Source: Getty

Sweden’s NATO Problem Is Also Turkey’s NATO Problem

How Stockholm and Ankara can move past their turbulent month.

Published on February 1, 2023

Last month, a series of anti-Turkey protests in Sweden deeply infuriated Ankara and threatened to further delay the Nordic country’s NATO bid. The demonstrations featured symbols of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and included the mock hanging of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effigy from a lamppost. To make matters worse, Rasmus Paludan, a dual citizen of Sweden and Denmark and leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Stockholm and narrated his stunt with disparaging statements toward Islam and immigrants.

Swedish officials acted quickly to denounce the actions and dissociate the government from the protests while pointing out that they did not violate Swedish law. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson described the events as an act of sabotage against his country’s NATO bid, as Turkey (together with Hungary) has yet to ratify Sweden or Finland’s entry into the alliance. The Swedish foreign minister added that the protests played directly into Russia’s hands. Meanwhile, Finland’s former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, suggested that Russia might have been behind the Quran burning incident and warned of hybrid warfare tactics.

But their Turkish counterparts weren’t swayed by these explanations, and the deliberate throwing of fuel on the fire seems to have worked. Turkey promptly canceled official visits to Ankara by the Swedish speaker of parliament and defense minister, while Erdoğan—who is already busy campaigning for hotly contested elections in the coming months—lashed out at Sweden. He stated that the lack of respect for Turkish and Muslim beliefs would cost Sweden Turkey’s support on its NATO membership bid.

Erdoğan was appealing to the masses and capitalizing on widespread anger that was triggered in Turkish society. Even if the distinction between the protests that had racist and Islamophobic aspects and the official position of the Swedish government was clear to Erdoğan, the benefits of galvanizing public support in the midst of an election season outweighed any other considerations. This sentiment was reflected in demonstrations and statements from leading opposition parties, including from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the center right Iyi Party, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.

However, the prospect of Turkey further delaying Sweden’s NATO bid is not just a problem for Sweden, but for Turkey as well. The image of Turkey standing in the way of Sweden and Finland’s historic decision to join the alliance, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and related geopolitical paradigm shifts, is not good. It feeds the perception of Turkey as an unreliable and disruptive actor at a time when Euro-Atlantic security is being reshaped.

Turkey supporters point out that Greece blocked North Macedonia’s NATO bid for years, until a negotiated solution to the country’s name was agreed by Athens and Skopje. But the context is very different today, and the toll on Turkey’s image is infinitely larger.

Turkey’s consent to initiate Sweden and Finland’s accession process to NATO had been conditional to start with. It arrived through a last-minute deal brokered on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid in June, after Sweden and Finland committed to addressing Turkey’s security concerns regarding the activities of certain groups, including the PKK, which it—along with Sweden, the United States, and a number of other countries—considers a terrorist organization. It also wanted the two countries to stop official obstructions to defense industry cooperation.

The first of these objectives constituted the gist of the matter. It was designed for Sweden, where Turkey believed anti-Turkish actors had found refuge and continued their recruitment, propaganda, and fundraising activities. Ankara’s assessment of Stockholm’s performance on this count was negative even before the latest incidents. In an article he wrote for a local daily in December, the Turkish ambassador to Sweden challenged Sweden’s assertions that it had fulfilled its commitments, and he called for more action. One can only assume that recent experiences have solidified this view in Ankara.

The Swedish belief and official narrative, however, are very different. Swedish authorities say they have done what is legally possible. They criticize Turkey for asking for too much, reflecting a prevailing sentiment among the Swedish public and looking to gather external support for their position. As far as Sweden is concerned, with sticking points mostly resolved, the ball is now in Turkey’s court. The next logical step would be for Turkey to ratify Sweden’s and Finland’s accession treaties. Turkey may not like it, but most of its NATO allies—maybe apart from Hungary—would probably agree.

