May 18, 2022 was a big day for Sweden. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and more than 200 years of non-military association, the Nordic country finally broke with tradition and applied for NATO membership alongside Finland. But what was supposed to be a simple connection has turned out to be anything but smooth sailing. NATO member Turkey has a problem with Sweden and patience is running out – with both the country’s humor and freedom of expression principles.
The ink had barely dried on Finland’s and Sweden’s joint letter of application before Turkey began placing conditions on its prospective NATO memberships, saying they posed a threat to its national security and needed to take more concrete steps if it ever wanted its blessing to join the military alliance.
“None of the countries has an open, clear stance against terrorist organizations,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said just hours after the application was submitted, accusing them of serving as havens for Kurdish militant groups such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK. He also demanded they lift an arms export ban imposed on Turkey in 2019 after it launched an offensive in northern Syria targeting the YPG, the Kurdish militia fighting Islamic State there.
After signing a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June — where both Finland and Sweden agreed broadly to address Turkey’s concerns about arms exports and its fight against terrorism — Ankara suddenly became very specific in its demands.
Initially, it issued a long list of “terrorists”, or alleged Kurdish militants, that it insisted the two countries extradite – despite many of them having been granted asylum by the Nordic countries for years, or even decades , earlier.
But Turkey’s demands soon grew in number and began to focus more and more on Sweden: Ankara called for one Swedish minister gets fired over his attendance at a pro-PKK party 10 years ago, and went so far as to summon the Swedish ambassador over a TV program that mocked Erdogan.
Last week, Turkey increased the pressure further by urging Sweden to do so investigate a Stockholm rally staged by a group it said was sympathetic to the PKK, and during which anti-Erdogan slogans were allegedly chanted. It also demanded that Sweden identify who participated in the protest – a move that stands in stark contrast to the country’s highly valued principles of freedom of expression.
Between a rock and a hard place
Ankara’s growing list of demands has caught Sweden between a rock and a hard place since its NATO application largely hinges on Turkey’s approval – any expansion of the alliance must be ratified by all of its 30 members. Although Hungary remains the only other NATO member that has not yet received the go-ahead for Sweden’s (and Finland’s) membership, its Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that its parliament is expected to do so in beginning of next year.
The looming threat from Russia has left the tiny nation of 10 million struggling to live up to Turkey’s tough demands – as far as its democratic values and laws allow. In September, Sweden lifted the arms export ban to Turkey and in August it agreed to hand over a man whose name was on Turkey’s “terrorist list”. However, the Swedish government insisted on the handover was in line with ordinary legal proceduresand that the decision to extradite the man had not been influenced by Sweden’s aspirations to join NATO.
However, critics have accused Swedish officials of bending over backwards to try to please Erdogan personally, especially after Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s new government took office in October and promised to do everything in its power to get Sweden’s application granted. “Kristersson must stop humiliating himself to Turkey,” columnist Alex Schulman wrote in an opinion was published in Dagens Nyheter earlier this month and pointed to the fact that the new Prime Minister’s first ever visit outside the EU was to … Turkey on 8 November.
“Suddenly we no longer have any problems with selling weapons to Turkey. And all the groups that Turkey has labeled terrorist organizations – well these days we feel the same way they do! Yes, we humiliated ourselves, but it would be worth it, because this trip would surely pay off. Kristersson would receive a long and warm hug from Erdogan […] and Erdogan would tell him: ‘Welcome to NATO, my friend,'” Schulman wrote in his sarcastic summary of Kristersson’s trip, which left him and Sweden without any kind of pledges that suggested the country was moving closer to NATO.
Schulman also ridiculed Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström’s insistence on describing Turkey as a “democracy”.
“In three weeks, Erdogan will come to Sweden, which means that the humiliation will continue even on Swedish turf. But this time Kristersson will not be the only one to be humiliated, this time the king will have to bow and the queen will hold her tiara in her hand in front of her ”, he continued.
“Are we really going to continue this self-destructive behavior? At some point we have to ask our government to stand up for our country and our values, right?”
An election strategy?
But despite Sweden’s many attempts to try to accommodate Ankara’s taxation requests, Aras Lindh, analyst and program director at the Foreign Policy Institute, believes that it will be kept at bay for a while longer.
“Turkey has several reasons to wave its veto card. All of a sudden, the country has found itself in a favorable negotiating position,” he wrote in a November analysis pieceand notes that Turkey has already successfully forced Sweden to adapt to Turkish interests in a way that it has rarely done before.
But another, and perhaps more important, win is how Erdogan could increase his chances in next year’s election by continuing to bully Sweden – for the sake of his image.
“Turkey is plagued by a mismanaged economy,” he said, pointing to Turkey’s shrinking GDP and rising unemployment. “The NATO question would therefore function as a way to shift the focus of the debate, partly by making it become more about lax European states that cannot keep terrorists off the streets, but above all by making the conversation revolve around strong leaders who do not is afraid to stand up to them.”
Aron Lund, Middle East analyst at the Total Defense Research Institute (FOI), agreed.
“Erdogan can paint himself as a strong and important leader that the US, Russia and a bunch of European countries are all talking about. Not to mention he had the NATO Secretary General travel to Turkey and beg him to let Sweden join the alliance . It makes for pretty good television.”
But in the long run, Lund said that Turkey has a lot to gain from accepting Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.
“Militarily, it would be great for Turkey to have them in NATO because it would make the land border between Russia and NATO very long and it would move the focal point of that border and the NATO-Russia tensions that come with it much, much further north, far away from Turkey.”
Lund, who emphasized that he was commenting on the Sweden-Turkey issue in a personal capacity rather than as a spokesman for FOI said it is possible that Erdogan will give Sweden his much-sought-after blessing “close to the elections in June, or soon after they have been held ”, but that the situation can also drag on over time.
Meanwhile, he said: “Sweden is likely to try to keep Erdogan in good spirits as much as possible.”