Sweden, Turkey not expected to back down in NATO accession tug of war

Sweden said on Sunday that Turkey is asking for too much in exchange for allowing it to join NATO, as Ankara effectively demands the impossible – that Stockholm override a decision by its own Supreme Court. But analysts say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to retract his condition, at least not before the all-important presidential elections scheduled in June.

Sweden’s new conservative Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that, as far as he is concerned, Stockholm has done enough for Ankara.

“Turkey confirms that we have done what we said we would do. But they also say that they want things that we can’t and won’t give them,” Kristersson told the Forsvar Security Conference in Sweden.

Along with neighboring Finland, Sweden made joining NATO its top foreign policy objective last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jolted them from their official neutrality stretching back through the Cold War. However, Erdogan made Turkey’s green light conditional – accusing Sweden of giving safe haven to people linked to the Kurdish militant group the PKK and to the Gulenist movement Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 failed coup.

Sweden – which has a large Kurdish diaspora of some 100,000 people – responded to Erdogan’s demands at a NATO summit back in June. Sweden and Finland agreed to “commit to prevent the activities of the PKK” on its territory.

Stockholm then reversed an embargo on arms sales to Turkey and distanced itself from the YPG – a Syrian militia Western countries championed for its role fighting the Islamic State group but anathema to Ankara because of its close ties to the PKK, which has waged intermittent guerrilla campaigns against the Turkish state since 1984 and is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU and the US as well as Turkey.

But Erdogan demands the extradition of journalist Bulent Kenes, an ex-editor-in-chief of the now closed Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, for his alleged role in the foiled coup.

‘Not a political question’

The Swedish Supreme Court rejected Turkey’s demand in December, on the grounds that Kenes risked persecution for his politics if he were sent to Turkey.

This is a judicial matter in a country run according to the separation of powers, and that gives the Swedish government no choice, noted Hakan Gunneriusson, a professor of political science at Mid Sweden University.

“Specific individuals cannot be expelled to Turkey from Sweden if there is no legal basis for it. It is a legal procedure, not a political question,” Gunneriusson said.

If anything, Turkey’s intransigence on the question will only strengthen the Swedish resolve, suggested Toni Alaranta, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

“Both Sweden and Finland are applying for NATO in order to secure us [political order based on] rule of law in times of possible external attack – not to throw it in a dustbin,” Alaranta said.

This approach is popular among the Swedish electorate, according to a poll published by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter last week, which showed that 79 percent of Swedes favor standing by the court ruling even if it obstructs NATO accession.

Turkey’s stance is expected to soon become the only remaining obstacle to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, since 28 of the Western alliance’s 30 members have validated their requests and the Hungarian parliament is set to give its approval later this month.

‘Happy to wait things out’

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto lamented that Ankara will probably not allow the two countries to join before Turkey’s presidential polls in June. Yet Sweden and Finland could well end up waiting for longer.

Turkey is no stranger to rowing with fellow NATO members – as demonstrated by Erdogan’s public spats with French President Emmanuel Macron and, especially, Ankara’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system in 2017, defying US uproar followed by sanctions. Erdogan also has a history of making life difficult for European countries to help advance his priorities in the Middle East – most notably when he threatened in 2019 to let millions of migrants into Europe unless European powers quieted their criticism of Turkey’s offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria .

Of course, Russia’s war against Ukraine is the West’s most pressing geopolitical concern, making it a natural priority to bring Sweden and Finland into the NATO umbrella. But the war in Ukraine also highlights Turkey’s importance to the Western alliance, even if Ankara has been an awkward NATO member over the past decade. So far Erdogan has kept ties with both Russia and Ukraine while alienating neither – and that bore fruit for the rest of the world when Turkey brokered alongside the UN a deal to export Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea in July, before renewing the deal in November after Russia briefly withdrew.

“Erdogan approaches the NATO alliance with the belief that Turkey’s interests are not taken seriously enough and that NATO needs Turkey,” observed Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York state and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “He doesn’t see acrimony within the alliance as necessarily a bad thing, as long as it underlines that Turkey’s interests need to be addressed.”

The Turkish government’s “core assumptions about how Western governments should pursue Turkey’s enemies are at odds with basic principles of the rule of law”, Eissenstat said, adding that he thought: “Ankara knew this at the onset but believes the process serves its interests.”

“Ankara is perfectly happy to wait things out,” he reasoned. “Those calculations may well change after Turkish elections when the domestic benefits decrease, but until then I doubt Ankara is likely to budge.”

Indeed, Erdogan faces a tricky re-election campaign in June amid a woeful economic context, as a currency and debt crisis has racked Turkey since 2018.

“The key issues in Turkey’s elections are, of course, mostly domestic – the abysmal economy and the question of [Syrian] refugees,” Eissenstat pointed out. “But Erdogan clearly benefits from taking a tough stance on Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.”

Not only do the Turkish public like to “see Turkish leaders playing important roles in the world”, Eissenstat said, it is also “probably true that many share Erdogan’s distrust of the West and believe that Western governments have given safe haven to Turkey’s enemies” .

So the Swedish-Turkish tug of war is set to continue. However, perhaps the most revealing statement at that Swedish defense conference was not Kristersson’s refusal to override the Supreme Court – but rather NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s suggestion that the alliance has already extended its security umbrella to the two Scandinavian countries. “It is inconceivable that NATO would not act if the security of Sweden and Finland were threatened,” he said.

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