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The burning of the Koran in Sweden has angered Turkey and threatens NATO membership

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Sweden and Finland have taken another step in the direction of joining NATO, that is, only formal ratification of the agreement on their accession remains.

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It has been eight months since Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join NATO, reversing a long-standing policy of non-alignment following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While most members of the organization want to speed up the admission of new members, tensions and a new spat between Sweden and Turkey threaten to extend that waiting time – possibly indefinitely.

All 30 current NATO nations must approve the new member. And Turkey, a key geopolitical player and home to the alliance’s second largest army, is the main opponent of Nordic membership.

The reasons for Ankara’s opposition are complexbut mainly focuses on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists and the arms embargo that Sweden and Finland, along with other EU countries, have imposed on Turkey for attacking Kurdish militias in Syria.

Sweden and Finland are working to try to change the situation with Turkey, but events in recent weeks threaten to dash hopes of progress.

Rasmus Paludan holds a burning Koran outside the Turkish embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish authorities have given permission for a series of pro- and anti-Turkey protests amid Turkey’s bid to join NATO.

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On Saturday, far-right protesters burned Qurans and chanted anti-Muslim slogans outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Ankara immediately condemned this act, as well as Sweden’s issuance of a permit to the right-wing group to hold a demonstration. Turkey also canceled an upcoming visit by the head of the Swedish Defense Ministry, which was supposed to focus on Sweden’s NATO membership.

“We strongly condemn the heinous attack on our holy book… Allowing this anti-Islamic act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is absolutely unacceptable,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

Rasmus Paludan, who heads the far-right Danish political party Hard Line, directed the burning of Koran. Swedish authorities say the protest was legal under the country’s free speech laws, but Sweden’s leaders have condemned the act, calling it “appalling”.

Several media outlets and independent journalists gather to see Rasmus Paludan burn the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Turkish protests in response to the arson took place in front of the Swedish embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul last weekend.

In a separate event earlier this month, Turkey summoned Sweden’s ambassador after a pro-Kurdish group in Sweden released a video showing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hanging upside down from a rope.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristerson reportedly condemned the protest as an act of “sabotage“against the country’s application to join NATO.

“If this continues, Sweden’s accession to NATO will never be approved by Turkey,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said on Sunday.

“The Things We Can’t Do”

Sweden, Finland and Turkey last year signed a tripartite agreement dedicated to overcoming differences and opposition to NATO membership.

But Sweden’s Kristerson said earlier this month that Stockholm could not meet all of Turkey’s demands, including handing over Kurdish journalists living in Sweden, a request that was blocked by the country’s Supreme Court.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristerson speaks during a joint conference with European Council President Charles Michel (not seen) in Stockholm, Sweden on January 16, 2023.

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“Turkey is confirming that we have done what we promised to do, but they are also saying that they want something that we can’t or won’t give them,” Christerson said at a Jan. 8 conference.

Nevertheless, he expressed confidence that Turkey will approve his country’s bid to join NATO. Hungary, whose populist leader Viktor Orbán is friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the only country besides Turkey that has yet to approve the bid.

Electoral settlement

Turkish analysts say the latest angry statements from Ankara have more to do with the country’s upcoming elections on May 14 and gaining leverage from other NATO allies, especially the US, than anything else.

Both the Koran burning and the Kurdish video featuring Erdogan “make it more difficult to break the impasse” between Turkey and Sweden, said George Dyson, senior analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

“But,” he told CNBC, “there was already an impasse. And it’s not particularly about Sweden, but more about Turkey trying to squeeze as much as possible out of whatever leverage it has with its allies.”

“It has more to do with US-Turkish relations,” he added. “Turkey feels that the US is a good friend when it needs Turkey, but not when Turkey needs it … Or at least that’s the rhetoric.”

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, believes that Turkey is doing enormous damage to its Western alliance and that NATO could make a crucial choice between Turkey and the Nordic countries.

“Achievement [the] that NATO allies will have to decide between Turkey and Finland/Sweden? I understand Erdogan’s electoral calculations, but this will ultimately damage long-term relationships with key allies,” Ash said via Twitter.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) during the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16, 2022.

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Meanwhile, British security and terrorism analyst Kyle Orton wrote on his blog that “Turkey is holding [Sweden’s] Appendix NATO hostage requirements about [Kurdish militant group] RPK. When the Koran was set on fire in Stockholm yesterday, – he wrote, – Ankara is cynically trying to increase the pressure by blatantly interfering in Sweden’s internal affairs.

There is also speculation that the US will use the promise of its F16 jets – an arms sale that Ankara has long wanted – to force Turkey’s hand. Some members of Congress have spoken out against the sale because of Turkey’s stance on new NATO candidates.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin recently said Sweden has eight to 10 weeks to make the changes Ankara is demanding as Turkey’s parliament may go into recess before elections in May. Sweden says it needs another six months to make these changes.

But whatever timetable Sweden follows, Turkey’s leadership is likely to take a tough line in the run-up to the election, knowing that anti-Western rhetoric and a strong nationalist stance tend to benefit voters.

“As a result,” Dyson said, “I doubt much will happen before the Turkish election.”

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