Sweden, Finland Plan to Join NATO Risks Falling Apart Amid Turkey Spat

The long-running and often tense negotiations between Sweden and Turkey over NATO appeared to collapse this week after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would not support Stockholm's accession.

Only Hungary and Turkey have yet to approve the dual accession of Finland and Sweden via parliamentary votes. Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has said its legislature will vote in February. It is widely expected to ratify the decision. But Turkey looks set to delay NATO's historic expansion indefinitely.

"They won't see any support from us on the NATO issue," Erdogan said earlier this week, following anti-Islam protests organized by Swedish far-right groups in Stockholm.

The protests outside the Turkish embassy included the burning of a Quran by a far-right Danish politician, sparking fury across Turkey and the Muslim world.

Other demonstrators marched through Stockholm waving the flags of Kurdish paramilitary groups that are considered terrorists by Ankara, with some stomping on images of Erdogan's face.

Comp Photo, Kristersson, Erdogan and Haavisto
The foreign minister of Finland, Pekka Haavisto (right), called for a "time out" after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (middle) said Turkey would not support Sweden. Its PM Ulf Kristersson (left) is under pressure not to offer Ankara more concessions. Getty

The Turkish president said after the protests: "So, you will let terror organizations run wild on your avenues and streets and then expect our support for getting into NATO. That's not happening."

The foreign minister of Finland, Pekka Haavisto, suggested this week that the negotatiors take a "time out," while Turkey canceled the trilateral mechanism established to facilitate the talks, which could leave NATO's expansion stuck in limbo deep into 2023.

'Toxified' ties

There is already speculation that Erdogan did not want to hold the accession vote before Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections in May. The president hopes to secure a third term, but the country is facing serious economic challenges and opinion polls suggest the race will be tight.

Turkey's former representative to NATO, Fatih Ceylan, told Newsweek that bilateral relations with Stockholm had been "toxified" in the wake of the Quran-burning protest.

Ceylan, now the president of the Ankara Policy Center think tank, said: "That provocation has been met with severe criticism from almost all circles in Turkey. Now we have a genuine complication."

Erdogan's cancelation of trilateral discussions was "unfortunate," he added. "Finland is not an issue in Turkey. I think that's been settled. But now we have the conundrum of Sweden's accession."

In Sweden the feeling is one of "disappointment," Mats Engström, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Newsweek. "When the NATO application process started, people thought it would be a rather easy process. There were some people warning about Turkey but they were very few."

Swedish governments have bowed to many of Erdogan's demands. These include strengthening anti-terror laws with an eye on Kurdish groups, and considering extradition requests for militants and individuals linked to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric accused by Ankara of masterminding a failed coup in 2016.

Anti-Turkey protest in Stockholm Sweden anti-NATO
A protester with an effigy representing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an anti-NATO and anti-Turkey demonstration on January 21 in Stockholm. Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

Last month Sweden's highest court refused an extradition request for journalist Bülent Keneş—angering Turkey, which says he was one of the coup plotters.

"Turkey both confirms that we have done what we said we would do, but they also say that they want things that we cannot or do not want to give them," said Ulf Kristersson, Sweden's prime minister, earlier this month. Extradition issues, he added, were "handled within Swedish law."

Erdogan's apparent withdrawal of support is a blow for Stockholm after the months of compromises, Engström said.

"It creates frustration in Sweden among the politicians who were most active and advocating for membership, but also among the general public, who feel that they don't want to be humiliated by Erdogan in a way, and who feel that some of the statements we had to make were at the limit of what was acceptable already," he said.

Electioneering and politicking

Turkey's elections will likely mean any accession vote is punted into the summer.

"My prediction is that now it has become almost impossible to finalize this accession process before the presidential and general elections," Ceylan said. The NATO summit taking place in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in July might be a realistic target, he added, but much will depend on the results of the Turkish polls.

"Every party—including the two in power—will try to consolidate their grassroots support," Ceylan said. "This issue will also be leveraged. There's no doubt about it…The number of undecided voters in Turkey is rather high. So, every party is trying to attract attention. They need the votes."

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, co-founder of the London-based Council on Geostrategy think tank, told Newsweek it was hard to predict what impact the Turkish elections will hav.

Turkey's six-party opposition coalition has not yet selected the candidate it hopes will topple Erdogan. "The situation is really tricky even if they win," Starych-Samuolienė said. "We do not know what exactly to expect.

"Keep in mind the fact that this system that Erdogan has created has been in place now for two decades. It might be the case that actually there will not be significant changes or shifts immediately when it comes to foreign policy and all these debates."

Anti-terrorism and national security have been "key themes prevalent throughout the years" that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have held power, Starych-Samuolienė said. The president can be expected to lean on his anti-Kurdish-militant credentials, which have been buoyed by his talks with Stockholm and Helsinki.

The Stockholm demonstrations also present a domestic political conundrum for Kristersson and his Moderate Party. The prime minister blamed the burning of the Quran—by Rasmus Paludan, the leader of a Danish far-right party, and reportedly organized by Russia-aligned journalist Chang Frick—on "provocateurs" seeking to torpedo NATO expansion.

But Jimmie Akesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats party that is the minority partner in Kristersson's ruling coalition, has dismissed Erdogan as an "Islamist dictator." He urged the prime minister not to appease Ankara "because it is ultimately an anti-democratic system and a dictator we are dealing with."

NATO red-faced

Finnish-Swedish accession was supposed to be easy. NATO's June 2022 summit, held in Madrid, was expected to be a formal celebration of the alliance's expansion and a firm rebuke of the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine.

"If I were sitting in Moscow as a foreign policy official or a security official, I would have been happy about it," Ceylan said. "We should not be in a position to strengthen the hands of those who oppose the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO."

Other NATO allies, particularly the U.S., have tried to guide the discussions to a successful conclusion. But Washington has also tried to avoid linking its issues with Turkey—which largely revolve around military procurement—to the negotiations.

Turkey is hoping to secure a $20 billion deal for 40 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits. It is also still in talks with the U.S. over its removal from the F-35 fighter jet program in 2019; a retaliation for Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems.

US-made F-16 flying in Turkish air show
An aerial acrobatic pilot performs with a General Dynamics F-16 during the Sivrihisar airshow in Eskisehir, Turkey, on September 13, 2020. Ankara is in talks to buy 40 F-16 jets from the U.S. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

"Behind the scenes, certainly conversations [on accession] are taking place" between U.S. and Turkish representatives, according to Starych-Samuolienė.

Ceylan said the U.S. Congress and the White House might also be waiting for the outcome of the Turkish elections before they move on any F-16 deal. "They are trying not to mix these two things together," he said. "But in practice, I think there is some level of linkage."

"There will be démarches by the allied countries—including, but not limited to, the U.S.—to try to settle this issue the sooner the better," Ceylan said. "But I'm not sure whether these would produce the desired results."

He added: "The longer this process takes, the harder it will be."

Meanwhile, the standoff risks spiraling out of Erdogan's hands. "The more visibility this issue has, the more likely it is that this will be used as a plank of domestic politics," Ceylan said.

Engström said the view from Sweden was similar. "Erdogan might have started something that was partly for his electoral success, but now it has ignited protests and other parties in Turkey are also using this," he said.

"I think it's true that this might also have longer-term effects. Some people thought it was only about the elections and then it would be OK. But it might be more difficult than that."

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