Quran burning in Sweden angers Turkey, threatens NATO membership path

Sweden and Finland have taken another step towards joining NATO.

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It has now been eight months since Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join NATO, upending the countries’ longstanding non-alignment policies following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While most members of the organization want to fast-track membership of the new affiliates, tensions and renewed spats between Sweden and Turkey threaten to extend that waiting time — perhaps indefinitely.

All 30 current NATO states must ratify the new member. Turkey, a major geopolitical player and home to the alliance’s second-largest military, stands as a primary vocal opponent of the Nordic countries’ membership.

The reasons behind Ankara’s opposition are complexBut the focus is on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Turkey views as terrorists, and the arms embargoes that both Sweden and Finland, along with other EU countries, have imposed on Turkey targeting Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Sweden and Finland are trying to turn things around in their relations with Turkey, but events in recent weeks threaten to shatter hopes for progress.

Rasmus Balut holds a burning Koran outside the Turkish embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish authorities have given permission for a series of protests for and against Turkey amid its bid to join NATO.

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On Saturday, far-right demonstrators burned Qurans and shouted anti-Muslim slogans in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Ankara immediately condemned the act, while Sweden granted permission for the right-wing group to hold the demonstration. Turkey also canceled an upcoming visit by Sweden’s defense chief to focus on its NATO membership.

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“We strongly condemn the despicable attack on our holy book… It is completely unacceptable to allow this anti-Islamic act targeting Muslims and insulting our sacred values ​​under the guise of freedom of expression,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

The Quran burning was led by Rasmus Palud, who heads the Danish far-right political party Hard Line. Swedish authorities say the protest is legal under Sweden’s freedom of speech law, but Sweden’s leaders have condemned the act, calling it “horrific”.

Several media and independent journalists gather to watch Rasmus Paludan stage the burning of the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Protests by Turks in response to the arson were held over the weekend in front of the Swedish embassy in Ankara and its embassy in Istanbul.

In a separate incident 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.nasty job“Against the country’s NATO membership bid.

“If it goes like this, Sweden’s entry into NATO will never be recognized by Turkey,” Numan Kurtulmus, vice-chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said on Sunday.

‘What we can’t do’

Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed a three-way pact last year dedicated to overcoming their differences and opposition to NATO membership.

But Sweden’s Kristersen said earlier this month that Stockholm could not meet all of Turkey’s demands, including the extradition of Kurdish journalists living in Sweden, which had been blocked by the country’s highest court.

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

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“Turkey is both confirming that we have done what we said we would do, but they want things that we can’t or don’t want to give,” Christensen told a conference on Jan. 8.

Nevertheless, he expressed hope that Turkey would approve his country’s NATO bid. Hungary, whose populist leader Viktor Orbán is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the only country other than Turkey that has yet to ratify the bid.

Election calculation

Turkey analysts say Ankara’s recent angry statements have more to do with the country’s upcoming election on May 14 and seeking influence from other NATO allies, particularly the United States.

Both the Koran burning and the Kurdish video of the Erdogan effigy “make the impasse difficult to overcome” between Turkey and Sweden, said George Tyson, senior analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

“But,” he told CNBC, “the deadlock was already there. And it doesn’t have much to do with Sweden, and Turkey is trying to squeeze as much as it can out of any influence over its allies.”

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

Timothy Ash, senior emerging market strategist at BluePay Asset Management, believes that Turkey is causing major damage to its Western alliances and that NATO could come to a key choice between Turkey and the Nordic countries.

“Achieving [the] NATO allies to decide between Turkey and Finland/Sweden? “I’m taking the election count by Erdogan, but ultimately it will damage long-standing relationships with key allies,” Ash said via Twitter.

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

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Meanwhile, UK-based security and terrorism analyst Kyle Orton wrote in a blog post that “Turkey is catching up. [Sweden’s] NATO application for hostages [Kurdish militant group] P.K.K. “Ankara is cynically trying to pile on the pressure with outrageous meddling in Sweden’s internal affairs,” he wrote as Qurans were burned in Stockholm yesterday.

There is also some speculation that the U.S. will use the promise of its F16 jets — Ankara’s long-desired arms sale — to force Turkey’s hand. Some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the sale over Turkey’s stance on new NATO candidates.

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

But whatever timeline Sweden pursues, Turkey’s leadership is likely to take a tough line in the run-up to the elections, knowing that anti-Western rhetoric and a strong nationalist stance will play well with voters.

“Bottom line,” Tyson said, “I doubt much will happen in Turkey before the election.”

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