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KEY POINTS: Five things you need to know about Sweden and Nato

After decades of staying out of military alliances, Finland and neighbouring Sweden announced bids to join Nato in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. Here are five things to know about the two countries' membership bids.

KEY POINTS: Five things you need to know about Sweden and Nato
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson address a joint press conference in Stockholm on March 7, 2023. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

After Turkey became the final member to ratify Finland’s bid on Thursday, the Finns are expected to finalise their membership in the coming days, while Sweden continues to face opposition.

Historic U-turns

For decades, most Swedes and Finns were in favour of maintaining their policies of military non-alignment. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year sparked sharp U-turns.

The change was especially dramatic in Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia. Prior to the application, public support for NATO membership had remained steady at 20-30 percent for two decades, but a February poll suggested 82 percent were happy with the decision to join the alliance.

A Swedish poll in January had 63 percent of Swedes in favour of joining the bloc.

During the Cold War, Finland remained neutral in exchange for assurances from Moscow that it would not invade. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Finland remained militarily non-aligned.

Sweden adopted an official policy of neutrality at the end of the 19th-century Napoleonic wars, which was amended to one of military non-alignment following the end of the Cold War.

 Split entry

The Nordic neighbours were originally adamant they wanted to join the alliance together, agreeing to submit their applications at the same time. Despite assurances they would be welcomed with “open arms”, their applications quickly ran into opposition, primarily from NATO member Turkey. Bids to join NATO must be ratified by all members of the alliance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in mid-March asked parliament to ratify Finland’s bid, but delayed Sweden’s following a litany of disputes. Similarly, when Hungary ratified Finland’s bid on March 27, Sweden’s was pushed until “later”.

Finland decided to move forward, even if it meant leaving Sweden behind. Since Finland’s parliament has already approved the application, all it needs to do now that all ratifications have been secured is deposit an “instrument of accession” in Washington to finalise the membership.

Sweden vs Turkey

Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed a trilateral memorandum at a NATO summit in June last year to secure the start of the accession process. But Ankara has repeatedly butted heads with Stockholm, saying its demands have remained unfulfilled, particularly for the extradition of Turkish citizens that Turkey wants to prosecute for “terrorism”.

It has accused Sweden of providing a safe haven for “terrorists”, specifically members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Negotiations between the countries were temporarily suspended in early 2023, after protests — involving both the burning of the Koran and a mock hanging of an effigy of Erdogan — were staged in Stockholm.

Militaries

Swedish policy long dictated that the country needed a strong military to protect its neutrality. But after the Cold War, it drastically slashed defence spending, turning its military focus toward peacekeeping operations.

Combining its different branches, the Swedish military can field some 50,000 soldiers, about half of whom are reservists. While Finland has similarly made defence cuts, it has maintained a much larger army than Sweden.

The country of 5.5 million people has a wartime strength of 280,000 troops plus 600,000 reservists. After Russia invaded Ukraine, both countries announced increased spending.

Sweden said it was targeting two percent of GDP “as soon as possible”, and Finland added more than two billion euros ($2.1 billion) to its 5.1 billion-euro defence budget over the next four years.

 Memories of war

While Sweden has sent forces to international peacekeeping missions, it has not gone to war for over 200 years. Finland’s memories of warfare are much fresher. In 1939, it was invaded by the Soviet Union.

Finns put up a fierce fight during the bloody Winter War, but the country was ultimately forced to cede a huge stretch of its eastern Karelia province in a peace treaty with Moscow.

A 1948 “friendship agreement” saw the Soviets agree not to invade again, as long as Finland stayed out of any Western defence cooperation. The country’s forced neutrality to appease its stronger neighbour coined the term “Finlandization”.

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TERRORISM

Hundreds march in Stockholm against Nato and Sweden’s new anti-terror laws

Hundreds of people joined a demonstration in Stockholm against new anti-terror legislation, which was introduced to get Turkey to drop its objection to Swedish Nato membership.

Hundreds march in Stockholm against Nato and Sweden's new anti-terror laws

The Sunday demonstration was organised by groups close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), outlawed by Turkey, which this week warned against “terrorists” being allowed to demonstrate in Sweden.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has so far blocked Sweden’s Nato membership, accusing Stockholm of being a haven for the Kurdish activists.

To address his concerns, Sweden passed a new law that criminalises “participation in a terrorist organisation”.

“They are after the Kurds in Sweden,” Tomas Pettersson, spokesperson for the Alliance Against Nato, told AFP at the protest, titled “No to Nato, No Erdoğan Laws in Sweden.”

Petterson added that the idea behind the law is “to have an arrest and a trial and a victim,” so that Erdoğan “will then let Sweden into Nato”.

Protesters waved numerous PKK flags, along with signs reading “No to Nato.”

“Our membership in Nato would cause a lot of blackmail from Erdoğan,” former Swedish MP Amineh Kakabaveh told AFP.

A spokesman for Erdoğan on Tuesday said it was “completely unacceptable that PKK terrorists continue to operate freely in Sweden” and urged Swedish authorities to block the protest.

EXPLAINED:

Even though the PKK is also considered a terrorist organisation in Sweden – as in the rest of the EU – its supporters are generally allowed to protest in public.

Sweden and Finland dropped decades of military non-alignment and applied to join Nato in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Finland formally joined in April, however Turkey and Hungary have yet to ratify Sweden’s membership bid.

Sweden’s justice minister reiterated on Friday that the new law is not aimed at attacking freedom of speech.

Foreign Minister Tobias Billström on Thursday hailed the new legislation as Sweden’s last step under an accord signed with Turkey last year for Ankara to ratify Stockholm’s membership.

After meeting Erdoğan in Turkey, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg on Sunday called on Ankara to drop its opposition to Sweden’s bid, saying Stockholm has addressed security concerns.

Ankara suspended negotiations with Sweden in outrage after protests in January that included a Koran burning outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm.

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