(Why) Is Turkey Stopping Sweden and Finland From Joining NATO?

By Nina Cerasuolo | International | February 22, 2023

Cover Illustration: NATO flag with bullets. Marek Studzinski / Unplash

International reporter Nina Cerasuolo dives into the diplomatic background and recent developments of Turkey’s opposition to the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO.

“Unless the activities of terrorist organizations are stopped, it is not possible for the NATO membership process to progress.” Turkish President Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted these words on January 13, in the latest development of Sweden’s turbulent application process to NATO. 

On May 18, 2022, Sweden and Finland submitted joint applications to NATO in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland, in fact, shares a 1340 km border with Russia; the longest single border of the European Union. Sweden is located between Finland and Norway (a NATO member) and represents NATO’s only direct point of access to Finnish territory, compelling joint applications.

Until last spring, Finland avoided joining NATO to steer clear of unnecessary tensions with Russia, and Sweden chose not to enter the organization due to the Swedish government’s ideological role as a mediator during the Cold War. Since the Ukraine war, however, geographical proximity to Russia has prompted the two countries’ applications. They are now facing substantial opposition from a NATO member that has since taken the role of ‘mediator’ between Moscow and Kyiv: Turkey. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan objected to Sweden’s admission to NATO, with the justification that Sweden is hosting ‘terrorists’. President Erdoğan uses this term to refer to Kurds, a Middle Eastern ethnic group mostly unrecognized by the international community, whose claims for statehood are strongly resisted by the Turkish government. Sweden, however, does recognise and entertain diplomatic relationships with the Kurdistan Region and hosts a Kurdish diaspora of over 100.000 people. In an initial attempt at diplomatic compromise in June 2022, Sweden, Turkey and Finland signed a joint memorandum confirming the deal they had previously agreed on in Madrid, Spain. 

Soldiers carrying the Turkish Flag. 2021. Caglar Oskay /Unsplash

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a militant guerrilla group active in Turkey and Iraq. They have been recognised as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. However, this labeling is extremely controversial, having been defined as unlawful by the EU Court of First Instance in 2008, and as requiring annulment by the General Court in 2018. In the memorandum, Sweden and Finland “confirm that the PKK is a proscribed terrorist organization [and] commit to prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations.”

Despite the agreement, however, the Swedish government has repeatedly refused to extradite Kurdish people to Turkey. Last January, following the blocked extradition of journalist Bülent Keneş by a Swedish court, Erdoğan publicly expressed his disappointment, saying that “[Sweden] need[s] to extradite nearly 130 terrorists in order for their bids to pass [Turkey’s] parliament; unfortunately, they have yet to do this.” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, however, was of a different opinion. He reacted by stating that “Turkey sometimes names people that they would like to have extradited from Sweden, and it’s well known that Swedish legislation on that is very clear: that courts [make] those decisions, there is no room for changing that.”

This diplomatic conflict was then exacerbated following the release of footage showing an effigy of the President hung upside-down at Stockholm City Hall, in a fashion inspired by how dictator Benito Mussolini was hung by partisans during the Italian Liberation of 1945. To this, spokesman Ibrahim Kalin reacted on January 12 by tweeting that Turkey “condemn[s] in the strongest terms the disgusting and heinous act against [their] President in Stockholm.” Swedish authorities condemned the act, framing it “as a sabotage against the Swedish NATO application,” and saying that “it is dangerous for Swedish security to act in this way.”

Just a week after this incident, an anti-immigration protest was held in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm with the authorisation of the Swedish government. During the protest, Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, set a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, on fire. The act took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which sparked protests both in Sweden and in the Middle East. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom, while defining the event as “appalling” and distancing the government and himself from it, reinforced that “Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded that “[burning the Quran] is a racist action, it’s not about freedom of expression.” As a consequence of the protest, Turkey canceled the diplomatic visit of the Swedish defense minister to Ankara, which was to happen at the end of January. It was supposed to serve as a moment of development for Sweden’s application to NATO. President Erdogân also canceled a summit with Sweden and Finland, initially planned for February.

As tensions between Turkey and Sweden have yet to ease, Finland has also undergone a change of scenery. While previously, Finland’s independent joining of NATO seemed geographically inconvenient, and thus unlikely, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto does not appear to be of this opinion anymore. On January 24, he was reported by BBC as having told the Finnish broadcaster Yle that he believes Finland should pursue admission to NATO without Sweden. However, Reuters reported that Haavisto called for a “time-out” in the negotiations at the end of January, advocating for a diplomatic truce of “a couple of weeks” to see where the “dust [will have] settled after the current situation.” The question of if, when and how Turkey’s veto on Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to NATO will be lifted thus remains open, and crucial developments are to be expected in the upcoming weeks.

Nina Cerasuolo is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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