Anti-Turkey demo in Sweden deepens tensions over NATO bid

Turkey on Saturday cancelled a visit by the Swedish defence minister over a demonstration by an anti-Islamic extremist in Stockholm, sparking a fresh crisis over Ankara's blocking of Sweden's bid to join the NATO military alliance.

Rasmus Paludan demonstration
The far-right provocateur Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Muslims' holy book, the Koran, near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on Saturday. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Turkish officials denounced the permission granted to Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing Swedish-Danish politician, to stage a protest in front of its embassy in the Swedish capital.

Last year, Paludan’s announcement of a Koran-burning “tour” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked riots across Sweden.

A day after summoning the Swedish ambassador over Paludan’s latest demo, Ankara said it had called off the visit by Defence Minister Pål Jonson for January 27th, aimed at overcoming Turkey’s objections to Sweden’s NATO bid.

The meeting “has lost its significance and meaning, so we cancelled,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Jonson said the decision to postpone was made jointly with Akar on Friday at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany, where Ukraine’s allies were meeting to discuss further weapon supplies for Kyiv.

“Our relations with Turkey are very important to Sweden, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date,” Jonson tweeted.

The protest by Paludan went ahead on Saturday under heavy police protection, according to an AFP journalist, with around 100 people –including a large number of reporters — gathered near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

After a diatribe of almost an hour in which he attacked Islam and immigration in Sweden, Paludan set fire to the Koran with a lighter.

“If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else,” he told the crowd.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Riots over Koran burning test Swedish tolerance

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu vented fury at Swedish authorities’ failure to ban the protest. “It’s a racist action, it’s not about freedom of expression,” he said.

A pro-Turkish demonstration of around 100 people also took place on the other side of the embassy.


A demonstration in support of Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outside the Turkish Embassy on 21st January 2023. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

‘Modern barbarism’

Swedish police gave their authorisation for the demo on Friday after determining it was protected by the country’s liberal freedom of speech laws.

But Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said allowing the protest was “encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia”.

“The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Devlet Bahceli, head of the nationalist MHP party that is the junior partner in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing coalition, vowed that “Sweden’s NATO membership will not be approved by the parliament”.

Turkey had already summoned Sweden’s ambassador on Friday to “condemn this provocative action which is clearly a hate crime — in strongest terms,” a diplomatic source said.

READ MORE: Swedish FM: ‘improper’ for me to try to stop Turkey embassy Koran burning

It was the second time this month that Sweden’s Turkey envoy had been summoned. On January 12th, he was called to answer for a video posted by the pro-Kurd Rojava Committee of Sweden that depicted Erdogan swinging by his legs from a rope.

A tweet by the group compared Erdogan to Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was hung upside down after his execution in the closing days of World War II.

On Saturday the pro-Kurd Rojava Committee of Sweden joined a rally in Stockholm, held in protest against Erdogan and the Swedish NATO accession.

According to news agency TT, there were more than 500 people who marched to Medborgarplatsen on Södermalm.

Demonstrators on Norra Bantorget protesting against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Swedish NATO accession. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Both Sweden and its neighbour Finland are hoping to join NATO, dropping decades of military non-alignment in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But they need the consent of Turkey, a member of the alliance, to join. Ankara says its approval is conditional on Swedish steps to extradite people it accuses of terrorism or of having played a part in the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

Turkey says Sweden has not done enough to crack down on Kurdish groups that Ankara views as “terrorist.”

READ MORE: US pressures Turkey to approve Swedish Nato bid ‘soon’

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Sweden doesn’t rule out sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine

Sweden does not 'exclude' sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, said Defence Minister Pål Jonsson.

Sweden doesn't rule out sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine

His comments come after Germany gave the greenlight for them to be given to Kyiv.

Following weeks of pressure from Ukraine and other allies, Berlin finally agreed to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks, seen as among the best in the world.

The move opened the way for other European nations that operate Leopards to send tanks from their own fleets to Ukraine, further building up the combined-arms arsenal Kyiv needs to launch counter-offensives.

“I don’t exclude the possibility that we can do that in the future, working with other countries,” Jonson told AFP in an interview.

“We could possibly contribute in various ways. It could be related to logistics, maintenance, training, but also tanks as such.”

Sweden, which has broken with its doctrine of not delivering weapons to a country at war, last week pledged a major package of arms for Ukraine, including modern howitzers and armoured vehicles.

“Right now our focus is on delivering that rather substantial contribution,” Jonson said.


On Wednesday he held talks with senior Nato officials in Brussels with Sweden’s bid to join the Western military alliance facing fresh problems from Turkey.

Ankara on Tuesday postponed accession talks with Sweden and Finland, lashing out at Stockholm over protests that included the burning of the Koran.

The decision further diminished the chances of Turkey ratifying their Nato bids before its May presidential and parliamentary elections.

Jonson insisted that it remained a top priority for the Swedish government to become a member of the alliance “as quickly as possible”.

“We’re respectful that this is of course a decision for Turkey and for its parliament,” he said.

Sweden dropped a long-standing policy of non-alignment last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked fears that the country was outside Nato’s collective security umbrella.

Jonson said Sweden already felt “considerably more secure” after receiving assurances from powers including the United States, Britain and France.

“Of course, being a full member of Nato will provide us with Article Five and the security guarantees, and that’s important of course as well,” he said.