Nordic NATO Membership Sweden-Turkey Spat Means Finland Might Take Unilateral Route

After a right-wing extremist burned a copy of the Koran in Stockholm over the weekend, Ankara is even less likely to approve Sweden's NATO bid anytime soon. Finland has said it might have to move ahead on its own.
Swedish right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan kicked the hornets' nest on Saturday.

Swedish right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan kicked the hornets' nest on Saturday.

Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / TT / IMAGO

A few dozen people gathered on Saturday not far from the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Far from being a normal protest, it was a targeted provocation. The notorious right-wing extremist politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Koran.

Paludan, head of the Islamophobic party Stram Kurs (Hard Line), has both Danish and Swedish citizenship. He poses as a defender of basic rights and claims that his protests are aimed at countering what he claims are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts at influencing freedom of speech.

His Saturday stunt triggered furious reactions from across the Muslim world. Turkey also immediately condemned the burning of the Koran, calling it an "anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values." It was, in short, immediately clear that Paludan’s "protest" would have far-reaching political consequences.

On Monday, Erdoğan went a step further, saying that the Swedish government cannot count on Turkish support for its efforts to join NATO. "It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application," Erdoğan said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: He is unlikely to approve Sweden's application for NATO membership anytime soon.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: He is unlikely to approve Sweden's application for NATO membership anytime soon.


Relations between Ankara and Stockholm had already been tense. Turkey has long stood in the way of efforts by Sweden and Finland to join the trans-Atlantic military alliance. Both countries decided in May 2022, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to abandon their neutrality and join NATO.

Twenty-eight of 30 member states have since rubberstamped the two countries’ applications, with Hungary saying that it would be granting its approval next month. That leaves Turkey as the only NATO member left to give its consent. But despite numerous talks, Ankara hasn’t budged in months.

Turkey’s leaders accuse the Swedish government of supporting terrorist organizations, a reference to the Kurdish militia group YPG, which Ankara sees as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey. The PKK is also considered to be a terrorist organization inside the European Union, but Brussels has declined expand that classification to the YPG. The NATO membership applications from Finland and Sweden handed Erdoğan a perfect opportunity to bring the issue back into the spotlight.

In addition, the Turkish president accuses Sweden of being a sanctuary for terrorists and is demanding that Stockholm extradite several members of the PKK along with opposition and Kurdish activists. A memorandum between Sweden, Finland and Turkey last summer was supposed eliminate the differences of opinion that exist between the countries. But the sense of relief triggered by the diplomatic triumph proved short-lived.

The document is formulated in such a way that it is open to a wide variety of interpretations. And Turkish leaders are still unhappy with how the Nordic countries have construed it. Ankara has sent careful signals that It would be open to Finland initially joining NATO without Sweden, but Helsinki was long opposed to doing so.

On Tuesday, however, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that the time had come for his country to consider moving ahead without Sweden. He also told Reuters that talks needed to be put on hold for a time, following the events of the weekend. "A time-out is needed before we return to the three-way talks and see where we are when the dust has settled after the current situation," Haavisto told Reuters in a phone interview.

First Rapprochement, then Alienation

Given Turkey’s comments thus far, however, it doesn’t look as though a solution to the impasse will present itself anytime soon.

For Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, the NATO question has become a true test. The conservative politician has only been in office since mid-October. But even before he took office, Social Democratic governments before him had made concessions to Erdoğan, such as authorizing weapons exports to Turkey for the first time in 2019. Kristersson has sought to expand this delicate rapprochement. A constitutional amendment aimed at strengthening Sweden’s anti-terrorism laws was received positively in the Turkish press.

Indeed, Kristersson’s first trip abroad, taken in November, was to Ankara – a strong signal to Erdoğan. But that trip saw an event that in hindsight could be seen as the trigger of a new escalation in the NATO confrontation. The escalation that culminated on Saturday in the burning of the Koran.

During Kristersson’s trip, Erdoğan demanded yet again that a number of alleged terrorists be extradited. Specifically, he mentioned by name the former journalist Bülent Keneş. Erdoğan accuses Keneş of having taken part in the 2016 putsch attempt in Turkey. The Swedish prime minister made it clear that political leaders have no say on extraditions and that all such decisions are made by courts of law. And not long later, the highest court in Stockholm rejected Keneş' extradition.

It was a bitter defeat for Erdoğan, to which he responded with yet more demands. He insisted on the extradition of 130 people. Kristersson, who had already become the target of criticism for his attempts at rapprochement with Ankara, saw the demand as an afront. He said the Turkish request could not be granted.

Anger in Turkey: Swedish flags went up in flames in Istanbul on Saturday.

Anger in Turkey: Swedish flags went up in flames in Istanbul on Saturday.

Foto: Umit Bektas / REUTERS

The rejection from Stockholm was accompanied by increasingly provocative protests in Sweden against Turkey. On January 13, Kurdish activists hung an Erdoğan doll upside down in Stockholm and lit it on fire. Ankara responded by summoning the Swedish ambassador.

Following the burning of the Koran, the diplomat was once again summoned – for the second time in just a few days. But both the burning of the Koran and the burning of the Erdoğan doll are covered by Sweden’s freedom-of-expression rights. The legal consequences being demanded by Ankara are thus precluded.

Over the weekend, Kristersson tried to calm the tensions. Freedom of expression is a fundamental element of democracy, he wrote on Twitter, but "burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act." He extended his sympathies to all Muslims who were offended by the stunt.

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It didn’t work. After the burning of the Koran on Saturday in Stockholm, Swedish flags went up in flames on Sunday in front of the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul. Protesters called for a boycott of Swedish products and a meeting between the defense ministers of Sweden and Turkey was cancelled.

No Hope Until After the Election

Erdoğan will likely emerge as the greatest beneficiary of the uproar. The Turkish president is up for re-election in May, and the anti- Erdoğan protests in Sweden could very well give him a boost. Erdoğan has consistently benefited from anti-Western posturing in past elections, and this time around, the opposition isn’t likely to contradict him given Paludan’s antics.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the CHP, blasted the burning of the Koran on Twitter, writing: "I condemn this fascism, which is the pinnacle of hate crime."

In short, it is difficult to imagine Turkey giving the green light to Sweden’s NATO membership aspirations before the presidential election.

"What happens after that depends to a certain extent on who wins," Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at the University of Stockholm, told the news agency AFP. If Erdoğan remains in power, he said, Ankara’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO application may not happen for several years. The only thing that might speed things up, Levin believes, is if other NATO members make concessions to Turkey.

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