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UPDATED: Could Turkey block Sweden from Nato membership?

The Local Sweden
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UPDATED: Could Turkey block Sweden from Nato membership?
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu at the Nato summit. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP

Turkey's President Erdogan over the weekend issued tough conditions for backing Swedish Nato membership in a call with Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. How big is the problem and how can it be solved?

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What has happened? 

May 13th: The Friday before the week when Sweden and Finland sent in their requests for Nato membership, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threw a spanner in the works.  

"It would be a mistake" to admit Finland and Sweden, he said, given the way the two countries have sheltered members of groups which Turkey views as terrorist, such as the Kurdish nationalist PKK and YPG groups, and members of the Gülen movement. 

According to Swedish officials, until then Turkey had made no objections against Swedish or Finnish Nato membership in any of the discussions with and within Nato over the past few months. 

May 14th: A meeting between Sweden's foreign minister, Ann Linde, and her Turkish counterpart the next day failed to yield a solution. 

May 18th: The next Wednesday, when Nato's 30 ambassadors met to approve the bids Finland and Sweden had handed in at 8am that morning, opposition from Turkey's ambassador blocked the vote on opening accession talks. 

May 21st: The following Saturday, Erdogan held calls with both Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and with Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's Director General. 

“Unless Sweden and Finland clearly show that they will stand in solidarity with Turkey on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism, we will not approach these countries’ Nato membership positively,” Erdogan told Stoltenberg. 

He told Andersson that “Sweden’s political, financial and arms support to terrorist organisations must end”.

Turkey, he said, expected Sweden to “take concrete and serious steps” that show it shares Ankara’s concerns over the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots.

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Why is Turkey unhappy? 

Turkey has long accused Sweden, and to a lesser extent Finland, of providing protection to members of PKK, an armed group fighting for parts of northeastern Turkey to become a Kurdish homeland.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, EU, and some other countries, including Sweden. But Sweden, the US and the EU see the YPG, the militia fighting in Syria, as a separate entity. 

Turkey's government, along with most of the country's voters, however, see both the PYA, the ruling party in the semi-autonomous Kurdish province in Syria, and the YPG as offshoots of the PKK. Aside from Turkey, only Qatar classes YPG as a terror group. 

There are no official statistics on the number of Kurds living in Sweden, but Kurdish groups estimate the number at as much as 100,000, including six MPs of Kurdish origin. 

Sweden has given significant support to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is defended by the YPG militia, which Turkey views as a terrorist group.

“The problem is that these two countries are openly supporting and engaging with PKK and YPG [People’s Protection Units],” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said on Saturday as he arrived at a Nato meeting in Berlin. “These are terrorist organisations that have been attacking our troops every day." 

What does Turkey want? 

Turkey has demanded that Sweden and Finland extradite a wish-list of 33 people it sees as linked to the PKK, YPG, or else to the Gülenist movement Turkey blames for a coup attempt in 2016. 

Çavuşoğlu has also called for Sweden and Finland to clamp down on "outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence" linked to the PKK. 

Third, Turkey has called on Sweden to the arms embargo Sweden imposed on Turkey after it launched its military offensive in 2019 against the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG).

Finally, Turkey may be pushing for more and better jet fighters from the US. Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 fighter program in 2019 after it angered the US by buying missiles from Russia. 

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How is the deal which made Andersson PM involved?

Sweden's parliament is so evenly split between left and right, that Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was voted in as Prime Minister in November by a single vote. Perhaps the decisive swing vote was held by a Amineh Kakabaveh, an MP who left the Left Party in 2019 to become an independent. 

In exchange for her vote, she won a commitment from the Social Democrats to "deepen their cooperation" with PYD, the leading political party of Syrian Kurds, which controls The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is also known as Rojava. 

The agreement is a strongly-worded statement in support of the autonomous Kurdish government, which roundly dismisses the Turkish argument that the PYD and its armed militia the YPG are linked with the PKK. 

"The PYD political party has a crucial role in the autonomous administration and represents a legitimate negotiating partner," reads the agreement, which is signed by Tobias Baudin, the Social Democrat's party secretary. 

"That freedom fighters who have fought with or sympathise with YPG/YPJ or PYD are classed by certain countries' actors as terrorists is unacceptable." 

The agreement also touches on Turkish domestic politics, calling for Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, to be released from pre-trial detention. Demirtaş has been held since 2016. 

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What has Sweden's foreign minister Ann Linde done?

Linde has been quite outspoken in her support of the Kurdish autonomous administration, meeting Ilham Ahmad, the co-President of the administration's Executive Council in December. 

She also has a history of clashing with Çavuşoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, claims Paul Levin, a Turkey expert at Stockholm University. Levin pointed particularly to a tense press conference in 2020 in which Linde drove the EU line that Turkey should end its offensive against the Kurdish autonomous region and withdraw its forces from northern Syria. 

"This is something they still talk about. Turkey has a problem with Ann Linde," Levin said.

After Linde's meeting with Çavuşoğlu on May 14th, she was categorical that Sweden viewed PKK as a terrorist group, but said that she did not believe that the Kurdish government in northern Syria was part of the same organisation, something she claimed Turkey was insisting on. Çavuşoğlu then accused her of being provocative and misrepresenting their discussion. 

Which other Swedish politicians have angered Turkey? 

Sweden's defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, was in 2019 named as a PKK sympathiser in a report by Seta, the foreign policy think tank linked to Turkey's ruling party. According to the report, Hultqvist had pledged to help the Kurdish YPG militia with healthcare for their wounded soldiers in a 2016 meeting. In a report on the meeting by Sweden's state broadcaster SR, however, Hultqvist said he had promised YPG nothing. 

Other politicians named as PKK sympathisers in the report were the Left Party's former leader Jonas Sjöstedt, and Kakabaveh. 

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What has Sweden done so far? 

Both Sweden and Finland have so far refused to extradite the individuals on Turkey's wishlist, and are unlikely to do so, as this will look like Nato membership has forced the country to bow on human rights issues to Turkey's authoritarian president. 

This would prove many of the concerns of those opposed to Nato membership right, and so lose the ruling Social Democrats votes to the Green or Left Party, both of which opposed applying to join. 

With a tight election coming up, the Social Democrats will also be wary of upsetting the large Kurdish voting public. 

A lifting of the arms embargo on Turkey would be more feasible, as would Sweden issuing some tough language criticising the PKK, and pledging not to support it. 

Turkey's tactics have worked before. When the former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in the running to become Nato Secretary General in 2009,  the then President, Abdullah Gul, vetoed his appointment.

This was partly because of his defence of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper's publication of Mohammed cartoons, and partly because Denmark was host to Roj TV, a Kurdish rebel broadcaster. Erdogan was prime minister at the time. 

While no overt deal was done, Danish police then launched an investigation into economic ties between Roj TV and the PKK, and into whether the network's broadcasts incited terrorism. 

A few years after Rasmussen was appointed, the network then had its Danish broadcasting license revoked for "glorifying terrorism", and ten Kurds in Denmark were charged with terror funding. All were later acquitted

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Might Turkey end up blocking Sweden's membership? 

For a new member to be admitted to Nato requires the consensus of all existing members, so theoretically, yes, it could. But most commentators view Turkey as exploiting the situation to win concessions. 

After her talk with Erdogan, Andersson said she had assured him that Sweden was a staunch opponent of terrorism. 

"I emphasised that Sweden welcomes the possibility of cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and emphasised that Sweden clearly supports the fight against terrorism and the terrorist listing of the PKK," she said in a statement.

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