President Erdogan 2020 / photo. The Turkish president’s response to Rasmus Paludan’s burning of the Koran in Sweden was blunt: “Sweden will not have our support to join the Alliance.” In other words, contrary to earlier announcements, he decided to prevent Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. Last June, the Turkish government promised to support NATO enlargement provided that the Nordic countries take a stronger stance against Kurdish fighters; groups that Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers terrorist and blames for the attempted coup in 2016. The West hailed the June agreement as a victory. “Vladimir Putin wanted less NATO, and now he has more of the Atlantic Alliance on his borders,” boasted Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Now these statements contrast with Erdogan’s recent position. Referring to the incident in front of the embassy and the demonstration of support for the Kurds, the Turkish president said: “This is treason, vulgarity, villainy, disgrace.” What Sweden allowed Paludan to do on the basis of the right to freedom of expression was a crime for Turkey that threatened the enlargement of the Alliance with two new members. At least for now. “Sweden did not miss this opportunity in the long run. Turkey set out the conditions for accession in a tripartite memorandum (which calls for legal reforms against terrorism) and Sweden has already made changes in this respect, although it still needs six months to do so. I think it is likely that they will become NATO members after the May elections in Turkey,” said Ragip Soylu, an analyst and head of Turkey’s Middle East Eye news bureau. According to commentators, it is not only about the implementation of the tripartite memorandum signed at the NATO summit in Madrid. Erdogan pursues his political goals. “The problem is that Sweden has given shelter to people associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Stockholm strongly criticized Turkey for its military operation against the Kurds in Syria in 2019. Ankara has never forgotten this and wants to use the current situation in the upcoming election campaign.”
Erdogan’s war with the Kurds
Analysts point out that Erdogan’s stance is another step in the president’s political strategy towards the Kurdish community since the attempted coup. In November, he blamed the Kurds for a deadly bombing in Istanbul that killed six people. For their part, Kurdish groups denied any involvement in the explosion. “Erdogan pushed a very strong anti-Kurdish policy aimed at sowing divisions in the Turkish opposition bloc and thus strengthening his position,” believes Guney Yildiz, a political research expert in Turkey. A coalition of Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party, according to polls, could remain without an absolute majority and would need the support of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP). “Problem? The HDP is the successor to the Kurdish-founded parties that functioned as the political arm of the guerrillas and cannot shake off this past because only half of its voters are leftists. If Erdogan wants to break up the opposition, he must force social democrats and nationalists to fight over the Kurdish issue. The veto on Sweden’s accession to NATO is another manifestation of Erdogan’s political offensive against the Kurds, but with ramifications beyond Turkey’s borders.”
On Wednesday, Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson is scheduled to meet NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana in Brussels to discuss the current state of negotiations.
‘Membership is necessary to constrain Putin’
Sweden is in a difficult situation. Despite the concessions of the centre-right government and the commitment to implement some Turkish demands, such as tightening anti-terrorist regulations, other demands, such as the extradition of some Kurds, have not been taken into account. “They want things that we can’t and won’t give them. Now it’s up to the Turks to decide,” said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. Moreover, almost eight out of ten Swedes oppose changing the law to get Turkey’s approval, even though most citizens are in favor of NATO membership. “NATO must end this dispute and welcome new members unreservedly,” Bloomberg wrote on Tuesday. The article points out that Turkey’s tenacity threatens not only the Nordic countries’ candidacies for NATO membership, but also Europe’s security. Further delays will deprive NATO of the benefits of both countries’ military and intelligence capabilities at a time when Alliance resources are concentrated to help Ukraine. Moreover, after Sweden and Finland stopped being neutral in the war and asked to join the Alliance, they are particularly vulnerable to Russian terror. “The admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO is essential to deter Vladimir Putin and strengthen Europe’s defense against future threats. The message must be clear: an Ally who intentionally harms group security is not an absolute ally.” While Turkey is blocking NATO enlargement, Russia has announced the expansion of its armed forces in the border region with Finland. “Threats include the North Atlantic Alliance’s aspirations to expand into Finland and Sweden, as well as the use of Ukraine as a tool to conduct a hybrid war against our country,” said Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian Army General Staff. According to Moscow’s new military plan, armed soldiers will be sent to Karelia in northern Russia. Increasing the military presence in the area is part of the Russian plan to increase the size of the army to 1.5 million by 2026. The security benefits that the accession of Sweden and Finland to the Transatlantic Alliance could entail was not a concern of Rasmus Paludan at the time when he was smoking a Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. This is not the first time this politician has burned a Muslim holy book. Moreover, Paludan declared last year that “burning the Koran” was a way to oppose Islam. Last Saturday, the reason for the destruction of the Koran, in addition to the fight against Islam, was also what Rasmus Paludan saw as an attempt to limit the freedom of expression of Swedish citizens by the Turkish president (Paludan also has Swedish citizenship). Erdogan cannot forgive that Sweden allowed such a demonstration organized by a person who is a repeat offender when it comes to burning the holy book of Islam. Paludan, despite being imprisoned several times, will not go to prison this time because the protest was legal. Sweden may pay dearly for a symbolic gesture by an extremist. “If Erdogan remains in power, we can wait years, not months, to be admitted; unless other NATO allies use carrot-and-stick tactics to convince Ankara,” Paul Levin, director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, told the Financial Times.