Sweden’s NATO bid hit by repeated rows with Turkey

Sweden's bid for NATO membership is facing a dead end because Ankara's demands to Stockholm to hand over Kurdish activists and prevent rallies attacking Turkey's leadership have strained ties.

Sweden's NATO bid hit by repeated rows with Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (L) hold a press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on November 8, 2022. Photo: Adem ALTAN/AFP

The chances of this changing after Turkey’s parliamentary elections due in mid-May are uncertain, said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. “We can now probably forget Turkish ratification before the elections, which seem to be scheduled for May 14,” Levin told AFP. “What happens after that depends in part on who wins.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections to Sweden’s NATO membership rest largely on Stockholm’s refusal to extradite Turkish nationals Ankara wants to prosecute for “terrorism”. And Erdogan is running for re-election.

In December, Sweden extradited a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey. He had been convicted in a Turkish court and denied asylum in Sweden.

Erdogan wants more action from Stockholm against the PKK, listed as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies.

READ ALSO: Anti-Turkey demo in Sweden deepens tensions over NATO bid

“On one hand, there is a Turkish president who has jailed thousands over alleged insults and who wants to divert attention from a poor economy in the months before an election,” said Levin. “On the other hand, there are groups in Sweden who are against NATO membership and PKK supporters worried about the government’s pledges to go after” them, he said.

Levin said these PKK supporters had realised they could provoke Erdogan “by insulting him and thereby stall the accession process”.

Protests in Sweden

A protest by a far-right politician in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on Saturday — authorised by the police — has further strained relations.

Rasmus Paludan is a Swedish-Danish activist who has already been convicted for racist abuse.

He provoked rioting in Sweden last year when he went on a tour of the country and publicly burned copies of the Koran.

On Saturday, he burned another copy of the Muslim holy book after a speech of almost an hour denouncing Islam.

Police based their decision to authorise the protest on the basis of Sweden’s liberal constitution, which protects the right to demonstrate.

Ankara summoned Sweden’s ambassador to register its outrage, then cancelled a visit of Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson that had been scheduled for next Friday in Ankara — a rare high-level meeting.

Earlier this month, Ankara called in Sweden’s ambassador after pro-Kurdish activists hung an effigy of Erdogan from its feet, explicitly comparing him to Benito Mussolini.

Italy’s Fascist dictator was left hanging upside down after his execution in the closing days of World War II.

Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced it as an attempt to sabotage the country’s NATO membership bid — but that sparked a backlash from some inside Sweden defending the right to freedom of expression.

Islamist dictator’

Then last week, the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, whose party props up the Swedish government, denounced Erdogan as an “Islamist dictator”.

He urged Kristersson not to appease Turkey “because it is ultimately an anti-democratic system and a dictator we are dealing with”, Akesson told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

Turkey is seeking the extradition of more Kurdish “terrorists” based in Sweden. Erdogan recently said there were as many as 130 there

Stockholm has made it clear that the courts have the final say, but that does not appear to have satisfied Ankara.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, who last spring was talking of a fast-track membership process of just a few weeks, told AFP in January he still thought it would happen in 2023, even if he could not guarantee it.

Both Turkey and Hungary were still to ratify the bid, he pointed out. Both countries have maintained links with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, with Ankara in particular adopting the role of mediator between the two sides.

One spark of hope for Sweden is that Finland, which also launched its bid to join NATO following the Russian invasion, has made it clear that it does not want to enter the alliance without its “big brother”.

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Swedish foreign minister disappointed by Turkey not acting on Nato bid

Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom on Friday said he regretted Turkey's decision to hold off moving forward on his country's Nato bid, while pushing ahead with that of Finland.

Swedish foreign minister disappointed by Turkey not acting on Nato bid

“This is a development that we did not want, but that we were prepared for,” Billstrom told journalists, adding that the country’s priority was now securing ratifications from the two holdouts – Turkey and Hungary.

Following months of delays, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that he was asking parliament to vote on Finland’s bid to join the Nato defence bloc.

However, he said he was still not ready to move forward on Sweden, which submitted its bid together with Finland in May of last year.

In another setback for Sweden, Hungary announced Friday that it would vote on Finland’s ratification on March 27, but Sweden’s bid would be decided on “later”.

READ ALSO: Erdoğan asks parliament to vote on Finland’s Nato bid alone

Billstrom declined to comment on the news from Hungary, saying he had no confirmation from Budapest.

The Nordic neighbours ended decades of military non-alignment and decided to join the US-led defence alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Their applications were accepted at a June Nato summit, but the bids still needed to be ratified by all 30 of the alliance members’ parliaments – a process that ran into trouble when it came to Turkey and Hungary.

Erdogan has accused Sweden in particular of not honouring the terms of a separate deal they reached in June 2022, under which Turkey had agreed to approve the bids.

READ ALSO: ‘Increased chance that Finland joins NATO before Sweden’: PM

Turkey has sought the extradition of dozens of Kurdish and other suspects it accuses of ties to outlawed militants and a failed 2016 coup attempt.

On Friday, the Turkish head of state said Sweden had still not agreed to extradite a list of some 120 people wanted by Ankara.

In Stockholm, Billstrom insisted that Sweden was living up to its commitments under the deal.

“We are doing everything that is written in this memorandum, but we do not do less and we do not do more than what is written in it,” he said.

READ ALSO: KEY DATES: The milestones ahead for Sweden’s Nato membership  

“This means that when extradition cases arise that are related to this memorandum, there will be decisions that can be positive and that can be negative from Turkey’s point of view and that is how it will simply be,” he added.