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How activists shaped Sweden’s NATO debacle – POLITICO

Elizabeth Brau is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an advisor to Gallos Technologies.

The process of Sweden’s accession to NATO was supposed to be the easiest in the history of the alliance – then Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to play tough, mixing legitimate fears about terrorism with pre-election opportunist politics.

Unfortunately, various activists in Sweden, some of whom were linked to the Kremlin, then decided to take advantage of this extremely fraught situation, and by irritating Erdogan and Turkey, they have now helped turn the country’s NATO entry from virtually guaranteed to one now under serious threat. threat – and other countries should learn from this mess.

When NATO leaders convened for a summit in Madrid last July, excitement was in the air: Allied countries were looking forward to meeting the two new members — and they did so within months, not years. It was clear that they would approve and quickly ratify the applications of Sweden and Finland – two countries that were already very close partners in NATO and would also provide the alliance with significant military resources.

Alas, there were also presidential elections in Turkey.

“I would advise future applicants for NATO membership to check the election schedule of member states before applying,” a disgruntled Swedish MP told me last year. But by then, Erdogan had made it clear that Turkey was not going to ratify Sweden’s bid — and by extension Finland’s — anytime soon, perhaps only after Turkey’s presidential election, tentatively due this May.

Throughout the time, the President of Turkey, as well as officials speaking on his behalf, continued to report through the media that Sweden had not fulfilled the obligations assumed in the memorandum it signed with Finland and Turkey last June. The agreement was designed to allay Turkey’s fears of Sweden, and to a much lesser extent Finland, hosting Kurdish activists whom Ankara considers a national security threat.

And here, activists opposed to Sweden’s NATO membership seem to have seen an opportunity.

Last week, a tiny pro-Kurdish group calling itself the Rojava Committee of Sweden showed up at Stockholm City Hall with an effigy of Erdogan. The mannequin was then hung up by its feet. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called the act sabotage, while Erdogan’s press secretary Fahrettin Altun tweeted: “We condemn in the strongest terms the attack on Turkey and its democratically elected president by members of the terrorist organization PKK in Sweden. . . This PKK terrorist[s] can challenge the Swedish government in central Stockholm is proof that the Swedish authorities have not taken the necessary steps against terrorism as they have been claiming in recent days.”

Four days later, a group of far-right activists led by Danish provocateur Rasmus Paludan gathered in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm and burned the Koran. Ankara reacted quickly: “This incident showed once again that Sweden has not given up its support for terrorism,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, told reporters, adding that as a result, Turkey may never ratify Sweden’s NATO bid. .

Meanwhile, these turbulent events have now led Finland to put forward the previously unthinkable idea that it can join NATO without Sweden.

This means that Sweden’s near-perfect bid has been sabotaged – potentially fatally – by a tiny number of activists with very different agendas, and now it looks like Russia could very well be causing trouble.

When NATO leaders convened for a summit in Madrid last July, excitement was in the air as allied countries looked forward to meeting two new members, Sweden and Finland | Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

The protest against the burning of the Koran was partly organized and funded by Chang Frick, a journalist who once worked for the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today news agency. Frick runs the controversial website Nyheter Idag and has in the past worn a T-shirt with the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin, although he most recently supported Ukrainian refugees.

“It is incredibly difficult to determine who is behind such activities in a liberal democracy and which activities are partly or wholly controlled by foreign players,” said Anton Leaf, a crisis management consultant at Swedish firm Combitech. “Until there is evidence of malicious influence, I will assume that these protests were simply part of freedom of speech in Sweden, but it is clear that such activities can also be used by malicious actors,” he added.

Indeed, one might wonder if Russia really had a hand in this spectacle and if the activists are just useful idiots. In any case, other countries should take note.

The first lesson here is to secure an ironclad deal with other countries before embarking on a major foreign policy initiative. The reason why Erdogan’s opinion matters at this stage is that Sweden did not secure such a commitment from Turkey prior to the official filing. Of course, the Turkish Foreign Ministry gave the green light, but in countries with an authoritarian bent, the voice of the leader is important.

A far more important takeaway, however, is that even tiny groups of activists can derail important foreign policy decisions with crude insults and street theater.

Authoritarian leaders share a certain degree of vanity and unwillingness to endure ridicule. For example, imagine the damage that activists can do to foreign policy initiatives around China by appearing in front of, say, the Chinese embassy in Washington and pretending to hang an effigy of Xi Jinping. Or if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came close to joining the Western camp in the Russo-Ukrainian war, but then anti-Saudi cooperation activists did the same.

Such activists may or may not have noble intentions. They may or may not be assisted by foreign powers. Indeed, such provocative actions open up huge opportunities for spread through disinformation and disinformation, and the targeted government will see what is happening and react angrily.

Unlike old-fashioned Cold War-era regimes that responded to protests by filing complaints with the Foreign Office, today’s authoritarian regimes have no scruples to ignore the rules of civility in international diplomacy and retaliate against admittedly tasteless displays of free rein. speech.

Finally, there is also the procedural issue of permits for such protests, which are usually issued by the police authorities. And although they say yes or no on the basis of law and order, it is clear that they do not take into account the foreign policy implications. Given the potential for even minor protests today, perhaps governments should have some say in whether protests that could cause great damage to the country are allowed.

This means: Western governments, beware.

First, countries with an authoritarian bent are hard to deal with and sometimes needed.

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