At the core of this issue is a massive disconnect between Sweden and Turkey. This problem needs to be addressed, but there is no easy fix. The two sides have different legal interpretations, and, in some cases, Turkey’s expectations do not correspond to the realities of the Swedish system of governance. Swedes often point out the independence of their institutions and the inability of the government to influence them, including the police force. At the same time, Turks make the point that the independence of institutions doesn’t necessarily guarantee the fairness of their practices. (If it wasn’t for the NATO agreement, the Swedish government might point out that Erdoğan’s Turkey is not a credible assessor of fair democratic institutions, given Turkey’s poor record on freedom of expression and association.)

In addition, this issue is beginning to hang over Turkey’s desire to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the United States. Ankara and Washington continue to stress that the NATO application and the Turkish F-16 procurement request are separate matters, but this link may be rooted in the minds of U.S. congressmembers who will have a say in the fighter jet sale.

Regardless, Turkey will not be in a hurry to ratify the NATO accession protocols. This is now a matter for after the elections in May. Meanwhile, frustrations and emotions are rising on all sides. The next critical threshold for NATO enlargement will be the upcoming summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July. The time until then should be managed wisely by Turkey, Sweden, and Finland. Their focus should be on nurturing a cooling-off period by staying away from useless blame games and finding a reasonable way to manage and, eventually, walk out of this senseless impasse. As impossible as it may seem, there is a way to do this.

First, Turkey, Sweden, and Finland should commit to keeping their discords out of the public domain. This would entail refraining from provocative statements and populistic rhetoric. Enhanced silence should be their agreed posture.

The election cycle in Turkey may tempt Erdoğan to do otherwise, and one can expect Swedes and Finns to doubt his sincerity with such a commitment, especially given his reputation. But there is an ongoing precedent that provides hope. Contrary to the fiery rhetoric he has recently adopted against Greece, Erdoğan has been muted against Israel and Armenia—two countries he could easily target to score points at home. This is a deliberate choice on his part and shows his ability to be selective when necessary. He should do the same for Sweden and Finland and their NATO aspirations. Erdoğan should no longer treat this situation as low-hanging fruit for domestic political points. Sweden and Finland, meanwhile, should continue their efforts in good faith to address Ankara’s concerns.

Second, the three countries should establish a mechanism to coordinate their strategic messaging when necessary. They should be prepared to dominate the news cycles with coordinated and, at times, joint messages. This would mainly be of relevance in times of crisis.

Third, while political contacts may have been put on ice for now, working-level meetings among bureaucrats should be intensified. This will help build a culture of cooperation, eradicate clichés, and facilitate a better understanding of each other’s concerns and constraints. The trilateral memorandum the parties signed in June now appears to have differing interpretations that need to be addressed. Turkey should therefore reverse its recent decision to cancel the meeting of the trilateral mechanism designed to do this. Sweden has already expressed its interest in continuing these talks. Now it’s time for the parties to increase work toward building a shared level of ambition in implementing the memorandum. The two guiding principles should be no deviation from existing commitments and no new conditions.

Finally, Turkish defense industry firms are still struggling to get export licenses from Sweden. Sweden must resolve this issue. And it should make an honest internal assessment of the recent incidents that targeted Turkey. While Stockholm will maintain its commitments to freedom of expression, Swedish authorities should consider ways to minimize provocations, when possible, to limit damage to its relationship with Turkey.

Turkey has been a NATO ally for more than seventy years, with a legacy as the guardian of NATO’s eastern flank during the Cold War and as an ally that has been more of a contributor than a consumer of security in the Euro-Atlantic space. And it has always strongly advocated for NATO’s Open Door policy. For their part, Sweden and Finland merit NATO membership. They have traditionally enjoyed good relations with Turkey, and these relations will gain a new, mutually beneficial dimension within NATO.

The convergence of interests between Turkey, Sweden, and Finland is larger than the current disagreements they are trying to resolve. That is the spirit in which they need to move forward.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.