Burning bridges: Sweden’s bid for NATO membership blocked by Turkey

sweden Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson hold a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkiye on November 08, 2022 [Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency]

Sweden should no longer expect Turkey's support for its NATO membership bid, declared Turkish President Recep Erdogan in a press-conference on Monday, January 23d.

Erdogan's remark, received by a round of applause from the audience, was prompted by burning of the Quran by a far right politician Rasmus Paludin, leader of Hard Line party known for its provocative stance against Islam and Muslims.

Paludin set the Quran on flames during a solitary protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. The act caused an outrage in Turkey and provoked a number of mass protests, including one where the participants burned a Swedish flag.

The exchange of inflammatory performances marked another downturn in the talks on Sweden's accession to NATO against the background of the Ukrainian crisis. Although the negotiations between Stockholm and Ankara were already heading to an impasse, the latest public escalation brought into the spotlight the shaky ground it was build upon.

Indeed, the burning of Quran clearly was a provocation staged by a shady politician who exploited Swedish laws on freedom of expression. However, it took Erdogan almost no effort to sell it to the domestic audience as an intentional insult from the Swedish authorities.

With a perfect excuse for Turkey to block Sweden's bid for NATO membership all Ankara has to do now is wait and see what Sweden and other NATO members can offer it as a concession.

In turn, Sweden remains reluctant to deliver on the promises made in the initial round of the talks. Handing over alleged coup-plotters wanted by Turkey runs contrary to the kingdom's policy on hosting refugees.

Another dilemma comes with the second condition set by Turkey: cancelling support for Kurdish movements, primarily Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), that has been engaged in an on-and-off armed conflict with Ankara since 1980s.

The PKK is officially considered a terrorist group by the EU and the US. This designation has not prevented the West from partnering with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

YPG, a militant Kurdish faction connected to PKK, was instrumental in the defeat of ISIS terrorists in Syria, and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria continue to receive humanitarian aid and financial support from Western states, including Sweden.

Since Turkey considers YPG and the Kurdish administration as a Syrian branch of PKK, it accuses the West of supporting terrorism.

Meanwhile Russia has already announced its intention to deploy additional troops on the border with Finland and bolster its Baltic Sea military capabilities. Should Stockholm decide to walk out of the deal with Ankara, it risks facing off Russia without the weight of NATO military might behind it.

All things considered, Sweden is experiencing immense pressure. To fulfill its obligations to Turkey it must send away Kurdish refugees to a sure prison term and negate its partnership with an important player in the Middle East.

Although the Swedish contribution to the support of the Kurds is relatively modest, it would still be humiliating to yield to Turkish demands while other NATO members remain idle.

To add insult to injury, these conditions were made possible by Turkey's clever manipulation of Sweden's own legislation that defines PKK as a terror group. The trap set by Erdogan was not even particularly devious, but Stockholm has fallen right into it.

The whole debacle has become so convoluted that Finland which has initially intended to join NATO via the joint negotiations track with Sweden is contemplating separate talks with Turkey.

Finnish top diplomat Pekka Haavisto suggested that his country may "reevaluate the situation" if it turns out that Sweden's applications is stalling for a long time.

The sole benefactor of this situation is, of course, Turkey. Through blackmail and threats Erdogan has forced Sweden, Finland and all of NATO into catering to his desires and made them cast away respect for human rights and liberties.

The Turkish President plays dirty and wins, leaving Europe weak, vulnerable and divided.

Kemran Mamedov is a Moscow-based Azerbaijiani journalist born in Georgia with a focus on South Caucasus issues.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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