Quran burning in Sweden enrages Turkey, threatens path to NATO membership

Sweden and Finland have taken the next step by joining NATO, which means that only a formal ratification of their membership agreement remains.

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It has now been eight months since Sweden and Finland declared their intention to join NATO, a move that has upended the countries’ longstanding non-alignment policies following the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by neighboring Russia.

While most members of the organization want to fast-track new members, tensions and a new spat between Sweden and Turkey threaten to extend that waiting time, possibly indefinitely.

The current 30 NATO states must approve a new member. And Turkey, a key geopolitical player and home to the alliance’s second-largest military, stands as the main vocal opponent of Nordic membership.

The reasons for Ankara’s opposition are complex, but mainly focus on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists, and arms embargoes that Sweden and Finland, as well as d other EU countries are imposing on Turkey for targeting Kurdish militias in Syria.

Sweden and Finland are struggling to turn the tide in their relationship with Turkey, but events in recent weeks have threatened to dash hopes for progress.

Rasmus Paludan holds a burning Quran outside the Turkish Embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden. The Swedish authorities have authorized a series of demonstrations for and against Turkey as part of the application for NATO membership.

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On Saturday, far-right protesters burned a Koran and chanted anti-Muslim slogans outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Ankara immediately denounced the act, as well as Sweden’s granting of a permit to the right-wing group to organize the demonstration. Turkey has also canceled an upcoming visit by Sweden’s defense chief which would have focused on its NATO membership.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the despicable attack on our holy book…Allowing this anti-Islamic act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is totally unacceptable. “said the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

The Quran burning was led by Rasmus Paludan, who heads Denmark’s far-right Hard Line political party. Swedish authorities said the protest was legal under the country’s free speech laws, but Swedish leaders condemned the act, calling it “appalling”.

Several media outlets and independent journalists gather to watch Rasmus Paludan stage a burning Quran outside the Turkish Embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Demonstrations by Turks in response to the fire took place outside the Swedish embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul over the weekend.

In a separate event earlier this month, Turkey summoned the Swedish ambassador after a video was released by a pro-Kurdish group in Sweden showing an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hanging upside down from a rope.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson reportedly denounced the protest as an act of “sabotage” against the country’s bid for NATO membership.

“If it continues like this, Sweden’s entry into NATO will never be approved by Turkey,” Numan Kurtulmus, vice chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, the AKP, said on Sunday.

“Things We Can’t Do”

Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed a tripartite agreement last year aimed at overcoming their differences and opposition to NATO membership.

But Sweden’s Kristersson said earlier this month that Stockholm could not meet all of Turkey’s demands, including the handover of Kurdish journalists living in Sweden, a request that has been blocked by the country’s Supreme Court.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson speaks during a joint conference with European Council President Charles Michel (not seen) in Stockholm, Sweden, January 16, 2023.

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“Turkey confirms that we did what we said we would do, but they also say that they want things that we cannot or do not want to give them,” Kristersson told a conference on 8 January.

Nevertheless, he said he was convinced that Turkey would approve his country’s candidacy for NATO. Hungary, whose populist leader Viktor Orban is friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the only other country along with Turkey that has yet to endorse the bid.

Electoral calculation

Turkish analysts say Ankara’s latest angry statements have more to do with the country’s upcoming elections on May 14 and the influence of other NATO allies, particularly the United States, than anything else. .

The Quran burning and the Kurdish video of Erdogan’s effigy “make it harder to break the deadlock” between Turkey and Sweden, said George Dyson, senior analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

“But,” he told CNBC, “the stalemate was already there. And it has little to do with Sweden and more with Turkey trying to make the most of any effect leverage over her allies she has.”

“It has more to do with US-Turkish relations,” he added. “Turkey believes that the United States is a good friend when it needs Turkey but not when Turkey needs it…Or at least that’s the rhetoric.”

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, believes that Turkey is causing enormous damage to its Western alliances and that NATO could come to a decisive choice between Turkey and the Nordic states.

“Reach [the] point that the NATO allies will have to decide between Turkey and Finland/Sweden? I get Erdogan’s electoral reckoning, but it will end up hurting long-term relationships with key allies,” Ash said via Twitter.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) during the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 16, 2022 .

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Meanwhile, UK-based security and terrorism analyst Kyle Orton wrote in a blog post that “Turkey has withheld [Sweden’s] NATO enforcement hostage to demands regarding the [Kurdish militant group] PKK. With the Koran burning yesterday in Stockholm,” he wrote, “Ankara is cynically trying to increase the pressure with outrageous intervention in Sweden’s internal affairs.”

There is also speculation that the United States will use the promise of its F16 jets – an arms sale that Ankara has long wanted – to force Turkey’s hand. Some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the sell-out over Turkey’s stance on new NATO candidates.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin recently said Sweden has eight to 10 weeks to make the changes Ankara is asking for because Turkey’s parliament could be suspended before the May elections. Sweden says it needs another six months to make these changes.

But whatever timetable Sweden follows, Turkish leaders are likely to remain hard-line until the election, knowing that anti-Western rhetoric and a strong nationalist stance tend to sit well with voters.

“Bottom line,” Dyson said, “I doubt much will happen before the election in Turkey.”

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