Sweden’s bid for NATO membership is facing a dead end because Ankara’s demands to Stockholm to hand over Kurdish activists and prevent rallies attacking Turkey’s leadership have strained ties.
The chances of this changing after Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections, which must be held by June 18, are uncertain, said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.
“We can now probably forget Turkish ratification before the elections,” Levin told reporters. “What happens after that depends in part on who wins.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections to Sweden’s NATO membership rest largely on Stockholm’s refusal to extradite Turkish nationals Ankara wants to prosecute for “terrorism.”
Erdogan is running for re-election.
Last month, Sweden extradited a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey. He had been convicted in a Turkish court and denied asylum in Sweden.
Erdogan wants more action from Stockholm against the PKK, listed as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies.
“On one hand, there is a Turkish president who has jailed thousands over alleged insults and who wants to divert attention from a poor economy in the months before an election,” Levin said.
“On the other hand, there are groups in Sweden who are against NATO membership and PKK supporters worried about the government’s pledges to go after” them, he said.
Levin said these PKK supporters had realized they could provoke Erdogan “by insulting him and thereby stall the accession process.”
A protest by a far-right politician in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on Saturday — authorized by the police — has further strained relations.
Rasmus Paludan is a Swedish-Danish activist who has already been convicted for racist abuse.
He provoked rioting in Sweden last year when he went on a tour of the country and publicly burned copies of the Koran. On Saturday, he burned another copy of the Muslim holy book after a speech of almost an hour denouncing Islam.
Police based their decision to authorize the protest on the basis of Sweden’s liberal constitution, which protects the right to demonstrate.
Ankara summoned Sweden’s ambassador to register its outrage, then canceled a visit of Swedish Minister of Defense Pal Jonson that had been scheduled for Friday next week in Ankara — a rare high-level meeting.
Earlier this month, Ankara called in Sweden’s ambassador after pro-Kurdish advocates hung an effigy of Erdogan from its feet, explicitly comparing him to Benito Mussolini. Italy’s Fascist dictator was left hanging upside down after his execution in the closing days of World War II.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced it as an attempt to sabotage the country’s NATO membership bid — but that sparked a backlash from some inside Sweden defending the right to freedom of expression.
Then last week, the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, whose party props up the Swedish government, denounced Erdogan as an “Islamist dictator.”
He urged Kristersson not to appease Turkey, “because it is ultimately an anti-democratic system and a dictator we are dealing with,” Akesson told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
Turkey is seeking the extradition of more Kurdish “terrorists” based in Sweden. Erdogan recently said there were as many as 130 there.
Stockholm has made it clear that the courts have the final say, but that does not appear to have satisfied Ankara.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who last spring was talking of a fast-track membership process of just a few weeks, told reporters this month that he still thought it would happen this year, even if he could not guarantee it.
Turkey and Hungary were still to ratify the bid, he said.
Both countries have maintained links with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, with Ankara in particular adopting the role of mediator between the two sides.
One spark of hope for Sweden is that Finland, which also launched its bid to join NATO following the Russian invasion, has made it clear that it does not want to enter the alliance without its “big brother.”
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