Turkey delays NATO enlargement
The expansion of NATO in the Nordic region is becoming a diplomatic thriller. Almost a year after Russia invaded Ukraine and the start of bringing Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic alliance, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey is objecting to the two countries joining NATO. In the last few days, the massive protests that have taken place in Sweden, combined with an attack by a far-right Swedish politician on the holy book of Islam, the Quran, have provoked a powerful reaction from Ankara. President Erdogan warns Turkey has moved away from confirming Sweden's membership in NATO despite the recent developments.
Swedish and Finnish analysts place the new diplomatic thriller in a broader analytical framework. From their perspective, Ankara's objections to NATO enlargement are not only about Turkey's relations with the Nordic countries. Shortly before the polls, Erdogan's Turkey strives for new diplomatic successes, particularly to strengthen the Turkish Air Force. And to achieve this goal, Ankara uses Swedish and Finnish applications as a bargaining chip.
The latest information from the Scandinavian press
Tensions in Turkey's relations with Sweden and Finland are escalating in the shadow of significant developments. As reported by the media of the two Nordic countries, several demonstrations related to Turkey and Sweden's NATO application took place in Stockholm in the last few days.
Last Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Norra Bantorget in protest against Sweden's NATO application. Among the participants were the Rojava Committees, the group that hung an Erdogan doll at the Stockholm City Hall last week.
Right-wing Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan set fire to a Quran outside the Turkish consulate during the most recent protests. The Turkish government harshly condemned the vandalism and urged the Swedish government to "stop hiding behind justifications about freedom of expression.” Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson commented, "These are legal things that should be lawful, but not everything legal must be appreciated." He said that burning holy texts is "very disrespectful" to believers. The Swedish prime minister continued, "Not everything legal has to be liked."
The Swedish government has recently come under fire from both the right and the left for over-appeasing the Turkish government at the time of Kristersson's remarks. Asserting that "we do everything within the boundaries of Swedish legislation and Swedish freedom of expression," Kristersson responds, "This is a misnomer."
As large-scale demonstrations take place in Sweden, the government of neighboring Finland has recently extradited a person to Turkey. According to the Finnish media, the individual who was deported to Turkey in October had been convicted of robbery and other crimes in his native country. Finland extradited three people to Turkey between 2019 and 2022 and rejected Turkey's plea for another extradition in November. Ankara had asked Finland to extradite a man who had been found guilty of belonging to an armed terrorist group in Turkey. Turkey also made a fresh extradition request to Finland at the year's conclusion, which is still pending.
Regarding the details of the pending extradition requests, the Finnish Ministry of Justice declines to comment. Between 2012 and January 2023, Turkey asked Finland for 17 extraditions, 12 of which came after 2019. All but one of these requests has been fulfilled. Before a person guilty of a crime can be deported under the legislation, the Ministry of Justice states that the requirement of double criminality must be satisfied. The crime for which the defendant was found guilty must, therefore, be punishable under the penal laws of both nations. In addition, the crime must be one that, under Finnish law, warrants a minimum punishment of one year in jail. Finland does not extradite its citizens to Turkey or other non-EU nations.
"Don't appease Erdogan's Turkey"
In contrast to the recent "friendly" messages from the governments of Sweden and Finland to Ankara, the citizens of both nations believe that the two countries should not compromise on matters of democracy and fundamental freedoms to join NATO. The findings of a recent survey conducted in Sweden serve as an illustration of this approach in practice. According to a DN/Ipsos survey, there is still considerable support for Sweden joining NATO. But voters reject changing Sweden's legal standards to placate Turkey.
Sweden "should stand up for Swedish laws and our principles like the rule of law." According to Ipsos opinion researcher Nicklas Kallebring, there is a widespread belief that “we should defend legal ideals.” Almost eight out of ten people agree with this principle: "Even if it means delaying our NATO membership, this is a red line that must not be crossed." Sixty percent of respondents to the recent study indicated their support for Sweden's NATO application.
While analyzing the result above, Swedish commentators stress that Ankara pushes for definite diplomatic successes before she opens the NATO door for the Swedes. Ankara's strong point is that each NATO member state has the power to veto prospective members. The main demands made of Sweden concern the Kurds and their fight for freedom, which the Turkish government essentially connects with terrorism. Erdogan demands the extradition of specific individuals from Sweden to Turkey because they have engaged in terrorism or other subversive activities. The fundamental stance of Sweden is that extraditions should be left to the legal system and not used as a political bargaining chip. What is a terrorist offense in Turkey is not always viewed in the same way under Swedish law. Almost all Swedes agree that this position is correct.
