Can Erdogan still bless Sweden’s NATO accession?

When Sweden announced that it was leaving behind more than two centuries of neutrality to join NATO, it counted on a furious reaction from Russia, but not from Turkey. Although representatives of the Atlantic Alliance and Ankara had assured her of her welcome, the Turkish government has maintained its firm blockade of the accession of the Scandinavian country for 13 months, which it accuses of being an “incubator for terrorists.”


Only two days ago, Erdogan poured cold water on Swedish accession by stating he needs to see more action from the Nordic country in terms of extraditing “known terrorists” before he gives his blessing to membership.  Erdogan’s is known for his brinkmanship, with some analysts suggesting he may still change his mind.   Turkish veto of Swedish membership would complicate Turkey-US an EU relations, causing harm to Turkey’s efforts to attract financial capital and overhaul her aging air force.


At the beginning of the month, once Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been re-elected as Turkish president, the Swedish government fueled optimism by emphasizing that, after the entry into force of new anti-terrorism legislation, it had fulfilled all its commitments. Erdogan threw another jug ​​of cold water by stating that he will not give in while “dozens of terrorists continue to roam freely” in Stockholm. “The Swedish government is eager to extradite and deport as many Turks as possible. Fortunately, he is limited by justice,” says Bülent Kenes, a Turkish journalist in exile in Sweden whose surrender Erdogan vehemently demands.


The Swedish government has been aware for months that Turkey would maintain its veto at least until the presidential elections in May: Erdogan would try to obtain the maximum electoral gain from his fight against NATO. In Stockholm they hoped to make progress in June to unblock the blockade. On the 1st, the law that punishes links with a terrorist group with sentences of between four and 25 years in prison came into force, for whose approval a constitutional reform was necessary that limited the right of association. The following week, the Supreme Court authorized the extradition of an alleged sympathizer of the PKK, the Kurdish group that has waged an armed struggle with the Turkish state for more than four decades, and the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office charged for the first time a citizen of financing this guerrilla group, considered a terrorist group by the EU and the US.


Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, and the governments of the United States, France and Germany, among others, have pressed Turkey particularly hard in recent days to give the green light for Sweden to join before the Alliance’s annual summit. to be held in July in Vilnius (Lithuania), an increasingly complicated option. Erdogan insists that he has not yet crossed any names off the list of 130 Turkish “terrorists” whose delivery he demands as a bargaining chip for entry into the transatlantic organization. The Government of the Scandinavian country affirms that it studies “in a thorough and expeditious manner the requests for extraditions made by the Turkish Prosecutor’s Office”, as established in the Madrid agreement.


“An obsession for the regime”


Among the “terrorists” claimed by Ankara, Kenes is the only one that Erdogan has publicly cited. The journalist directed for almost a decade the English edition of Zaman, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Turkey until it was seized by court order. “I have become an obsession for the regime,” summarizes Kenes, a human rights activist and fervent Europeanist. The Supreme Court rejected in December the extradition of the dissident, sentenced in absentia to three life sentences. “The Turkish negotiators have named me up to 26 times in the bilateral meetings held in Ankara,” says the journalist, a refugee in Scandinavia since 2015.

Kenes believes that the chances of Sweden becoming a member of the Alliance in less than three weeks in Lithuania have not entirely faded. “Erdogan knows that the extradition processes take his time and that the Swedish government can no longer do much more,” he argues. “Until recently, sympathizing with the PKK could be a reason to grant political asylum; now, a reason to hand over a citizen to the Turkish justice”, sums up this 54-year-old journalist.

The almost 100,000 Kurds residing in Sweden are experiencing special tension in the negotiations with Ankara. Most of the citizens claimed by the Turkish Prosecutor’s Office are Kurdish, and several have already been expelled from Sweden in recent months. The first cases were deportations of citizens whose application for asylum or residence permit was denied after being classified as a “national security risk” by the Swedish Security Police.


In early June, the Supreme Court authorized the extradition of Mehmet Kokulu, an alleged PKK sympathizer with a residence permit. Kurdo Baksi, a writer, political analyst and one of the most influential figures in the Kurdish community in Sweden, maintains that Kokulu declared his membership in the Kurdish guerilla with the intention of politicizing his case. “Unlike others like [el deportado] Mahmut Tat, he was not persecuted for his ties to the PKK, but for transporting 1.8 kilos of marijuana,” Baksi explains. “He tried to avoid expulsion at the last minute, and the Swedish media quickly published that he was a member of the PKK in order to frame the process in the NATO accession negotiations,” he adds.


Protests against Erdogan

Negotiations between Sweden and Turkey were suspended in winter, after various protests were held in Stockholm against Erdogan, in which a Koran was burned and an effigy of the Turkish president was hung from a lamppost. After the first few days of June in which the agreement seemed closer than ever, a new demonstration in which PKK flags were waved, and one was projected on the facade of the Swedish Parliament, once again enraged the Turkish leader. “While Stoltenberg was trying to convince us that Sweden has fulfilled his part, dozens of terrorists were demonstrating freely in Stockholm,” he declared.


In recent days, the US government has multiplied its efforts to unblock Swedish accession. Washington threatens Turkey with blocking the sale of 40 F-16 combat planes, and Hungary with the sale of 24 Himars multiple rocket launchers, if they do not first ratify Sweden’s entry into the Alliance in their parliaments.



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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.