In central China's Xi'an, we spent a memorable evening at a fancy hotel listening to traditional Chinese music. (The lady in the foreground was playing the guzheng, the one in the back the pipa). But what I remember most had nothing to do with the music: We were sitting next to Portugal's then-President Mario Soares, of all people.
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When the two Nordic countries confirmed their intention to join NATO this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his plans to block the application. Accusing Sweden and Finland of' "harboring" some of his worst enemies may not allow room for him to climb down.
LONDON — When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his opposition to Finland and Sweden entering NATO, it took most of the West's top diplomatic experts by surprise — with the focus squarely on how Russia would react to having two new NATO members in the neighborhood. (So far, that's been a surprise too)
But now Western oversight on Turkey's stance has morphed into a belief in some quarters that Erdogan is just bluffing, trying to get concessions from the negotiations over such a key geopolitical issue.
To be clear, any prospective NATO member requires the consent of all 30 member states and their parliaments. So Erdogan does indeed have a card to play, which is amplified by the sense of urgency: NATO, Sweden and Finland are keen to complete the accession process with the war in Ukraine raging and the prospect of strengthening the military alliance's position around the Baltic Sea.
Erdogan’s objections to Finland and Sweden joining NATO run deep. According to Mitra Nazar, the Turkey correspondent of the Dutch broadcaster NOS, “this is about a longstanding frustration with the Turkish government. Countries such as Finland and Sweden, but also the Netherlands according to Erdogan, give asylum to people who are labelled as terrorists in Turkey.”
The Kurdish question
This includes Kurdish fighters and supporters of the Gülen Movement, which Turkey believes is responsible for the failed coup in 2016. During a press conference this week, Erdogan demanded that Finland and Sweden end their supposed support for the Kurdish party (PKK). He also accused them of harboring PKK members and ordered the extradition of six alleged members from Finland and 11 from Sweden.
“Sweden is already the incubation center of terrorist organizations, they bring terrorists in their parliaments and allow them to speak,” Erdogan said according to Turkish Euronews. "We will not say 'yes' to them entering. Because then NATO ceases to be a security organization and becomes a place where the representatives of terrorists are concentrated.”
The Turkish president also demanded that Finland and Sweden lift their ban on arms exports imposed in October 2019 after the Turkish incursion in northern Syria. Although arms trade between these three countries is limited, Turkey would, on principle, refuse to expand the military alliance to countries that are blocking weapon deals, according to Turkish officials interviewed by Bloomberg.
Both Finland and Sweden were taken aback by the statements, wondering if things they said may have simply gotten lost in translation. According to the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, “Finland has been assured in the past that Turkey does not want to put any obstacles in the way of Finland and Sweden's possible NATO membership or complicate this process,” Finnish news organization YLE uutiset reported.
It raises the question: is President Erdoğan simply bluffing? Or does he really have something to lose if Finland and Sweden join NATO? The arms export ban argument seems to be symbolic above anything else. In fact, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the arms restrictions go “against the spirit” of an alliance.
According to Bloomberg’s interview with five Turkey officials, the idea that Turkey’s opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO has anything to do with its ties to Russia, or Erdoğan’s friendship with Putin, has also been dismissed. It’s been publicly acknowledged too by diplomats, such as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, that Turkey is treading cautiously in that regard. “I think at this moment everyone is aware of the responsibility they have in such a difficult situation,” she said according to German newspaper Die Welt.
Erdogan is focused on securing his re-election next summer.
The PKK narrative, however, has been around for a while, as Erdogan has made similar demands before. It’s yet to be employed as an ultimatum of this importance, leading many experts to believe that Erdogan is using it now to secure his re-election next summer. His popularity is down and the Turkish economy is suffering from 66.9% inflation, so he could benefit from a successful power move in international politics, and consequently bringing in PKK members into Turkey so they can face trial. Erdogan may find that climbing back down from his demands may become impossible.
Pro-Kurdish protesters in Istanbul in March
Turkey may also be using the Nordic-NATO issue to push the U.S., and that Erdogan is simply using his veto against Finland and Sweden as leverage to gain what it really wants: to be included again in the F-35 advanced aircraft program. After Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2017, Washington kicked Ankara out of the program and levied sanctions.
Yet the PKK extradition demands may be virtually impossible to obtain. Jonathan Eyal, the associate director of the Rusi thinktank told the Guardian that “It is not possible for either country … to change its domestic legislation on freedom of assembly… Sweden in particular has an active Kurdish community that has political support.”
For now, Finland and Sweden’s membership is still pending. The initial veto by Turkey has, at least, ensured that the first stage of the accession process may take longer than the two weeks planned.
Jussi Halla-aho, the chairperson of the Finnish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, “It’s mostly a question of Turkey’s domestic policy and desire to promote things that are important to it,” reports the Helsinki Times. “It’s unrealistic to think that the accession process of a country could be thwarted by a single member.” Everyone may have to think again.
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