In keeping with this, the Swedish press emphasizes that some lawmakers in Sweden support a harsher tone in dealings with Ankara. As a NATO member, Sweden should pursue a democratic requirement that "should cause Turkey to be expelled," according to a motion by the Swedish Liberals. "The preamble of the 1949 NATO treaty declares that the alliance is built on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law", a 2021 proposal adds, stressing that "We should act to implement a democracy condition in the organization when Sweden has become a member. This is something that may be enforced more strictly on members like Turkey. Therefore, new membership applications must adhere to liberal fundamental standards, like in the EU. The list of current members should be examined, with Turkey being excluded." Politicians from other parties have taken similar positions.
"Accession will come but with a delay"
Evaluating recent events, Swedish and Finnish columnists have stated that the two nations' membership in NATO will happen, although possibly with a significant delay. "Forcing Sweden to change its attitude towards the Syrian Kurdish organization YPG and the Kurds politically active in Sweden against Erdogan has been a fruitful sidetrack for Turkey's leaders," emphasizes Wolfgang Hansson, adding that "Turkey had long been dissatisfied with Sweden's stance on the Kurdish question and with the fact that the country was acting as a haven for the enemies of Erdogan."
"The primary goal of the veto on NATO membership was likely to get the US to sell fighter jets to Turkey. Erdogan would like Sweden, Finland, and all other EU countries to label the YPG as terrorists, just as they did with the PKK. If he can get one or two disagreeable opponents expelled from Sweden, that would be welcome. That issue is about Turkey's national security and is infinitely more important than some flag-waving KDP supporters," Hansson claims.
Mats Knutson concurs with Hansson and adds: "The Swedish government is currently drafting a law that would make joining terrorist organizations a crime. This idea has been discussed for a long time, but it now appears likely to become a reality. After a parliamentary examination, a bill is expected to be presented to Parliament on March 7 and criminalize affiliation with terrorist organizations as early as next week. For the new law to come into effect this summer in time for the NATO meeting in Vilnius, Parliament will decide on it in the spring. As a result, this measure will serve as a pawn in the battle over Sweden's NATO membership.”
Knutson continues: "Other considerations imply Turkey will eventually accept Sweden and Finland's participation in NATO. Foremost, accepting Sweden and Finland as new members enjoys widespread support for NATO. In a critical security situation, Russia poses an increasing threat to European security; this would strengthen NATO. A political victory for NATO would also result from the alliance's growth while a conflict is still in progress. Similarly, it would be a loss of reputation for NATO if this procedure wasn't finished before the Vilnius meeting in the summer. As the conference approaches, political pressure from NATO and individual NATO nations on Turkey to accept Sweden and Finland will rise. The expected agreement between the US and Turkey for US fighter jets is another element that could be crucial, if not decisive."
Adding to the discussion from Helsinki's standpoint, Elina Kervinen explains: "The recent events in Sweden will not facilitate or expedite the Finnish-Swedish NATO track. Like Finland, Sweden has fairly relaxed restrictions on the right to free speech and a high bar for suppressing demonstrations. This is true even though, for instance, burning the Quran is a disgusting and repulsive act. The Swedish people at home are raising concerns about the government's decision to appease Turkey's ongoing atrocities. As experts had long predicted, the Finnish and Swedish petitions will not be approved in Turkey before the country's elections, which are officially scheduled for as early as mid-May".
It should be stressed that American analysts agree with their Scandinavian colleagues in stressing that "a breakthrough in NATO accession negotiations between Turkey and Sweden and Finland is unlikely before Turkey's national elections later this year, hampering the U.S. sale of F-16s to Ankara and reinforcing those in the West questioning Turkey's place in the military alliance. Political calculations in Turkey are slowing negotiations between the country and would-be NATO members Sweden and Finland as Ankara redoubles its call for Stockholm and Helsinki to take politically difficult (and legally questionable) steps to target individuals on their soil whom Ankara accuses of supporting Kurdish militancy."
*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece.