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Putin’s Ukraine invasion has pushed Sweden and Finland to join Nato – but Turkey is blocking it

RRussia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a moment of existential crisis for Europe as Finland and Sweden seek NATO membership. However, Turkey’s opposition to this expansion, as its leader faces a tense spring presidential election, puts the plan in jeopardy.

Turkey has long had a rocky relationship with Sweden, which has deteriorated over disagreements over NATO membership and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to look strong to potential voters. It took on a whole new dimension after a far-right politician burned a copy of the Quran at a protest outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm over the weekend. Demonstrators in Stockholm last week also hung an image of President Erdogan from a lamppost.

“At this point, I don’t see how the situation could get worse,” says Paul Levin, an international affairs expert specializing in Turkey and Europe at Stockholm University. “It’s a volatile mix of a Turkish president who has an election coming up and needs a fight, and Swedish extreme right and left groups that can use free speech to provoke Erdogan and sabotage the NATO process.”

The weekend protest was allowed under Swedish free speech laws, although Ankara denounced the fact that it took place outside the embassy at all.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström called the burning of the Koran “terrible”. He tweeted: “Sweden has far-reaching freedom of expression, but this does not mean that the Swedish government or I support the views expressed.” There have been protests in Turkey over the arson.

On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Sweden of complicity in a “crime of hate and racism” for failing to prevent protests and the actions of Rasmus Paludan, a politician from the fringe Danish far-right Strahm Kurs party. [hard line] the consignment. Mr Cavusoglu also confirmed that a key meeting in Brussels to discuss Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership has been postponed, saying such a meeting would be pointless after the protests.

“The Swedish government took part in this heinous action, allowing it to happen,” Cavusoglu said during a joint press conference with a visiting Serbian counterpart. – Everything is very simple. No one can tell us otherwise.”

As Turkey faces record high inflation and a far-reaching economic crisis, Erdogan is lagging behind rivals ahead of the May 14 elections and is alternating domestic and foreign policy maneuvers to reverse momentum.

Demonstration against Sweden’s accession to NATO in Stockholm. The inscription reads: “No to NATO”.

(Kristin Olsson)

“Every move we see in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy is aimed at staying in power,” says Ilke Toigur, a Brussels-based political scientist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Any move we see from now until May 14th will be thought out to the smallest detail to keep the government in power.”

In the past, Erdogan has been able to mobilize supporters and silence opponents by positioning himself on the world stage as the champion of Turkey and Islam. The burning of the Quran has given him the opportunity to shift the political agenda away from economics and towards issues of a cultural wedge that favors him and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“The ugly demonstration in Sweden is an insult, first of all, to Muslims and everyone who respects the basic rights and freedoms of the individual,” Erdogan said in a speech earlier this week. “The fact that this heinous attack on the Koran took place in front of the Turkish embassy makes it both a religious and a national issue for us.”

Turkey has long resented the visibility and activity of left-wing and Kurdish separatist movements in northern and western Europe, especially Sweden, and accuses Stockholm of harboring so-called fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The group has been designated a terrorist group organization in Turkey and other countries including the US, EU and Sweden.

Nicholas Danforth, a researcher at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, adds that Sweden’s accession to NATO “would be a difficult issue that could be resolved even under the best of circumstances.”

“On the eve of tough elections, Erdogan seeks to use them for domestic political purposes. And that makes the decision even more difficult,” he adds.

NATO commanders hoped to expedite Finland and Sweden’s entry into the alliance last year. But analysts and officials are hinting that further talks may have to be put on hold until Turkey’s May elections, or possibly until the United States agrees to the controversial fighter sale that Ankara’s critics in Washington have delayed.

People set fire to the flag of Sweden during a protest outside the Swedish consulate in Istanbul.


Some Turkish officials hinted that it would be better if the two countries shared their unification efforts. However, a few days before the protests in Sweden, a Finnish newspaper published a cartoon depicting an angry Mr. Erodgan screaming about “terrorists”.A new dawn a few days later, with the president’s face blurred.

Answering a question about the possibility of Finland’s independent entry into the alliance, Cavusoglu said that Turkey had not received such a request. However, he said that “the problems we have with Finland are relatively less than with Sweden”.

Understandably, Turkish leaders are also stepping up their rhetoric. Devlet Bahceli, party leader of Erdogan’s government’s junior coalition partner, on Tuesday likened Swedes and Finns to “Vikings” with the same “cowboy mentality” as Americans.

Intransigence, tension and ambivalence about NATO membership are nothing new. Athens used its veto power to delay North Macedonia’s bid to join the alliance until the country renamed itself to distinguish the nation from the Greek province of Macedonia. Both Sweden and Finland turned down requests to join and enjoyed their neutrality through much of the Cold War and beyond, even as they collaborated with NATO and shared intelligence with Western partners.

Some in Washington open call suspend Turkey’s membership in NATO, as well as Hungary’s membership, led by Kremlin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban. While there is no formal mechanism for expelling a country from NATO, even moderate voices within the transatlantic security establishment have warned Turkey of its position.

“At some point, some NATO members will start asking, ‘If this is a choice between Sweden/Finland and Turkey, maybe we should look at our options,’” James Stavridis, former NATO Allied Commander-in-Chief, said in an article for Bloomberg. “That would be a mistake.”

Erdogan’s supporters are already trying to use the burning of the Koran for domestic political gain. Wednesday writer for A new dawn accused potential presidential hopeful and mayor of Istanbul Ekem Imamglu of potentially supporting terrorism for not condemning the act by force.

“He mentioned those who benefited from the brutal attack, but did not condemn the provocative terrorist attacks and the burning of the Koran,” wrote columnist Bulent Orakoglu. “It can be considered support for the terrorist state of Sweden and terrorism that Imamoglu did not condemn them along with the vile provocateur Paludan.”

Elections aside, it is clear that Turkey’s anger and resentment towards NATO and the West remains real, tangible and widespread. Turks of all political stripes continue to react to actions by former German and French leaders aimed at derailing Turkey’s bid for EU membership in the late 2000s. The ongoing cooperation between the Western military and the PKK-linked Syrian Kurds continues to anger the Turks.

“He [Erdogan] always believed that the West needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the West,” says Danforth. “The anger at how Sweden handles Turkish issues is real. What works for Erodgan is that so many people see what he is doing as protecting Turkish interests.”

Mr. Erdogan is also pursuing Turkey’s interests at a time when he believes the country is in the best position to maximize its diplomatic and financial influence. Ankara maintains warm relations with both Moscow and Kyiv at a time when the two countries are at war. Turkey hosts the operational headquarters for a critical UN effort to bring Ukrainian and Russian food from Black Sea ports to world markets.

“Ultimately, Erdogan has the trump card, because any state can veto the expansion,” says Mr. Levin. “At some point, there will be tremendous pressure on Turkey. But there is always a fear that if you put too much pressure on Turkey, it will turn to Russia.”

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