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Why Turkey Could Still Block NATO Membership For Sweden And Finland

The U.S. Senate has ratified NATO membership for the two Nordic countries. But one sticking point remains: Turkey wants the Nordic nations to adopt tougher anti-Kurdish policies.

Why Turkey Could Still Block NATO Membership For Sweden And Finland

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO 2022 Summit in Madrid

Johannes Jauhiainen

HELSINKI — Sweden's and Finland's NATO membership took another leap forward this week as the United States voted in favor of the Nordic countries joining the military alliance, with 95 senators for and one against. After the vote Wednesday night, the ratification is still pending in seven countries. But all eyes will now be on just one: Turkey.

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NATO cannot accept new members without the green light of all its member states, so Helsinki and Stockholm have had no other choice than to listen to Ankara’s demands. Many fear that this will make it more difficult to criticize Turkey for human rights violations — something both Nordic countries have done in the past.


According to Toni Alaranta, Senior Research Fellow in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, a worst-case scenario of the Nordic countries joining NATO would be a Turkish attack on Syria’s Kurds, during which Ankara would expect either acceptance or at least silence from the Nordic nations. And fears of such an attack are not unfounded as Turkey has continued to issue threats of a Syrian offensive as recently as last month.

The Kurdish question

According to a trilateral memorandum signed at the end of June between Sweden, Finland and Turkey, all parties commit to addressing Turkey’s requests for deportation or extradition of terror suspects. This referred particularly to cracking down on the alleged funding and recruitment of the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S. and the EU classify as a terrorist organization.

The Kurdish people mostly live in southeast Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwest Iran. They have faced a long history of discrimination in Turkey, where the Kurdish language was banned until 1946. The PKK's ostensible aim is equal rights for Kurds and Kurdish autonomy within Turkey, but it has carried out terror attacks in the country for four decades.

So far, Finland and Sweden have addressed the requests but declined the Turkish demand to extradite a number of its citizens.

Turkey will have to finally agree to their accession.

During negotiations on the memorandum, Turkey also accused the Nordic countries of being “guesthouses for terrorists” to which Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Ann Linde responded that the PKK has been defined as a terrorist organization in Sweden since 1984, eight years before the EU followed suit.

Since signing the memorandum, some authorities in Sweden have echoed Turkey’s demands, including Swedish Security Police chief Charlotte von Essen, who called for a ban on demonstrations in solidarity with the PKK in July. In response, Janne Flyghed, professor of criminology at Stockholm University, called the proposal a threat to freedom of speech.

Turkey’s aims do not seem to be limited to only cracking down on the Kurds. At the end of May, Turkish officials demanded that Finland extradite a Turkish man whom Turkey accuses of defaming the president.

So far, Helsinki has declined to take any action based on the request. The court dealing with the matter has stated that extraditing the man would be a violation of human rights and the right to free speech.

Turkish soldiers marching during a military parade in Ankara

Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Turkey's diplomatic leverage

At the end of July, Turkey reaffirmed its demands and stated that neither Nordic country had fulfilled their part of the memorandum. Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also added that if Helsinki and Stockholm would not meet the demands of the memorandum, Turkey would block their membership.

As more member states move to ratify Finland's and Sweden’s memberships, Turkey will have to finally agree to their accession or do something drastic with serious repercussions for the world's biggest military alliance. For the time being, however, it seems that Turkey will try to squeeze as much diplomatic leverage as possible from the memorandum signed with the Nordics until the very last moment.

And even if the Sweden and Finland do join the alliance, a Turkish attack on the Kurds in Syria would put the Nordic states in a serious predicament.

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