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Turkey's president suggests Russian-led Shanghai bloc for EU alternative

In an interview, Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan indicated that Turkey would be open to joining other treaties if the EU continues to drag its feet regarding Turkey's membership negotiations.

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    Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media at Esenboga Airport before boarding a plane for a two-day official visit to Pakistan, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016.
    Kayhan Ozer, Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP/File
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Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan indicated in a recent interview that he was fed up with waiting for the European Union to accept Turkey as a member state, indicating that he would be willing to consider joining the Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative to the Western bloc.

After over a decade of negotiations, the president said that there was no reason to sentence Turkey to even more years of diplomatic wrangling just to become part of an international organization that has been consistently slow in welcoming Ankara into its ranks. Tensions between the country and the EU have been especially high since the attempted coup and subsequent crackdown in Turkey earlier this year.

Turkey's unusual geographical and cultural position on the fringes of Europe has made negotiations with the country historically difficult throughout much of the last century. In addition to European concerns about human rights abuses and cultural differences with the country, many Turks view the long delay in full acceptance into the EU as just the latest example of Western condescension towards Turkey, making alternative, anti-Western agreements seem increasingly attractive to the NATO member state.

"Turkey must feel at ease," said Erdoğan in the interview with Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. "It mustn't say 'for me it's the European Union at all costs.' That's my view."

His comments will likely not be received well in the EU itself, which has heavily criticized his handling of the abortive coup attempt in July. In the subsequent crackdown, over 110,000 people were sacked or suspended from work, and around 36,000 were arrested, including potential political rivals of the conservative president.

"Some may criticize me but I express my opinion," said Erdoğan. "For example, I have said 'why shouldn't Turkey be in the Shanghai Five?'"

The Shanghai Five is the old name for the SCO, which consisted of 5 members until Uzbekistan joined the political/economic/military pact. The five-country treaty was signed in 1996, largely thanks to Russia and China.

Both Russia and China have become more open to negotiation with leaders disillusioned with the West. Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, has visited both countries in the past year, voicing his dislike of Western influence in his country despite a historic alliance with the US. By indicating support for the idea of joining a Russian-led treaty alliance, Erdoğan is threatening a similar shift in policy away from the West and Turkey's NATO allies.

"The EU has been delaying us for 53 years. How can such a thing happen?" Erdoğan said in the interview. "I was invited to the leaders' summits in my early years as prime minister. Then they stopped inviting us. Why? Because we told everything as it was."

Turkey's journey to join the EU began in 1963, when the country became an associate member of the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union. It applied for full membership in 1987, but was ultimately deferred for years. After the EU officially formed, Turkey applied for full membership of that organization in 2005, and has remained in negotiations ever since.

Because of the nature of the requirements of EU member states, it often takes years of negotiation to adapt each new member state's laws to EU standards, but Turkey's negotiations have been especially slow. Negotiators expected negotiations to take nearly a decade, but after 11 years of talks, cultural differences with the largely Muslim state, immigration questions during the ongoing refugee crisis, and concerns about human rights within Turkey itself mean acceptance into the EU could be yet another decade away, according to the BBC.

The informal repudiation by the Turkish president comes at a particularly turbulent time for the EU. In June, Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, the first country to do so in a continent where many right-wing parties skeptical of the EU have begun calling for their own referendums on the subject. 

This article contains material from Reuters.

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