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UPDATED: Could Turkey block Sweden from Nato membership?

Turkey's President Erdogan over the weekend issued tough conditions for backing Swedish Nato membership in a call with Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. How big is the problem and how can it be solved?

UPDATED: Could Turkey block Sweden from Nato membership?
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu at the Nato summit. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP

What has happened? 

May 13th: The Friday before the week when Sweden and Finland sent in their requests for Nato membership, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threw a spanner in the works.  

“It would be a mistake” to admit Finland and Sweden, he said, given the way the two countries have sheltered members of groups which Turkey views as terrorist, such as the Kurdish nationalist PKK and YPG groups, and members of the Gülen movement. 

According to Swedish officials, until then Turkey had made no objections against Swedish or Finnish Nato membership in any of the discussions with and within Nato over the past few months. 

May 14th: A meeting between Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, and her Turkish counterpart the next day failed to yield a solution. 

May 18th: The next Wednesday, when Nato’s 30 ambassadors met to approve the bids Finland and Sweden had handed in at 8am that morning, opposition from Turkey’s ambassador blocked the vote on opening accession talks. 

May 21st: The following Saturday, Erdogan held calls with both Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and with Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s Director General. 

“Unless Sweden and Finland clearly show that they will stand in solidarity with Turkey on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism, we will not approach these countries’ Nato membership positively,” Erdogan told Stoltenberg. 

He told Andersson that “Sweden’s political, financial and arms support to terrorist organisations must end”.

Turkey, he said, expected Sweden to “take concrete and serious steps” that show it shares Ankara’s concerns over the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots.

Why is Turkey unhappy? 

Turkey has long accused Sweden, and to a lesser extent Finland, of providing protection to members of PKK, an armed group fighting for parts of northeastern Turkey to become a Kurdish homeland.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, EU, and some other countries, including Sweden. But Sweden, the US and the EU see the YPG, the militia fighting in Syria, as a separate entity. 

Turkey’s government, along with most of the country’s voters, however, see both the PYA, the ruling party in the semi-autonomous Kurdish province in Syria, and the YPG as offshoots of the PKK. Aside from Turkey, only Qatar classes YPG as a terror group. 

There are no official statistics on the number of Kurds living in Sweden, but Kurdish groups estimate the number at as much as 100,000, including six MPs of Kurdish origin. 

Sweden has given significant support to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is defended by the YPG militia, which Turkey views as a terrorist group.

“The problem is that these two countries are openly supporting and engaging with PKK and YPG [People’s Protection Units],” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said on Saturday as he arrived at a Nato meeting in Berlin. “These are terrorist organisations that have been attacking our troops every day.” 

What does Turkey want? 

Turkey has demanded that Sweden and Finland extradite a wish-list of 33 people it sees as linked to the PKK, YPG, or else to the Gülenist movement Turkey blames for a coup attempt in 2016. 

Çavuşoğlu has also called for Sweden and Finland to clamp down on “outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence” linked to the PKK. 

Third, Turkey has called on Sweden to the arms embargo Sweden imposed on Turkey after it launched its military offensive in 2019 against the Kurdish militia People’s Defense Units (YPG).

Finally, Turkey may be pushing for more and better jet fighters from the US. Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 fighter program in 2019 after it angered the US by buying missiles from Russia. 

How is the deal which made Andersson PM involved?

Sweden’s parliament is so evenly split between left and right, that Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was voted in as Prime Minister in November by a single vote. Perhaps the decisive swing vote was held by a Amineh Kakabaveh, an MP who left the Left Party in 2019 to become an independent. 

In exchange for her vote, she won a commitment from the Social Democrats to “deepen their cooperation” with PYD, the leading political party of Syrian Kurds, which controls The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is also known as Rojava. 

The agreement is a strongly-worded statement in support of the autonomous Kurdish government, which roundly dismisses the Turkish argument that the PYD and its armed militia the YPG are linked with the PKK. 

“The PYD political party has a crucial role in the autonomous administration and represents a legitimate negotiating partner,” reads the agreement, which is signed by Tobias Baudin, the Social Democrat’s party secretary. 

“That freedom fighters who have fought with or sympathise with YPG/YPJ or PYD are classed by certain countries’ actors as terrorists is unacceptable.” 

The agreement also touches on Turkish domestic politics, calling for Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, to be released from pre-trial detention. Demirtaş has been held since 2016. 

What has Sweden’s foreign minister Ann Linde done?

Linde has been quite outspoken in her support of the Kurdish autonomous administration, meeting Ilham Ahmad, the co-President of the administration’s Executive Council in December. 

She also has a history of clashing with Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, claims Paul Levin, a Turkey expert at Stockholm University. Levin pointed particularly to a tense press conference in 2020 in which Linde drove the EU line that Turkey should end its offensive against the Kurdish autonomous region and withdraw its forces from northern Syria. 

“This is something they still talk about. Turkey has a problem with Ann Linde,” Levin said.

After Linde’s meeting with Çavuşoğlu on May 14th, she was categorical that Sweden viewed PKK as a terrorist group, but said that she did not believe that the Kurdish government in northern Syria was part of the same organisation, something she claimed Turkey was insisting on. Çavuşoğlu then accused her of being provocative and misrepresenting their discussion. 

