May 18, 2022, was a big day for Sweden. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and more than 200 years of non-military alignment, the Nordic country finally broke with tradition and applied for NATO membership along with Finland. But what was supposed to be an easy accession has proven to be anything but a smooth sail. NATO member Turkey has a problem with Sweden, and its patience is wearing thin – with both the country’s humour and its freedom of expression principles.
The ink had barely dried on Finland and Sweden’s joint application letter before Turkey started conditioning their aspiring NATO memberships, saying they posed a threat to its national security and they needed to take more concrete steps if they ever wanted its blessing to join the military alliance.
“Neither country has an open, clear stance against terrorist organisations,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said just hours after the application was filed, accusing them of acting as safe havens for Kurdish militant groups such as the banned 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 the Islamic State group there.
After signing a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June – in which both Finland and Sweden in broad brushstrokes agreed to address Turkey’s concerns surrounding arms exports and its fight against terrorism – Ankara suddenly started getting very specific in its demands.
At first, 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 years, or even decades, earlier.
But Turkey’s demands soon grew in numbers, and began focusing more and more on Sweden: Ankara called for a Swedish minister to be fired over his attendance at a pro-PKK party 10 years ago, and went as far as to summon the Swedish ambassador over a TV show poking fun at Erdogan.
Last week, Turkey piled on the pressure even further by calling on Sweden to investigate a Stockholm rally staged by a group it said was sympathetic to the PKK, and during which anti-Erdogan slogans had allegedly been made. It also demanded Sweden identify those who had taken part in the protest – a move which stands in stark contrast to the country’s highly valued freedom of expression principles.
Between a rock and a hard place
Ankara’s growing lists of demands has caught Sweden between a rock and a hard place since its NATO application pretty much stands and falls with Turkey’s approval – any enlargement of the alliance must be ratified by all of its 30 members. Although Hungary remains the only other NATO member that has yet to greenlight Sweden’s (and Finland’s) membership, its Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said its parliament is expected to do so in the beginning of next year.
The overhanging threat posed by Russia has left the tiny nation of 10 million scrambling to live up to Turkey’s tough asks – as far as its democratic values and laws will allow. In September Sweden lifted the arms export ban to Turkey, and in August it agreed to hand over a man whose name featured on Turkey’s “terrorist” list. The Swedish government insisted, however, that the handover was in line with regular legal proceedings, and that the decision to extradite the man had not been influenced by Sweden’s aspirations to join NATO.
Critics, however, 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 vowed to do everything in its power to get Sweden’s application granted. “Kristersson must stop humiliating himself for Turkey,” columnist Alex Schulman wrote in an opinion piece published in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter earlier this month, pointing to the fact that the new prime minister’s first ever visit outside of the European Union was to … Turkey, on November 8.
“All of a sudden we no longer have any problems with selling arms to Turkey. And all the groups that Turkey has labelled terrorist organisations – well nowadays we feel the same way they do! Yes, we humiliated ourselves, but it was going to be worth it, because this trip was sure to pay off. Kristersson was going to receive a long and warm hug by Erdogan […] and Erdogan was going to tell him: ‘Welcome to NATO my friend’,” Schulman wrote in his sarcastic résumé of Kristersson’s trip which left him, and Sweden, without any type of promises indicating the country was inching any closer to joining NATO.
Schulman also ridiculed Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom insistence on describing Turkey as a “democracy”.
“In three weeks time, Erdogan is coming to Sweden, meaning the humiliation will continue also on Swedish turf. But this time around, Kristersson won’t be the only one humiliated, this time the king will have to bow and the queen hold her tiara in hand before him,” he continued.
“Are we really going to continue this self-destructive behaviour? At some point we need to ask our government to stand up for our country and our values, don’t we?”
An election strategy?
But despite Sweden’s many attempts to try to accommodate Ankara’s taxing requests, Aras Lindh, analyst and programme manager at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, believes that it will be kept on tenterhooks for a while still.
“Turkey has several reasons to wave its veto card around. All of a sudden, the country has found itself in a favourable negotiation position,” he wrote in a November analysis piece, noting that Turkey has already successfully forced Sweden to adapt to Turkish interests in a way it rarely has before.
But another, and perhaps more important, gain, is how Erdogan could up his chances in next year’s election by continuing to bully Sweden – for his image’s sake.
“Turkey is plagued by a mismanaged economy,” he said, pointing to Turkey’s shrinking GDP and soaring unemployment rate. “The NATO issue would therefore work as a way to shift the focus in the debate, partly by making it become more about lax European states that can’t keep terrorists from the streets, but above all, by getting the conversation to revolve around the strong leader who isn’t afraid of standing up to them.”
Aron Lund, a Middle East analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (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 the fact that he got NATO’s secretary-general to travel to Turkey and beg him to let Sweden enter the alliance. It makes for pretty good TV.”
But in the long run, Lund said Turkey has a lot to gain from approving Sweden and Finland’s NATO memberships.
“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 along with it much, much further north, far away from Turkey.”
Lund, who stressed he was commenting on the Sweden-Turkey issue in a personal capacity rather than as a spokesman for FOI said that it is possible that Erdogan will hand Sweden its much sought-after blessing “near the June elections, or just after they’ve been held”, but that the situation could also be dragged out for much longer.
In the meantime, he said: “Sweden will likely seek to try to keep Erdogan in a good mood as best as it can.”