ARCHIVE – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, attends a press conference. Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP/dpa
“If you don’t show any respect to the Turkish Republic or the religious beliefs of the Muslims, then you can’t get any support from us when it comes to NATO,” Erdogan said on Monday evening in Ankara.
The reason for his outrage was the rally of an Islamophobic provocateur in Stockholm, where a Koran was burned. It didn’t help that Sweden’s government quickly distanced itself from the questionable action. But experts also suspect a strategy behind Erdogan’s anger.
Against the background of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, Sweden and Finland decided this year, after a long period of non-alignment, to want to become NATO members. However, member Turkey has blocked their admission for months. Ankara is particularly rubbing shoulders with Sweden, which it accuses of supporting “terrorist organizations” such as the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party PKK. Erdogan recently also demanded the extradition of 130 people whom he regards as terrorists.
The burning of the Koran is the second incident that has angered Ankara since the beginning of the year: just a week and a half ago, a doll resembling Erdogan hung up in the center of Stockholm led to new anger and the disinviction of Swedish politicians by Ankara.
For Sweden and indirectly also for Finland, the Turkish veto is a real problem: All 30 NATO members have to ratify their applications for membership, 28 have already done so – only Turkey and Hungary not yet. Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto reiterated on Tuesday that Hungary had not set any conditions for its ratification and that he still expects it in February. The big problem should therefore remain Turkey – and that also has to do with the date May 14th.
That is when presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in Turkey. Erdogan, who has been the strongman in Ankara for a good 20 years, wants to be re-elected. Polls currently promise him no clear electoral success – and the 68-year-old head of state could come in handy for the NATO dispute. Observers have long suspected Erdogan of also using the events for domestic political purposes. Foreign policy crises are generally causing the religious-nationalist Turkish camp to pull together. They are potential votes that the President sorely needs.
Now Erdogan has slammed the door for the Swedes for the time being, but not necessarily closed it for good. He is known for getting in the way internationally, but then giving in when the time comes and after the negotiating partners have made concessions. Not only in the far north of Europe is it suspected that Erdogan is deliberately bringing the NATO dispute into the Turkish election campaign, trying to secure re-election and then giving the green light for NATO’s northern expansion. The NATO summit in Vilnius in mid-July is considered a suitable time for this – two months after the elections in Turkey.
Until then, the Swedes and Finns are trying to remain calm despite all the inconveniences. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said he wanted to understand what had been said before reacting to Erdogan’s statements. Meanwhile, the Swedish embassy in Ankara remained closed on Tuesday due to expected demonstrations in front of the building.
Billstrom’s Finnish counterpart Haavisto on Tuesday opened the door for the first time that his country might be forced to consider joining NATO without its long-time ally Sweden. One must be ready to reassess the situation if it turns out that Sweden’s application is stuck in the long term, he told Finnish broadcaster Yle.
Later, however, he assured Finnish reporters that Finland’s line had not changed: Despite all the obstacles, the joint NATO trip with Sweden was continued and they still wanted to become a member at the same time. According to Haavisto, there is no plan B.
So do Sweden and Finland have to dance to Erdogan’s tune for months after they have already met him on several points? Not at all. Thanks to security guarantees from other NATO allies, they are not forced to rush. On the contrary, the northern lights can take some pressure off the heated situation. This also gives them leverage: If they decide to put the negotiations with Ankara on hold until after the elections, Erdogan could lose important powder for the election campaign. The strongest Turkish opposition party has already made it clear that under no circumstances will it stand in the way of NATO’s northern expansion.
Haavisto spoke on Tuesday of the possibility of a pause in Finnish-Swedish-Turkish talks. A next meeting will probably be delayed by weeks. According to Yle, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said during a visit to Kyiv that one had to stay on the ball with regard to the NATO process – and now first wait for the election results in Turkey.
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