who was in Russia 10 days ago to meet with Putin, noted that the Russian prime minister joked with Turkish officials from time to time, saying the EU was no place for Turkey. “Why don’t you then allow Turkey into the Shanghai Five [the former name of the SCO]? Then we would be prepared to let go of the EU,” Erdoğan said he told Putin jokingly.
Clearly, this is partly a rebuke to the EU. But it is also indicative of a new reality.

Turkey became an Associate Member of the (then) European Communities (EC) in 1963. And it formally applied to accede to the European Union in 1987.

When the AKP government came to power in 2002, EU membership was their first priority, because EU membership would remove the risk of a coup d'etat. Moreover, they assumed that joining the EU would create a much more permissive environment for religious freedoms in Turkey than the prevailing secular legal code (burqa's for women or Islamic headgear for men were punishable with fines since the late 1920s, though the laws were rarely enforced).

They implemented institutional reforms, grudgingly removed discriminatory, sexist and archaic laws from the books and worked with EU institutions towards accession. But things moved slowly. In the meantime, EU accepted 10 new members.

It became clear that EU was reluctant to take Turkey in. But by then, the AKP government lost interest in EU as well. They won their fight against the army. They also won the domestic cultural war with the secularist forces. And the so called headscarf issue was no longer a problem.

In October 2012 AKP held its 4th Congress. Erdogan gave a long speech and for the first time in AKP history, he did not mention the EU in his speech. Not once. Not even bypassingly. Moreover, take a look at the foreign guest list:
President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi, President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama Nuceyfi, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Vice President of Iraq Tareq Hashimi, Pakistani Chief Minister of Punjab Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, Palestine’s Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and, last but not least, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.
Anyone from the West?
Representing the West was ex-Prime Minister of Germany Gerhard Schroeder, a personal friend of Erdoğan.
The presence of regional leaders is understandable given Turkey's ascending power status. But the presence of the President of Kyrgyzstan is unusual. Yet, when you think of SCO it makes a lot more sense.

Is Asia the Future for Turkey?

Perhaps the better question is, how important is Turkey for Eurasia?

Turkey is a strategic bridge that creates a contiguous Eurasia space.

If you have been reading this blog, you would know about Turkey's aspirations to become an East-West energy hub. This map below tells you all you need to know in that respect:


But this is not all. Turkey also wants to become an East-West bridge in transport. Remember the Silk Road?

China has quietly signed a deal to create a high speed Trans-Eurasian railway that will link China to Turkey and beyond. They are extending a loan of $35 billion to create the Turkish leg of the railroad (Kars to Edirne). Currently this voyage takes 36 hours and with the new system, this will be reduced to just 12 hours.
The proposed rail link would run from Kars on the easternmost border with Armenia, through the Turkish interior on to Istanbul where it would connect to the Marmara rail tunnel now under construction that runs under the Bosphorus strait. Then it would continue to Edirne near the border to Greece and Bulgaria in the European Union. It will cost an estimated $35 billion. The realization of the Turkish link would complete a Chinese Trans-Eurasian Rail Bridge project that would bring freight from China to Spain and England.
In addition a Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway connecting Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku to Kars is under construction, which greatly increases the strategic importance of the Edirne-Kars line.
The basic idea is to transport Chinese goods through a high speed train network, as railroad transport is faster, cheaper and more secure than ships or trucks. This is the map:

But this is not just about transporting Chinese goods. The land mass known as Eurasia has an extraordinary growth potential:
This space contains some forty percent of total land in the world, much of it prime unspoiled agriculture land; it contains three-fourth of the entire world population, an asset of incalculable worth. It consists of some eighty eight of the world’s countries and three-fourths of known world energy resources as well as every mineral known needed for industrialization. North America as an economic potential, rich as she is, pales by comparison. 
The Turkish-China railway discussion is but one part of a vast Chinese strategy to weave a network of inland rail connections across the Eurasian Continent. The aim is to literally create the world’s greatest new economic space and in turn a huge new market for not just China but all Eurasian countries, the Middle East and Western Europe. Direct rail service is faster and cheaper than either ships or trucks, and much cheaper than airplanes. For manufactured Chinese or other Eurasian products the rail land bridge links are creating vast new economic trading activity all along the rail line.
In other words, Turkey is not simply interested in being part of a Trans-Eurasian rail network. It wants to be integral part of the economic activities of Eurasia.

When you think about it, Turkey's move towards Europe began with the famed Berlin-Baghdad railway project. This new railroad brings Turkey back to Eurasia.

Besides the obvious economic considerations, Turkey enjoys a couple of significant advantages to reclaim its key position in Eurasia.

You probably know that most Central Asian countries are known as Turkic Republics. They share a common culture and history and their languages are similar to Turkish. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has been very active in these countries.
Turkey’s trade volume with the countries of the region was about 6.5 billion USD by the year 2010 and the total investments of Turkish companies in the region exceeded 4.7 billion USD. The total value of projects realized by Turkish contracting companies in the region has reached a level of around 50 billion USD. Nearly 2 thousand Turkish companies have been operating on the ground.
They have a cultural cooperation organization called Turksoy and an international collaboration council called the Turkic Council. Turkish Development Agency TIKA spends a quarter of its budget in these countries.

But there is something more important that gives Turkey a unique access to the region and a significant amount of soft power. Do you know what that is?

The incredible popularity of Turkish television series and soap operas.

Since 2007, Turkish TV series have grown exponentially in these markets. Last year, they were sold to 73 countries bringing annual revenues of $100 million. Kazakhstan is the number of consumer of Turkish soaps, followed by Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that due to constant exposure to Turkish soaps, children and young people in Azerbaijan started to drop local idioms in favor of Turkish expressions and took up talking with a Turkish accent.

These programs are even shown in as unlikely places as Singapore and Vietnam.

There is also a massive surge in tourism fueled by the curiosity engendered by these television programs. Just like many non-Americans are familiar with American habits, customs and mannerisms and feel some sort of affinity with them through their movies and TV series, Turkey is perceived with substantial sympathy in these countries.

To answer the initial question, Turkey is indeed drifting towards Asia and it is a process that makes economic, political and cultural sense. But perhaps drifting is a misnomer, one could say that Turkey is reclaiming its status as the strategic bridge in Eurasia.

That makes more sense than Turkey being a European or an Asian country.

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