It’s been almost seven months since Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine had made Europe’s vulnerability visible. Accession, according to the new self-image, would be a gain for both sides: Sweden and Finland would be under the protective umbrella of the defense alliance and NATO would gain modern armies and a strong presence in the Baltic Sea to better secure the Baltic States. But one man has prevented the step to this day: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
From the start, the Turkish government refused to pave the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO by ratifying the so-called accession protocols. The reason is the alleged support of both countries for terrorist organizations, such as the militant Kurdish group PKK, which the EU and the US also classify as a terrorist organization. Sweden in particular is criticized by the Turkish side. For example, PKK flags can be seen time and again at demonstrations there, which is an affront to many people in Turkiye.
Diplomats in Brussels and Washington are losing patience in the face of the blockade – especially because every delay demonstrates the disunity of NATO members and signals weakness towards Russia. In October, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Istanbul and increased the pressure: “Finland and Sweden delivered. It is time to welcome them as full members of NATO.”
The new Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson also travelled to Ankara. He has made NATO accession a priority and wanted to secure Turkiye’s “yes” with concessions on Kurdish policy. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has already said that Turkiye is more positive about the new Swedish government, but a breakthrough is still in doubt.
At the end of June, it initially looked like a compromise: the parties agreed on a joint memorandum, a declaration of intent. It addresses Turkiye’s reservations in ten points, including arms exports and the fight against terrorism. Accordingly, Stockholm has lifted an arms embargo against Turkiye, and the Swedish secret service Säpo has also reassessed the role of the PKK in the country. Sweden’s new foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, distanced himself from Kurdish groups in Syria, taking up one of Ankara’s demands. In an interview, he said that Stockholm no longer wanted to support the Kurdish militia YPG or its political arm PYD.
Kristersson has only been in office since mid-October. He leads a conservative government that is supported by right-wing populists. After an exchange of letters on October 26, Erdogan had invited Kristersson to Ankara in a telephone call. In the conversation, Erdogan pointed out that terrorist organizations should not take Sweden’s NATO membership “hostage”, said his communications director. Mustafa Sentop, President of the Turkish Parliament, had explained to his counterparts from Sweden and Finland what Erdogan meant by this. Only when the governments of the two countries take concrete steps to meet Turkiye’s demands will the ratification of their applications for membership be put on the agenda of the parliament in Ankara. Sentop said he had already pointed out in a video conference on September 7 that NATO is a security organization and that Turkiye has been contributing to the security of the alliance for 70 years. Turkey therefore has the right to expect the other member states to also contribute to Turkiye’s security with concrete measures. Turkiye understands concrete measures not only as “the extradition of terrorist criminals and suspects”, but also that fundraising, propaganda and the recruitment of the terrorist organizations PKK and Fetö, as the Turkish term for the Gülen movement is called, would be prevented.
After the meeting with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said he could not yet say that Sweden and Finland had implemented all the points of the memorandum. President Erdogan also emphasized that the timing of approval for accession depends on the steps taken in the countries.
In Sweden, those “steps” are seen as a possible violation of the independence of the Swedish courts and the autonomy of the Swedish authorities through political interference. Ankara has presented a list of people living in Sweden whose extradition it is demanding, including asylum seekers. Such questions are decided by courts in Sweden, not by politicians. Stockholm and Helsinki have already confirmed that they only want to join NATO together, apparently one does not want to be divided on the question of Erdogan.
Another point in the memorandum from the summer seems to be much more controversial anyway. It states that Sweden and Finland would deal with Turkiye’s extradition requests for terrorist suspects “quickly and thoroughly”. According to Turkiye, there should also have been concrete commitments to extradition. Stockholm, on the other hand, had always pointed out that Swedish and European law should be adhered to on these issues.
Turkiye has given Sweden and Finland lists of about 30 people identified as terrorists. The problem is less Finland than Sweden, Turkish media reported. If at least one person from the list is not extradited, Turkiye will treat it as if nothing had happened. An influential political commentator in Turkiye wrote that Sweden and Finland apparently fear the extradition of even a single PKK member because the PKK could then carry out retaliatory actions there that endanger the security of both countries. The first extradition of a PKK member convicted or wanted for terrorism could trigger a chain reaction that could affect not only Sweden and Finland but also other countries where the PKK is organized.
Swedish hopes that Erdogan could agree to NATO’s northern expansion by the end of the year are very optimistic. There is every reason to be skeptical. The news agency “Bloomberg”, citing informed Turkish officials, even reported that it was unlikely that Turkiye would ratify the accession application before next year’s elections. The presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in June 2023.
The dispute over NATO uses Erdogan at home, he is under political pressure. Inflation is now more than 85 percent, people are suffering from the increased food and energy prices. Polls predict a close race in the elections next year. With his nationalist rhetoric, Erdogan scores points with the voters: when he railed against Sweden and Finland joining NATO in May, his approval ratings improved for a short time.
Some observers also cite close ties with Russia as a possible reason for Turkiye’s blockade. Although Ankara sided with Kiev early on in the Ukraine war and supplied combat drones, for example, it did not join European sanctions against Moscow. Economic relations between Russia and Turkiye are benefiting, the volume of trade has increased by 198 percent since the beginning of the war. So is Erdogan doing Putin a favor with the NATO dispute?
At least one recent event seems to speak against it. When Putin pulled out of the wheat deal that allows grain to be exported from Ukrainian ports, Erdogan stood his ground. He said the disembarkations co-organized by Turkiye would continue while Turkiye and the United Nations launched a diplomatic offensive. A few days later, Moscow declared its return to the agreement. If the Turkish president wants to, he can be tough on Putin.
Erdogan is blocking the NATO issue because he expects political gain from it. He is only likely to give in when he can sell his agreement as a triumph – or when the pressure from Brussels and Washington becomes so intense that Erdogan’s cost-benefit balance threatens to tip over.
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