Which other Swedish politicians have angered Turkey? 

Sweden’s defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, was in 2019 named as a PKK sympathiser in a report by Seta, the foreign policy think tank linked to Turkey’s ruling party. According to the report, Hultqvist had pledged to help the Kurdish YPG militia with healthcare for their wounded soldiers in a 2016 meeting. In a report on the meeting by Sweden’s state broadcaster SR, however, Hultqvist said he had promised YPG nothing. 

Other politicians named as PKK sympathisers in the report were the Left Party’s former leader Jonas Sjöstedt, and Kakabaveh. 

What has Sweden done so far? 

Both Sweden and Finland have so far refused to extradite the individuals on Turkey’s wishlist, and are unlikely to do so, as this will look like Nato membership has forced the country to bow on human rights issues to Turkey’s authoritarian president. 

This would prove many of the concerns of those opposed to Nato membership right, and so lose the ruling Social Democrats votes to the Green or Left Party, both of which opposed applying to join. 

With a tight election coming up, the Social Democrats will also be wary of upsetting the large Kurdish voting public. 

A lifting of the arms embargo on Turkey would be more feasible, as would Sweden issuing some tough language criticising the PKK, and pledging not to support it. 

Turkey’s tactics have worked before. When the former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in the running to become Nato Secretary General in 2009,  the then President, Abdullah Gul, vetoed his appointment.

This was partly because of his defence of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper’s publication of Mohammed cartoons, and partly because Denmark was host to Roj TV, a Kurdish rebel broadcaster. Erdogan was prime minister at the time. 

While no overt deal was done, Danish police then launched an investigation into economic ties between Roj TV and the PKK, and into whether the network’s broadcasts incited terrorism. 

A few years after Rasmussen was appointed, the network then had its Danish broadcasting license revoked for “glorifying terrorism”, and ten Kurds in Denmark were charged with terror funding. All were later acquitted

Might Turkey end up blocking Sweden’s membership? 

For a new member to be admitted to Nato requires the consensus of all existing members, so theoretically, yes, it could. But most commentators view Turkey as exploiting the situation to win concessions. 

After her talk with Erdogan, Andersson said she had assured him that Sweden was a staunch opponent of terrorism. 

“I emphasised that Sweden welcomes the possibility of cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and emphasised that Sweden clearly supports the fight against terrorism and the terrorist listing of the PKK,” she said in a statement.

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Nato launches ratification process for Sweden and Finland

Nato on Tuesday kicked off momentous accession procedures for Sweden and Finland, aiming to expand the military alliance to 32 countries in reaction to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Nato launches ratification process for Sweden and Finland

“This is an historic day, for Finland, for Sweden, for Nato, and for Euro-Atlantic security,” Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said after protocols were signed launching the required ratification process in all alliance countries.

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, alongside Stoltenberg, also qualified the occasion as “historic”.

 “We are tremendously grateful for all the strong support that our accession has received from the allies,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

“We are convinced that our membership would strengthen Nato and add to the stability in the Euro Atlantic area,” she added.

“The membership of both Finland and Sweden will not only contribute to our own security, but to the collective security of the alliance,” said Finland’s Pekka Haavisto.

The two Nordic countries had long maintained non-alignment status, even though they have held exercises with Nato and have inter-operable weapons systems.

They announced intentions to join Nato in May, triggered by Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and ongoing war there.

In a sudden change of course, Sweden and Finland — the latter of which fought a Soviet invasion in 1939-1940 and shares a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Russia — asked to come under Nato’s mutual-defence umbrella.

Their bids hit a road-bump when Turkey, a Nato member, threatened to block their entry.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had accused Sweden and Finland of being havens for Kurdish militants he has sought to crush, and for promoting “terrorism”.

He also demanded they lift arms embargoes imposed for Turkey’s 2019 military incursion into Syria. But Erdogan dropped his objections last week, in time for a Nato summit in Spain, after negotiations resulted in concessions — and a US promise of new warplanes for Turkey.

The summit ended up extending invitations to Sweden and Finland to formally apply, leading to lightning-fast negotiations on Monday then Tuesday’s signing.

Security commitments

Erdogan says he could still slam the door shut if Sweden and Finland don’t follow through on their promises, which include possible extradition agreements.

The months-long period during which all Nato countries have to ratify the Nordic countries’ membership is a risky moment, not only because of Turkey’s threat but also because the Nato mutual-defence clause is not yet applicable.

Stoltenberg said: “I count on allies to deliver a quick and swift and smooth ratification process.”

He emphasised that “many allies have already made clear commitments to Finland and Sweden’s security” during the interim period, and pointed out a boosted Nato presence in their region.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said security assurances had been made by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland and Nato members in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Several Nato members flagged expedited ratification for Sweden and Finland.

“Moments after Finland and Sweden’s accession protocols were signed in Brussels, I summoned my government and proposed to Estonian parliament to convene tomorrow for accelerated ratification,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted.

Germany’s parliament was poised to ratify as early as the end of this week. Sources in the ruling coalition said a first reading of the text was likely on Wednesday, with the final two readings on Friday.

“This is the fastest accession process in Nato’s history so far,” Stoltenberg said.