Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson was due to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday in a top-level bid to persuade Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden joining NATO.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden and Finland abandoned their long-standing policy of military non-alignment and in May applied to join the transatlantic alliance.
But Turkey has stalled ratification of their bids — which require unanimous approval from NATO’s 30 members — accusing the Nordic nations, and especially Sweden, of providing a safe haven for outlawed Kurdish militants that Ankara says are “terrorists”.
Erdogan — who is seeking re-election next year — is in a position of strength, after persuading Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to stop blockading Ukraine’s grain exports.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sought last week to strengthen the new applicants’ hand by personally travelling to Ankara to argue their case.
“It’s time to welcome Finland and Sweden as full members of NATO. Their accession will make our alliance stronger and our people safer,” he said.
Stoltenberg stressed that Sweden and Finland had agreed in June to concessions, including addressing Turkey’s request for “terror suspects” to be deported or extradited.
“Finland and Sweden have delivered on their agreement to Turkey,” Stoltenberg said, adding that bringing them into the NATO fold was important “to send a clear message to Russia”.
– Kurds and war on IS –
Erdogan has welcomed the progress made in talks since Sweden’s new right-wing government took office in October.
But he repeated on Friday — for the third time in a month — that his parliament would not formally approve the Nordic NATO bids until the two countries took the necessary “steps”.
Turkey accuses Sweden in particular of leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The PKK, which has for years staged an insurgency against the Turkish state, is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara and most of its Western allies.
But the YPG has been a key player in the US-led military alliance combatting the Islamic State group in Syria.
While Sweden has in the past expressed support for the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Kristersson’s government appears to be distancing itself.
“There is too close a link between these organisations and the PKK, which is a terrorist organisation listed by the EU,” Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said on Saturday.
– Cashing the NATO enlargement card –
Despite the change in stance in Stockholm, some analysts believe Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 could delay the Nordic NATO bids.
“The Turkish side will ratify their membership when it feels it is the best moment to cash that card,” predicted Ilke Toygur, professor of European geopolitics at the University Carlos III in Madrid.
“I assume pressure will rise in the meantime (but) I sense that many countries in NATO already assume that enlargement will be next year, maybe even in the second half of next year,” she told AFP.
“It is widely assumed that Turkey is also trying to negotiate for other things.
“It could be the F16s. It could be about its overall relationship with Russia.”
Leading US senators have threatened to block the sale to Ankara of US F16 fighter jets unless Turkey ends a dispute with Greece over maritime borders and natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey, which seeks to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, has refrained from joining Western sanctions on Moscow and acquired a Russian missile defence system while also supplying Kyiv with combat drones.
“It remains to be seen if Erdogan think he’s got enough signs of goodwill from Sweden and it’s therefore in his political and military interest to declare victory, or if he thinks sticking to the current line will serve his re-election campaign,” said a European diplomatic source.
The source nevertheless said there was still a “reasonable chance” that the Turkish parliament would ratify the Nordic NATO bids before the June 2023 election.