Conflict, Politics and Ideology: Why Turkey Blocks Sweden and Finland’s NATO Bidding


When Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join NATO, the two Nordic countries were expected to be quickly accepted as members of the defense alliance. However, joining NATO requires consensus approval from all existing member states, and Turkey, one of the group’s most strategically important and militarily powerful members, is not satisfied.

Reasons complex, emotional and deep in a history of violence that spans decades.

historical decision

Non-aligned so far, Finland and Sweden last weekend After the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine, he announced plans to renounce his position and join NATO.

The idea that the Nordic countries, which have been official partners of the alliance since the 1990s, could actually join the group, made Moscow hard. The NATO expansion is cited to justify the invasion of Ukraine, which was also a former NATO partner.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now has the power to determine the future of the NATO alliance and its strength and scale in the face of the Russian war.

In fact, Erdogan has already blocked NATO’s early attempts to expedite Finnish and Swedish applications, saying their membership will make the alliance a “place of concentration for representatives of terrorist organizations.”

As of 2022, NATO has been expanded to allow three former Soviet Union states and all pre-Warsaw Pact states.

Brin Bahce | CNBC

The clash has forced Western diplomats to try to side with Turkey. This is because Ankara has submitted a list of complaints to the NATO ambassador on issues with the Nordic countries, especially Sweden.

What is Turkey’s dissatisfaction with Sweden and Finland?

When Erdogan speaks of “terrorist” in this context, he means the Kurdish Workers’ Party or the PKK. The PKK is a Kurdish Marxist separatist movement that has been fighting Turkish forces since the 1980s. It mainly operates in southeastern Turkey and parts of northern Iraq.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

In fact, Sweden was one of the first countries to designate the group as a terrorist organization in 1984.

However, Turkey said Sweden supports and protects PKK members. Sweden denies this, saying it supports other Kurds not belonging to the PKK, but the details are more complex.

The Swedish foreign ministry declined to comment on Erdogan’s accusations when contacted by CNBC.

Since 1984, It is estimated that 30,000 and 40,000 people have died In the battle between the PKK and the Turkish government, according to the Crisis Group. The PKK has conducted dozens of attacks within Turkey.

Members of the Turkish Army (TSK) continue to operate within Operation Peace Spring in Ras against the Turkish, US and EU-designated PKK and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia considered by Turkey to be a terrorist organization. Al-Ain, Syria, on October 17, 2019.

Turkish Army | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

In the case of Finland, Turkey’s opposition to NATO accession appears to be coalition. Finland has a much smaller Kurdish population than Sweden, but foreign policy tends to be similar.

Finland also banned the PKK as a terrorist organization, but joined Sweden and other EU countries in 2019 to halt arms sales to Turkey, citing Ankara’s military action against Kurdish groups in Syria.

Erdogan is calling on Sweden to hand over a list of terrorism charges indicted by Turkey. He also wants Sweden and Finland to publicly deny PKK and its affiliates and lift arms bans on Turkey.

For former Turkish ambassador Hakki Akil, Turkey’s point of view is “very simple.”

“If Finland and Sweden are to join a security alliance, they must give up their support for terrorist organizations. [PKK] Do not give them shelter. Meanwhile, Turkey’s request to extradite 30 terrorists must also be accepted. [which are] It’s a very specific case,” he said.

Why are Kurds important to Turkey?

The Kurds are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland, with around 30 million people. Most are Sunni Muslims and have their own language and customs.

Nearly 20% of Turkey’s 84 million population are Kurds, and while some Kurds hold important positions in Turkish politics and society, many say they are being discriminated against and their political parties are being oppressed by the Turkish government.

Spread between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, they have been severely persecuted, marginalized and even victims of genocide in the counties where they live. Look at Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas attack that killed nearly 200,000 Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s. Various Kurdish groups have been claiming Kurdish autonomy and state for decades, some peacefully and some through violence, such as the PKK.

Kurds celebrate to express their support for the independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq, on September 26, 2017.

Ari Jalal | Reuters

Syrian Kurdish fighters linked to the PKK have played an important role in the fight against ISIS, receiving arms support and funding from the United States and Europe, including Sweden. This has sparked great tensions with Turkey, which has launched an attack on the Kurds in Syria.

“You’re talking about people who have been actively fighting Turkey for more than 40 years and killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process,” Muhammad Kokak, an international relations expert based in Ankara, told CNBC.

“Turkey is not satisfied with the fact that they suddenly became good people just because they helped ISIS.”

Western governments have welcomed Kurdish fighters as allies, and several EU countries have imposed various embargoes on Turkey because they have targeted Kurdish militias in Syria, highlighting the intractable gap between how both sides perceive fighters.

Relations between Sweden and the Kurds

Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the basis of tensions between Turkey and Sweden is how countries define “terrorists.”

“This is not only a matter of Sweden’s liberal policy towards Kurdish refugees, political dissidents and activists, but also reflects the different definitions of who and what constitutes intolerable Kurdish extremism,” Ibish said.

“Turkey basically classifies all strongly disliked Kurdish groups as PKK front organizations. This includes many non-PKK Kurdish groups and organizations both inside and outside Turkey, but also in Syria with the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). A number of Iraqi forces are also included, Kurds.”

Sweden has a long history of hosting Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers, especially political refugees. Some Kurds even have seats in the Swedish Parliament.

Although most Kurds living in Sweden (according to local groups say there are as many as 100,000) have no affiliation with the PKK, the Swedish government has supported members of other Kurdish organizations, particularly the political forces of the Syrian branch of the PKK called the PYD. .

Sweden says PKK and PYD are different, but Turkey says it’s the same thing.

Stockholm also provides political and financial support to the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a political party of the SDF, a Kurdish-led militia created with US support to fight ISIS in Syria. Ankara says SDC is run by PKK terrorists.

In 2021, the Swedish government announced that it would increase funding to the Kurds in Syria to $376 million by 2023, with Sweden remaining an “active partner” to the Kurds in Syria, and the funds would be “resilient, human security and protection from violence.” “We are aiming to strengthen freedom,” he said. and improve “human rights, gender equality and democratic development”.

What will Sweden do?

According to some analysts, the Swedish government is unlikely to make big concessions to make Erdogan look weak as the Swedish government faces the Swedish general election in September.

Others believe that Erdogan will ultimately not block the NATO member states of Sweden and Finland, but will instead work to improve Erdogan’s declining popularity within the country.

“If Turkey can ultimately get some concessions, especially from the Western powers and NATO allies, it will ultimately prevent Finland and Sweden from joining the organization,” said Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. I don’t think it will,” he said. he said

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fact that the current war is focused on those parts of the country adjacent to Turkey and of deep strategic and historical interest in Ankara reminded many Turks the value of joining NATO.”

However, if Erdogan is not satisfied with the response to Sweden and Finland’s demands, NATO could stagnate for a while.

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