How Blocking Sweden's NATO Bid Plays Right Into Erdogan's Election Campaign
Turkey's objections to Swedish membership of NATO may mean that Finland joins first. But as he approaches his highly contested reelection bid at home, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ready to use the issue to his advantage.
PARIS — This story has all the key elements of our age: the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the excessive ambitions of an autocrat, the opportunism of a right-wing demagogue, Islamophobia... And at the end, a country, Sweden, whose NATO membership, which should have been only a formality, has been blocked.
Last spring, under the shock of the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin's Russia, Sweden and Finland, two neutral countries in northern Europe, decided to apply for membership in NATO. For Sweden, this is a major turning point: the kingdom’s neutrality had lasted more than 150 years.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised objections. It demanded that Sweden stop sheltering Kurdish opponents in its country. This has nothing to do with NATO or Ukraine, but everything to do with Erdogan's electoral agenda, as he campaigns for the Turkish presidential elections next May.
According to Turkey, to overcome this standoff, Sweden would have had to give in on its asylum laws.
Exploiting a crisis
Once again, there is always a radical ready to take advantage of a crisis to aggravate it. Rasmus Paludan, leader of a Danish far-right party and also a Danish citizen, participated in a demonstration this week in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm — and he burned a Koran.
The first consequence is that Sweden will not be able to join NATO in the near future.
This gesture, which is hardly relevant in the context of Sweden's membership in NATO, has transformed the nature of the crisis. It has become yet another version of the freedom of expression versus blasphemy debate, which has a way of leading to a dead end.
Paradoxically, the far-right leader's gesture was a gift to Erdogan. The Turkish leader was thus able to drape himself in the dignity of the defender of Islam, a status that is beneficial in the midst of an election campaign. Symbols have their importance, especially in the year of the centenary of the proclamation of the Republic by Kamal Ataturk, on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
The first consequence is that Sweden will not be able to join NATO in the near future. Turkey has indicated that it will not give its green light under these conditions, despite all other members of the Alliance having given their agreement.
A familiar role
This matter will certainly not be resolved before the Turkish elections in May. In the context of an economic crisis, Erdogan is playing a delicate game, and he will not make any concessions until then. All the more so as the Turkish president values his good relations with Putin.
Finland, the other candidate that had submitted its application to NATO at the same time as Sweden, could therefore join the organization alone, at first. This does not change much in the strategic equation in this part of Europe, but it prevents NATO from presenting a united front against Vladimir Putin.
Once again, Erdogan is playing his part alone, without worrying about his supposed NATO allies. He is used to disruption, so this will come as no surprise to anyone.
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